by Linda Bertelsen
Arketype 4_@Arkikon

Above: Arketype 4 Copenhagen municipality. The municipality explored the possibilities of placing heat pumps, geothermal energy, and heat storage in urban environments. The task was to prepare six hypothetical proposals for a way to integrate the facilities in the urban environment. This is a suggestion to incorporate a seawater heat pump. The high white facade creates associations with the many cliffs found in the Danish countryside.

Architecture is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when planning a new district heating plant. But architecture can support all the parameters of a successful project. How, you may ask? Thomas Enevold from the Danish architectural company Arkikon explains how. Thomas has worked with functional architecture for over 30 years and shares a lifetime of tangible advice and some illustrative examples.

By Thomas Enevold, Partner & CEO, Arkikon

Published in Hot Cool, edition no. 6/2023 | ISSN 0904 9681 |


The often-overlooked aspect of the economy

No matter how many aspects you consider regarding a new district heating plant, one factor always naturally receives the greatest attention: the economy—the investment cost on the one hand and the operating cost on the other.

But actually, there is an overlooked aspect in most economic calculations. The most expensive – and at the same time the most detrimental to climate and environment – are fast, short-sighted, or one-sided decisions. In planning a new district heating plant, there is too often a very narrow focus on the short-term technical requirements, which often results in a more expensive plant – and at the same time, adds more burden on the climate and the environment than is strictly necessary.

This article aims to unfold how functional architecture can ensure a sounder platform for decisions when planning your upcoming construction project.

Affald Varme Aarhus. The energy plant on Aarhus Ø confirms that technical buildings can add architectural value to the city without dominating its surroundings.
"We wanted to create a living house where the static solution is exhibited to the public together with the process."
Lasse Sørensen
Affald Varme Aarhus

Renewed pride in energy supplies

The utility sector has had a diverse existence over the past 100 years, which is clearly reflected in both the architecture of the utility facilities and their location. Simply put, architecture tends to reflect our self-perception: Are we the proud center of the local community – or are we a somewhat dull technical necessity living a quiet life outside the public spotlight?

Originally, Denmark’s utility companies were mainly centrally located in the cities and characterized by monumental architecture. But through the 20th century, most utilities moved to industrial areas or fields on the outskirts of the cities, hidden behind trees and or in anonymous architecture.

Now, the times are changing again. High energy prices and a strong emphasis on the green transition lead to a growing awareness of the public energy and supply structure – and its vital importance. Everyone’s attention is once again on the utilities: Can you deliver the product that we, as a society, politicians, and local customers, expect? Are you open to discussions about the future energy supply? And what role do you want to play in the local community you are part of?

Thyborøn Fjernvarme. The existing heating plant was placed like a ship in the flat, surging landscape with water on both sides. When there was a need for increased production capacity, the new building maintained the reference to the landscape qualities and the ship's aesthetics - and created a consistent and coherent whole.

Integrated consulting can pursue all goals.

The new agenda provides district heating utilities with a completely new approach to new projects. Stricter requirements for heat production, sustainability, working conditions, and openness do not only affect the technical constraints and the technical disciplines. When you, as a developer, want to futureproof a new facility on all parameters, it challenges the entire master plan. Therefore, it is necessary to gather several dedicated parties around the table: Engineers, architects – and, not least, a client with a 360 degrees approach who likes to challenge their advisers.

DIAGRAM 2_@Arkikon
Analysis chart. By including the architecture as an important parameter, the new plant will stand as an image and a strong icon with a green profile, which shows off its production in recyclable features.

Seven questions to ask when you start a project:

  1. Futureproofing and the master plan: What are the current requirements – and what will happen in the next ten years? For example, Is the location right, and is it possible to expand or rebuild?
  2. Technology: What technical systems will the building contain? How do you ensure the best flow?
  3. Working and access conditions: How do you create optimal working space and safe access conditions for employees and visitors?
  4. Sustainability: What requirements do you have – for example, should it be possible to dismantle or repurpose the building entirely or partly?
  5. Relations: What facilities are required concerning visitors? How can the project enable your local anchoring and support?
  6. Consultancy: What type of advice do you need – client advisors, energy advisors, architectural advisors, or others?
  7. Organization: What is the right project team – what skills are needed?
DIAGRAM 1_@Arkikon
Concept diagram. In the initial phases, the concept is outlined based on the client's needs and wishes. The concept diagram shows how the functions are outlined in volumes and further processed into shapes based on their operations, which are subsequently placed according to the context and the desired flow.

Architecture as a tool in functional design

The primary function of a district heating plant is to supply the citizens with heat. It is the citizens who are paying; therefore, it is natural to think of a district heating plant as a ‘democratic act’ in physical form. Citizens must be able to identify with what they experience visually – not only in relation to keeping warm but also concerning the facility’s appearance, location, and interaction with the surroundings.

This is where architectural design begins, and architecture must be understood broadly in that context. For example, the architecture relates to:

  • Where can or should the building be placed? In addition to accommodating the heating production and any future plans, the location must also consider everything from efficient infrastructure to sensitive neighbors. Apparent conditions such as noise, heavy traffic, building scale, shades from building volumes, etc., must be analyzed to ensure the project considers all affected parties.
  • How can architecture help to create the right operational conditions and flow in the building? The architect considers both current needs and possible future scenarios to ensure the final project gives a high-quality experience and is futureproofed.

