Nicolas Molle interviewed by Dominique Gauzin-Müller


In 1999, Nicolas Molle founded Etamine, an engineering consulting firm. He was the Manager and then, when the firm went from a private limited company to a public limited company at the beginning of 2014, CO. Dominique Gauzin-Müller, an architect and journalist, asked him about his career path, research and motivations.

 


 

Dominique Gauzin-Müller: How long have you been interested in green construction and renewable energies?

Nicolas Molle: My generation experienced two energy crises in the 1970s! I became interested in solar energy during my studies at école Centrale Paris. In my second year, I did an individual project on a solar-powered elementary school that combined Trombe walls and passive solar gains. In 1977, my traineeship in the research and development department of EDF, the main electric utility company in France, focused on modelling solar air-collectors and heat-recovery ventilation, with the aim of reducing the energy consumption of buildings by harnessing renewable energies. Afterwards, I began my career as a technical development worker in Venezuela.

 

So you have thermal engineering experience in less temperate climates than ours?

During the four years I spent in Venezuela, I set up a solar energy study group at the Caracas Institute of Technology (IUT). In 1979, we installed the first solar-powered runway lights (1 kWp) at Simón Bolívar International Airport in Caracas and developed several projects on solar dryers and seawater desalination as part of a Master’s degree (DEA) in thermal engineering established in collaboration with école Centrale Paris. Wishing to continue along that path, I decided to do my PhD thesis on thermal engineering at the solar energy laboratory at the University of the French West Indies and Guiana in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe. Between 1981 and 1984, I worked full-time on developing dynamic thermal simulation for housing with the goal of obtaining comfortable conditions in warm and humid regions without the use of air-conditioning. It’s funny to see that what was then the subject of a research project took twenty years to become widespread in construction projects. A point demonstrated in my thesis is that it’s important to choose a light-coloured roof for non-air-conditioned buildings instead of trying to insulate them thermally, as some people still advise! When I went back to Guadeloupe at the beginning of the 2000s, I was pleased to see that white roofs, inexistent when I was living there, had since become commonplace!

 

What was your motivation for creating an engineering consulting firm?

I founded Etamine as a result of my research work. For twenty years, I had gained experience researching and developing environmental engineering techniques, first at the Centre Technique des Industries Aérauliques et Thermiques (CETIAT) and then at SFEE-INTELBAT, an engineering firm and subsidiary of EDF specialised in building techniques and electricity demand management. In 1999, I wanted to put my skills to good use by helping construction professionals to design projects that were more respectful of the environment.

 

What are Etamine’s specificities?

Etamine was one of the first engineering consulting firms to offer dynamic thermal simulation to optimise the design of buildings and energy systems. We’re particularly interested in exploring innovative concepts for which the use of simulation can offset a lack of lessons learned. The building sector is actually very conservative. The high cost of fixing problems over the lifetime of a building makes it more attractive to reproduce models and follow standardised or certified methods. But at the same time, the challenges of sustainable development require us to question such models and explore new leads. That’s where Etamine’s expertise comes fully into play. Our aim is to ensure an innovative approach while staying within market costs, by intelligently shifting the balance among all the economic constraints in a project. That’s what we did, for example, with earth tubes for a school in La Tour de Salvagny in 2001, a solar chimney in the échirolles town hall in 2004, and cooling through adiabatic humidification at the SNCF train station in Montpellier in 2011.

 

Who are Etamine’s clients?

Our know-how has met the market demand for sustainable buildings. The technicity of our services has caught the interest of architects, property developers and general contractors. In particular, we’re called on for projects involving groups of contractors or design and construction. While our early projects concentrated mostly on the draft stage and preliminary designs, we’ve gradually moved to accompanying the designers through the whole length of the project in order to ensure its energy and environmental performance after the building handover. Our first such project was a public-private partnership (PPP) with Bouygues for a new hospital in Bourgoin-Jallieu in 2007, followed by energy performance simulations for the Ministry of Defence headquarters at the Balard site in Paris in 2011, again with Bouygues.

 

Etamine doesn’t work just on energy projects, but also towards a broader environmentally responsible approach. What’s your position on the HQE standard?

We were pioneers in the implementation of the HQE standard, when the groundwork was still being laid for certification. At the end of the 1990s, there was an international initiative begun by Canada, called the Green Building Challenge (GBC). It proposed a method for assessing the environmental performance of buildings on the basis of several criteria relating to five issues, including the use of non-renewable resources, environmental burdens, and indoor air quality.
In 2000, during a project to redevelop a technical school in Voiron, Isère, I transposed that method, using the 14 targets of the HQE standard. That work caught the eye of Gilles Olive, the founding father of HQE in France, who had been asked to produce a coherent standard for environmental performance in buildings for the Ministry of Housing. My work served as a foundation for the first HQE certification put forward by the Scientific and Technical Centre for Building (CSTB) in 2002. In the meantime, however, I’d realised during the Voiron project that the methodology was far too heavy and it undervalued innovations! But the machine had already been set in motion, and the HQE association, chaired at that time by Dominique Bidou, chose an imperfect certification that could be improved, rather than no certification at all!

What do you think of building certification?

We’re still opposed to fastidious and binary certification that only values the state-of-the-art and forces you to focus on completely secondary aspects of a project. But since the whole profession has decided to factor the environment into construction projects, we’ve relaxed our position and followed the movement. Certification has the merit of ensuring a minimum level of requirements for those who would do nothing if it didn’t exist.

 

Now that HQE is a sector-wide standard, in competition with international labels like BREEAM and LEED, what should Etamine’s vocation be?

Like the peasant in the Lucky Luke comics who moves his house farther to the West every time the railway under construction reaches him, we strive to explore paths that will help our profession to continue to move towards a more sustainable world. So many issues are before us: the energy revolution in buildings, guaranteed and verified environmental performance, supporting users and managers in energy and environmental management during the life of buildings, and so on. The aim of our involvement in the design and construction phases of a project is to ensure that the expected results are ultimately achieved! Monitoring efficient buildings gives us feedback that enables us to continuously enrich our design methodology, simulation techniques and optimal solutions for balancing frugality, simplicity, sturdiness and new information and communication technology (ICT). This know-how increases every day through the monitoring that we carry out on the WOOPA building that houses Etamine’s headquarters in Vaulx-en-Velin. In addition, with Bouygues Energies Services, we have developed a methodology to ensure guaranteed results in energy performance contracts (CPE), for example for secondary schools in the Rhône-Alpes region.

 

What do you see in Etamine’s future?

Our firm is a workers’ cooperative (SCOP). All our employees can therefore be partners, and governance is democratic according to the principle of “one person, one voice”. Together, we decide the direction of our shared plans. As I near the end of my career, I’m committed to making sure that my colleagues continue our adventure in the best conditions, and we are steadfastly working towards that goal!
With our partners, project after project, we explore emerging issues such as the circular economy, the purposeful use of biosourced materials, and the promotion of biodiversity and health. It’s not only the “green value” of buildings that motivates us, but also the meaning that such initiatives can have for the greatest number of people in a more sustainable and cohesive society. Like the hummingbird so dear to Pierre Rabhi, we aim to be, on our scale, modest but dynamic players in this revolution underway!

A French architect living in Germany since 1986, Dominique Gauzin-Müller is a specialist in environmentally responsible urbanism and architecture, focusing on materials, energy, and social and cultural implications. She has curated several exhibitions and published eleven books, some of which have been translated into several languages. Her publications include Construire avec le bois (Moniteur 1999), Sustainable Architecture and Urbanism: Concepts, Technologies, Examples (Birkhäuser 2002) and L’architecture écologique du Vorarlberg, (Moniteur 2009). Dominique Gauzin-Müller has been editor-in-chief of the magazine EcologiK/EK since its creation in 2007 and has collaborated with many publishing houses and international journals. An honorary member of the UNESCO Chair / Network in Architecture, Constructive Cultures and Sustainable Development, she teaches at architecture schools in Strasbourg and Stuttgart and is a guest lecturer at universities around the world. She is a member of the négaWatt Company which advocates for a transition to sustainable energy.

 

 

A French architect living in Germany since 1986, Dominique Gauzin-Müller is a specialist in environmentally responsible urbanism and architecture, focusing on materials, energy, and social and cultural implications. She has curated several exhibitions and published eleven books, some of which have been translated into several languages. Her publications include Construire avec le bois (Moniteur 1999), Sustainable Architecture and Urbanism: Concepts, Technologies, Examples (Birkhäuser 2002) and L’architecture écologique du Vorarlberg, (Moniteur 2009). Dominique Gauzin-Müller has been editor-in-chief of the magazine EcologiK/EK since its creation in 2007 and has collaborated with many publishing houses and international journals. An honorary member of the UNESCO Chair / Network in Architecture, Constructive Cultures and Sustainable Development, she teaches at architecture schools in Strasbourg and Stuttgart and is a guest lecturer at universities around the world. She is a member of the négaWatt Company which advocates for a transition to sustainable energy.