Building the Reykjavík Biodome: Interview with founder Hjördís Sigurdardóttir

By Thomas Bishop
Polar Research and Policy Initiative Fellow Thomas Bishop interviewed Hjördís Sigurðardóttir, Founder and CEO of Spor i Sandinn, about Aldin, Biodome Reykjavík. 
Located in Elliðaárdalur, a recreational valley within the Reykjavík metro area in Iceland, a new green and glazed oasis will soon begin rising out of the ground and changing how people perceive Icelandic agriculture, sustainability and tourism. Called Aldin, this glazed landmark Biodome will seek to reconnect people to nature in new and exciting ways, combining the experience of tropical temperatures, with a farmers’ market and an agricultural laboratory. Aldin will be a hub for minds and thoughts, a space for a healthy community to meet, shop, relax and socialise, as well as an authentic attraction for tourists. The planning approvals for the scheme are currently in process and Spor i Sandinn are seeking select partners to work with them on this project, representing a unique impact investment opportunity in Iceland. Aldin is anticipated to open late-2018 or by the beginning of 2019.

Where does the story of the Reykjavik Biodome begin? What was your initial inspiration, and how did you conceive the idea of a biodome?

I am originally a country girl, raised on a farm in South Iceland. I was fortunate to live close to nature, as well as to work on my family’s farm, and I enjoyed those experiences very much. I have come far since then though, with a wide educational background as a food scientist, an environmental planner and a mother. I pursued a MSc in Environmental Planning in Holland, and it was on moving abroad that I was then able to look back at my own country from a new perspective, to see more clearly its unique characteristics and opportunities. In my thesis, I then tried to weave my different specialisations together with an international case study on urban farming. I found out that specialising in our modern world comes with its own challenges, and that ultimately we need to make an ethical shift to become more sustainable and smarter in how we live our lives. I believe that the best way to do this is to draw inspiration from natural ecosystems. It is crucial for people to become more in touch and involved with nature on a daily basis.

When I first moved back to Iceland after my studies and spent some time working, I joined a planning office and became conscious of the growing tourism industry here. Iceland is no longer just a population of 330,000 people; it will soon become a population of 2.5 million annually if visiting tourists are included. As a consequence of these experiences, I now have a strong belief that this particular development has opened up opportunities to create new and meaningful infrastructure. The Biodome represents this. It is a statement of change, highlighting the benefits of another way of thinking and of energy-efficient buildings. At first, I developed and pushed the project by myself, until the summer of 2015 when it was chosen by Arion Bank’s Business Accelerator, Startup Reykjavík. This became an incredibly valuable platform to meet co-workers and those with influence. Since then, the concept and the business model have been developed with the assistance of a number of fantastic individuals and companies, leading us to where we are today and finally realising it. Several inspirational precedents from other countries have contributed to the concept, although nothing that is exactly the same. The Biodome project will be the first of its kind, anywhere in the world.

Biodome 2

Reykjavik Biodome will house a marketplace, health cafes and seating areas along with many other social functions.

The name of the company ‘Spor i Sandinn’ is a phrase that can be translated from Icelandic as ‘Footprints in the sand’. At once, it conjures images of beaches, stewardship and sustainability, which appears quite appropriate for a biodome developer. What key values and principles did you have in mind when you incorporated the company under this name?

Well, it fits very well! I have always loved poetry and metaphors, and I established the company long before the business idea was born. However, I always wanted to use that phrase, to make a difference and influence development in a positive way, and today it’s finally happening! The purpose of this project is to awaken people’s awareness of the interaction between natural elements and wellbeing. Icelandic nature has two faces – it is beautiful, but also harsh, and it shapes Icelanders. We need to be tough sometimes. So in responding to that, the Biodome will offer year-round access to a lush green environment – a place to soften our outer shells and hearts, to allow us to capitalise on the social dimensions and to create a strong sense of place. Simultaneously, the scheme will also contribute to sustainability and stewardship by offering a carbon-neutral building, heated and powered by geothermal energy.

The Biodome will be situated within the Reykjavik metro conurbation, in a recreational river valley known as Elliðaárdalur, where geothermal energy is harnessed for the city. Clearly, you chose this location due to the local availability of geothermal spring water and to cater to the recreational market, but were there any other factors that influenced the decision to locate there?

The location was an outcome of collaborative process with the city authorities. In fact, we were at first focused on a location close to the urban thermal swimming pools in the beginning. However, after closer inspection, we saw apart from the possibilities of linking the operation with the valleys geothermal resources, a great value in the current location due to the city´s future planning of the area and its wider potential for other developments. Firstly, the current site is a beautiful spot with an astounding view over the city. Then secondly, from a wider context, we will add something new to the cityscape, retain the link to the geothermal history of the site, foster more interaction and activity in the surrounding area, and function as a regeneration catalyst for the area from a real estate perspective. For related reasons, we also found great potential in the location due to the rapid transport system planned for the area in the near future.

Biodome

The Biodome shown within the Elliðaárdalur Valley, as it will be seen from the main highway into the city.

Spor i Sandinn (SiS) recently received outline planning consent for the Biodome on its Elliðaárdalur site back in October, and so congratulations are clearly in order. Although, has SiS acquired the land yet, or do you intend to lease it from the local authority?

The planning consent was granted subject to the approval of site plans, which is a legal planning process similar to that of other western countries. A professional planning designer has been appointed to the project, and the site planning process is about to begin formally. As soon as this has been confirmed, we will acquire the building rights. It’s a long-term leasing arrangement. This process can take 4-8 months though, and so the fundraising is also in process. We are currently having discussions with several Icelandic investors, and we are open to having conversations with international investors too.

One observation when travelling into Reykjavik from the airport is that there are not many roadside billboards in Iceland, perhaps due to an aversion towards the clutter they create. However, there is always a guide on these transfer coaches who points out landmarks along the route. Seeing as the Biodome will be visible from this highway, is your hope that your selected site can capitalise on this and act as an advertisement for itself?

Yes, of course! It certainly is an important quality of the location. We are creating a landmark, something that the neighbouring area is lacking. We also intend to make a magnet, a destination that you will just naturally see and stop at. Imagine that you are cycling with family or friends through the valley and you want to sit down, rest and buy a smoothie; Aldin could be that halfway resting spot. Or if you want to meet someone, you could opt to meet in a unique, warm and welcoming green facility out of the cold with access to food and drinks to ensure creativity and conversation flows. Or on the way back from work, you would see the Biodome from your car and could just stop by to purchase fresh seasonal vegetables and super foods. Having the Biodome work fit within these narratives is important.

Public bathing in hot springs is a historic part of Icelandic culture; these baths are the places that Icelanders go to socialise, to escape from the weather and cold, rather than congregating in markets or squares. This tradition is now a major industry in Iceland catering to visitors in the form of ‘health and wellbeing tourism’, with the likes of the Blue Lagoon and other thermal spas. What features of the new Biodome are planned to cater to this market?

Yes, sometimes I say that the springs and hot tubs are our public squares; where Icelanders share ideas and exchange opinions. These thermal spas combine the two most important elements in Icelandic tourism, experiencing nature and culture, and we are also incorporating this aspect into Aldin, Biodome Reykjavík. The hot spring water and geothermal energy will be used to heat the biodome and to grow lush vegetation that will surround and ensconce visitors, functioning as nourishment for both body and soul. Furthermore, by creating an attractive market place in the Biodome retailing fresh fruits and produce, as well as an inspiring amenity space and a working area for local people, tourists will experience both a unique place to visit and a healthy Icelandic society.

The Biodome project also sits at the confluence of a number of growing market trends – luxury, leisure and the use of geothermal hot water and urban agriculture. The idea of housing a leisure centre inside a greenhouse that sells edible vegetation is a unique interpretation of these trends. Can you elaborate on how you envisage these ideas being successfully intertwined in the Biodome?

In fact, it’s not a new idea to invent geothermal growing facilities into the cityscape of Reykjavík, just not one that has been widely implemented. An old advertisement from the national newspaper ‘Morgunblaðið’, dated 30 January 1933, shows an interesting vision of election candidates, their election manifestos being to supply warm water to every house in the city and make it possible to construct greenhouses all over town to grow vegetables, fruit and flowers. Today, we also have several popular attractions in the rural part of Iceland where guests can experience horticulture and locally-grown food in greenhouses. A growing market group visiting those destinations is now Icelanders, and so the word is spreading. It’s not only the food and the horticulture that attracts the local people; it’s just that relaxing experience of the greenery, the golden light and the fragrance inside that is a magnet for them, especially during the long winter season.  

We have also observed the need for local markets, as depression and obesity have become a growing problem in Iceland, like everywhere else in the Western world – people have become disconnected from natural processes. To combat these issues, we want to offer people an opportunity to experience the processes and a more natural lifestyle. The Biodome will also make healthy choices in local food and drink more accessible by offering day-to-day sales directly from farms, along with our own branded products and some interesting food souvenirs for tourists. At the same time, we are intertwining healthy lifestyle facilities into the design of the building, such as the possibility of practicing yoga and meditation in the tropical sphere, or providing meeting spaces overlooking or near the treetops. The future of sustainable development is also evolving and so we should evolve with it, like weaving different natural processes into our physical environment for instance.

What is the proposed business model for the Biodome? What types of services and goods will be sold there and how will it raise revenue? What architectural features will bring these functions together?

Our goal is that Aldin, BioDome Reykjavík will create a community with a strong sense of the place, nourishing people and businesses. We will be serving an increasing market that looks for sustainability, locally produced products, transparency as well as growing need for experiential shopping and healthy activities. Inside Aldin, we will rent spaces to certain tenants such as healthy ‘farm to table’ restaurants, stalls at the farmers market, shops offering valuable green products and design, as well as agents running health-related activities. Guests can then enter freely to the areas facilitating those services. But if people want to access Tropical Iceland, the Farm Laboratory or the specialised working facilities, people will have to pay an entry fee, or become a member by purchasing an annual pass. The annual pass has several advantages such as discounts of products and priority to events. We will also offer guided tours with various experiences. So the main income streams will be annual membership fees, entry fees for single visits, fees for guided tours, as well as merchandise and rental income.

The sale of ‘value and authenticity’ is a trend-taking grip across the world as a reaction to globalisation. There is a growing desire to experience something authentic, and one that is manifesting in how we source and consume food through farmers markets, urban farms and organic labelling. As writer Carolyn Steel states in her book Hungry Cities, there is a need to reconnect people with the food they eat and introduce them to its value – both commercially and culturally, while Professor Tim Jackson argues in his book Prosperity without Growth that we need to move towards a future that provides prosperity without growth through the sale of value and services with low material throughput. Do you see the Biodome as an extension of this new philosophy? 

Indeed it does. In fact, I was introduced to Carolyn Steel before I started my thesis on urban agriculture. I was inspired by the idea that the Western community needed to reconnect people to food. Although at the same time, I find Tim Jackson’s argument about focusing on value and service with low material output – or as I would put it, emphasising on experience – increasingly important; hence, we need to awaken people’s senses and their awareness of the local economy, as well as healthy consumer activity for people and the planet. I would also like to use this opportunity to refer to Mr Olafur Elíasson as well, when he explained his glacier installations in Paris at the COP conference in 2015 by stating that “we have not become as sensitive emotionally as we have intellectually, we need to find ways to touch people”. So the answer is “Yes”. Aldin, Biodome Reykjavík has grown from this philosophy, and it will reconnect people, offering a valuable experience to “Awaken all their senses”.

In terms of the design process of the Biodome, did you have any influences or precedents? Architects will draw comparisons with Grimshaw’s Eden Project in Cornwall, UK, and with Tropical World in Berlin, Germany – both being mega-structure greenhouses that contain rainforests as well as leisure activities. Did you visit any projects that inspired the Biodome?

In a way, yes. Ideas from several projects influenced our original concept, but none of these were dome structures. The Eden Project in Cornwall and the Tropical World in Berlin are both very interesting cases but considerably larger in scale, as well as independent phenomena in their own right. The intention with Aldin is to improve the existing urban environment by creating green infrastructure that supports other operations and activities in surrounding areas. The Biodome is a short distance from residential areas, so connecting to walking and cycling routes is a key aspect of addressing the wider picture. It is important to make it easy to drop by from neighbouring districts. We want to improve our existing built environment instead of simply building outside the city. Furthermore, since we are also in the centre of the capital region, we also need to ensure that the buildings fit well into the landscape and in a scale that is also suitable.

Biodome 3

The interior will be a warm 18-25°C, home to a lush oasis of tropical planting and a working urban farm.

Hornsteinar Arkitektar, a local Reykjavik firm, have been very closely involved in the project during the development process. They are famous for the New University Centre at the University of Iceland (2008), and the landscaping scheme around the Hallgrímskirkja (2003), both fine examples of how great urban design and placemaking can enhance architecture. Can you elaborate on your own reasons for selecting Hornsteinar though, did they win an open competition, or were they recommended to you?