Consequently, architecture is not just a matter of creating a nice or practical building. Functional architecture is a puzzle with many pieces – extending from the local context to users, machinery, finances, schedules, authorities, etc.

Aabybro Fjernvarme. The district heating plant is located in the flat landscape on the city's outskirts next to the access road from Aalborg. As a testimony to the flat terrain, the building adds a new visual landscape with a distinctive and sculptural design that catches the eye without appearing heavy.

What role should the new district heating plant play visually?

The context – the plant’s immediate surroundings – plays an essential role in the architectural potential. Some of the typical locations for a heating plant are:

  • A new or existing business area
  • A welcoming feature when arriving in the city
  • A part of the city – on a previously occupied building site
  • A detached building on an open field.

It is crucial to be aware of the growth potential for the specific area. A heating plant has a scale that obligates – the building can either set the direction and create a domino effect for the area or help highlight an existing environment that the community wants to preserve. As a developer, you are responsible for finding the right balance between building on a big scale, robust, innovative, futureproof, and appealing – and simultaneously avoiding visual noise. The building must be integrated despite its size.

If you want to ensure that the architecture relates and gives back to its surroundings, the tools naturally depend on the context in which the plant is placed. If the building is placed as a welcoming feature to the city or can be seen from is visible from major arteries, you can guide the observer’s attention into the heat production with a large-scale transparent architecture.

In an urban context, you can involve people passing the plant by placing views of the interior strategically in the body of the building. The building can be integrated among the city’s existing facades – but in its form show that there is something to explore or demonstrate a company wanting to be part of the community.

Lemvig Varmeværk. The new heating plant is positioned in relation to the existing landscape, and the layout utilizes the difference in terrain. The individual functions are extended to independent buildings that are turned and rotated in relation to each other.
"Our architects don't just design a building that looks nice. They consider and include everything the building has to accommodate into a whole."
Svend Erik Bjerg
Lemvig Varmeværk

Challenge the architecture!

As a developer, you have many stakeholders to respect and interact with during the process. Typically, it is the company board that sets the direction and the priorities when needed, but it is an advantage to consider everyone’s perspectives from the beginning:

The employees. The architecture must provide the best possible working environment. It must be practical but also offer recurrent joy in their daily life. An example could be a deliberate ray of daylight in a particular area or a unique feature that emerged between the developer and the architect in the development process.

The consumers. The architecture must provide a good experience and ensure safety for citizens who use the heat.

Neighbors and local communities. The architecture must ensure a good experience of the heating plant and the surroundings in the future. If it becomes necessary to expand, future scenarios have been planned to appeal to the neighbors and co-exist with the current building.

Community. The architecture must ensure the possibility for reuse or expansion for future needs or demands rather than demolition. This benefits both the economy and the climate.

Finally, the architecture must support the district heating plant’s overall narrative – who are we and how we would like to be seen.

The project process. The best results are achieved when the dialogue starts before the master plan is outlined. The diagram illustrates in eight steps the process you go through when a heating plant is established.

Involve the architect at an early stage.

Since the functional architecture of a heat production plant is so much more than just a practical building, there is much to be gained by involving an architect with expertise in complex structures and district heating plants early in the process. The best results are achieved if the dialogue starts before you outline your master plan, enabling you to establish close cooperation between the architect, engineer, and client. Once you have chosen your location, you can also benefit from involving neighbors and the local community. If the locals are involved early on, they take ownership and support the project. This becomes valuable when the construction and later operations get underway.

From a larger perspective, establishing an early collaboration between the client, authorities, and consultants allows beneficial approaches concerning the municipality’s future planning.

In the early dialogue, you can get all ideas on the table before establishing the framework, which will be expensive to change at a later stage. For example, you can get a perspective on location, how you best use the available space, whether the terrain can contribute to practical and aesthetic solutions, the relationship with the neighbors, and the flow in, out, and around the building – all seen in relation to the economy, which is usually the primary basis for a decision.

The point is that the early involvement of the architect provides a broad decision foundation, and it can contribute positively to the economy – both in the short and long term.

Architecture contributes to:

  • Futureproofing the investment
  • Creating practical workflows and logical fuel flow
  • Creating safe access for employees and visitors
  • Communicating the plant’s contribution to the green transition
  • Securing local anchoring and support
  • Strengthening employer branding and recruitment


"The architect has heard and understood our needs. To establish a solid decision basis, we needed an overall master plan for the location of new green heat production facilities for 4,000 households. For me, it was important to clarify possibilities and potential right from the time the political decision was made. Our architect provided solid input in the process."
Per Birk Jensen
Næstved Fjernvarme A.m.b.A.
The architect has broadened our horizon and made us think in futureproof solutions."
Palle Lyngsøe Mikkelsen

Meet the author

Thomas Enevold
Partner & CEO, Arkikon
“How architecture can improve new district heating facilities” was published in Hot Cool, edition no. 6/2023. You can download the article here: