Project Management Institute

A dirty job


Soil Centre Copenhagen, Denmark

A Danish facility gets dirt clean after the project team made the case for more project funds.

Transforming an old port area into a new, sustainable urban district takes a lot of time—40 to 50 years. It also unearths a lot of dirt. One project team had to figure out what to do with it.

By 2025, Copenhagen, Denmark will need to create homes for a projected 100,000 new residents. To help it reach that goal, the Copenhagen City and Port Development launched a program in 2011 to turn the harbor area of Nordhavnen into a bustling community with shopping centers, schools and homes for 40,000 residents.

With all that construction will come millions of cubic meters of upturned soil.

So in early 2011, the sponsor hired the Danish architecture firm Christensen & Co. to design a temporary soil-treatment facility. The structure would decontaminate mounds of muck excavated from construction sites throughout the area and construction of a new metro line. The city chose a site for the facility and budgeted DKK26 million to get it done.

However, a temporary structure wouldn't match up with Nordhavnen's long-term sustainability goals, says project lead Michael Christensen, architect and CEO of Christensen & Co. in Copenhagen.

“In the original location, the building would, in 25 years, be in the middle of a building block, according to the master plan,” Mr. Christensen says. “The client didn't mind that because by then the soil-treatment center wouldn't be active anymore. But our point, from a sustainability point of view, was to ensure that the building could stay and simply change its purpose.” To achieve that, Mr. Christensen says, “it would have to be in a new location.”

Mr. Christensen and his team drew up two scenarios. The first used the original budget and location. The second used a location 100 meters (328 feet) closer to the Baltic Sea—where it could stay indefinitely and eventually serve as a small school or community center. The second option came with a large caveat, however: It would exceed the original budget by 40 percent.

“They were not happy about that,” Mr. Christensen says of the sponsor's initial reaction. “But because we knew it was the best option from a sustainability standpoint, we told them to take our sketches to the municipality of Copenhagen and ask them for the extra money.”

For two months, the plans bounced around from one government office to the next. Meanwhile, interest grew in the project's potential to attract new green initiatives to the area. The building's plan included a green roof, an interior living wall covered with vegetation, solar panels and underground pipes to provide geothermal energy.

“When the mayor saw the plans, he realized this would be a good story for the city,” Mr. Christensen says.

The city agreed to provide the additional DKK10 million to make the soil center a permanent fixture in the new urban district. In exchange, however, the mayor insisted that Mr. Christensen's team follow the strict guidelines of the German Sustainable Building Council (DGNB)—an organization that develops green building standards throughout Europe, similar to the LEED program in the United States.



The 1,800-square-meter (19,375-square-foot) structure took two years to complete and officially opened its doors in June 2013. It's the first DGNB-certified building in Denmark.

Stretching the Scope

The soil-treatment center is a functional structure: It features offices, laboratories and garages for machinery. Mr. Christensen and his team thought it could be more.

“The client originally just wanted an office building with a cheap garage and storage parked in the middle of all these mountains of mud,” he says. “But, from a sustainability perspective, we convinced them that the building should give meaning to its surroundings.”

To do so, the project team covered the roof surfaces with plants and grass intended to fit in with nearby ponds and shrubs. Draped in rusty red panels of pre-weathered steel, the center's angular profile evokes the shape of two connected hills.


“When the mayor saw the plans, he realized this would be a good story for the city.”

—Michael Christensen, Christensen & Co., Copenhagen, Denmark


Planning for No Impact

As a zero-energy building, the facility uses about the same amount of energy annually as the renewable energy it creates.

“Making a zero-energy building is a challenge from the beginning,” Mr. Christensen says. “Sure, you can always add on a lot of solar panels and geothermic pipes, but the most important part is to make the building so it doesn't use a lot of energy.”

Large windows and skylights flood the space with natural light, indoor trees help provide a healthy climate, and the green roof helps to collect rainwater. While the heating system is solar powered, underground geothermic pipes store heat.


Prioritizing Quality

Despite incentivizing the contractor to speed up the building process, the project remained two months behind schedule, never making up the time that the project plan spent in the city's offices.

“We didn't want to speed up the design process because we didn't want to make poor, rushed decisions,” Mr. Christensen says. “So we asked the contractor to rush in-stead. But in the end, what we lost in time, we made up for in quality.”

The proof is a pleased client that offers free public tours of the Soil Centre each week.

Getting Down to Business

The building resembles the heaps of dirt that surround it. The nearby landscape changes daily as new mounds of soil make their way to the site and others are processed—cleaned of any debris and toxic waste and released into the sea.

“Some days there are 10 mounds of soil, some days there are 100. Some are small and some are much taller than the building itself, up to 15 meters [49 feet] high,” Mr. Christensen says. “It's a very loud, very dusty environment—with more than 500 large trucks coming in every day.”


“You can always add on a lot of solar panels and geothermic pipes, but the most important part is to make the building so it doesn't use a lot of energy.”

—Michael Christensen

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.




Related Content

  • PM Network

    Rise of the Green Skyscrapers

    Skyscraper construction is at a crossroads, But some innovative structures indicate a different way forward.

  • PM Network

    Climate Complexity Meets Innovation

    Mitigating the climate crisis will require bold, ambitious initiatives—and project teams willing to grapple with complexity and uncertainty.

  • PM Network

    Trunk Show

    By Roberts, Caroline For the past five decades, commercial activity has slowly devastated the forests of Surin, a province of northeast Thailand. And for the native Kui people who relied on the once-lush woodlands,…

  • PM Network

    Power Play

    By Parsi, Novid Unlike other Northern African countries, Morocco doesn't have an abundance of oil resources. Instead, it has relied on fossil fuel imports for 97 percent of its domestic power needs. Yet Morocco…

  • PM Network

    Branching Out

    Wood-frame skyscrapers have inched ever higher over the past decade, with the 18-story Mjøstårnet in Brumunddal, Norway making PMI's Most Influential Projects list (2020) thanks to its record…