First of all, they are members of the Green Building Council in Iceland and, as you describe, they are known for sophisticated projects. One thing led to another, and Hornsteinar became backers and advocates of the initial development, and they helped with materialising the concept at first stage. It has, however, not been formally decided yet how the final design will look, and who will deliver the final stages though, as we want that decision to be taken with future investors and partners.

The engineers for the project, EFLA Consulting Engineers, are another Icelandic engineering firm famous for its involvement in the design and delivery of the Harpa Conference Centre in Reykjavik completed in 2010. They were also eager to assist SiS early on with assisting the project’s progress. Did you approach EFLA yourself or did they come to you?

As well as Hornsteinar Architects, EFLA are also members of the domestic Green Building Council, and we believed it was important to engage them in the project. We approached EFLA and presented the project to them. We knew they had an interdisciplinary team that would be helpful for our project in the initial stage. They are one of the best engineering consultants in the country, and they are also incredibly experienced in working in an international context too.

Would you be interested in EFLA potentially project managing the delivery of the scheme, as they did with the Harpa Conference Centre?

They have lots of valuable experience from many challenging projects, and we have so far had an excellent experience in working with them. But the same applies to EFLA as Hornsteinar Architects – future cooperation with any consultants will be in line with the wishes of future SiS partners.

PRPI understands that you are currently looking for select partners to help deliver the scheme within the next two years. How is progress going with raising the capital?

Yes, we are presenting to investors and financial firms at the moment. We sense an increased interest in the project and positive attitude from investors. We feel optimistic and are looking forward to introducing it to other interested parties who share our vision.

Biodome 4

Aldin Biodome Reykjavik is a patented brand and franchise, the sale of merchandise is part of the business plan.

When do you expect all the phases to be complete and for the Biodome to open for its first visitors? 

Given that the funding will be successful in the next two to three months, and the site planning process will be as per our plans, we expect to open late-2018, or by the beginning of 2019.

After the Biodome is completed, what is next for SiS? Is this a brand or franchise that you can foresee in other Nordic and European cities?

We have already started discussions to develop biodomes in other places in Iceland, aiming to eventually open at least three domestic dome clusters. Then, in the longer term, we have a vision of developing the Biodome concept into a franchise, focusing on the Arctic countries, but open to anywhere in the world, increasing the value of the company due to growth opportunities beyond the initial Biodome investment. The most prominent route for achieving this much later goal will be to register the company in 3-5 years’ time on the First North stock exchange.


Spor i Sandinn is currently seeking select partners to work with them on the Biodome Project. If you are interested in reading more, please visit http://sporisandinn.is/en/index.html or get in touch by contacting: hjordis@sporisandinn.is


Hjördís Sigurðardóttir is the founder and owner of Spor I Sandinn. For two years, she has been working on the Biodomes project, and in that process, she got to know many people and companies who are excited and willing to contribute to the work. Hjördís is a nature lover, a mother and an entrepreneur tackling life’s challenges from day to day and year to year. Hjördís has a Master’s degree in Landscape Architecture and Planning, with spatial planning specialisation, from Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Following her studies abroad, she worked at a landscape design office where tourism projects were an important staple of the work portfolio. Aside from that, she also has a background in the food sector, where she worked as a food scientist for about a decade. However, at a certain point in her life, Hjördís shifted her focus to environmental issues and learned environmental and landscape planning. After this switch, she also began lecturing a course in spatial planning, and she tutors students on their thesis at BSc level at the Icelandic Agricultural University.

Thomas Bishop is Unit Lead for the Built Environment Unit at Polar Research and Policy Initiative. Thomas is a creative and independent thinker, built environment professional, consultant and governance practitioner. He has expertise in housing, localism, sustainability and planning law, and is employed by WilkinsonEyre Architects. He has worked on a diverse range of projects in the UK, Europe and Asia, from Alpine PassivHaus ecohomes to grand infrastructure projects like HS2, and visionary masterplans for London and Birmingham. Thomas studied architecture at Cambridge University to Master’s level where he specialised in masterplanning, neighbourhood plans and sustainable smart cities. As a qualified governance practitioner, he also has committee-level experience in finance and risk management, and is currently undertaking his Chartered Diploma with the Royal Institute of British Architects. For further information please visit his profile here

 

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