At the (sustainable!) top of Europe

Capanna Margherita

Graziano Salvalai is currently associate professor at ABC Department (Architecture Built environment and Construction engineering) and he teaches Energy efficient buildings at Politecnico di Milano. He his staff member of the Building Refurbishment and Energy Efficiency Laboratory (RE3_Lab) at Polo Territoriale di Lecco (IT). His research and teaching activities focus on innovation of construction techniques with particular attention to the integration of building-system and its control through energy simulation programs. The outcome of researches is often tested on real, experimental buildings, like the one here by.

Graziano Salvalai
Since 2019, you have been working on a project researching the Margherita Hut (Capanna Osservatorio Regina Margherita), located 4,556 metres above sea level on the Punta Gnifetti summit of Monte Rosa: how did this opportunity come about?

The research came about as a result of a combination of many factors, the first of which was my and my colleague Prof. Francesco Calvetti’s interest in the mountains, in terms of accessibility and safety as well as the energy and environmental sustainability of high-altitude tourist accommodation. The topic immediately interested a number of students (mainly those from the Architectural Engineering course, which we teach) driven, first and foremost, by a sincere passion for the mountains and then also attracted by the multidisciplinary challenges that high-altitude design entails, which involves experimentation with innovative materials and technological solutions together with unconventional construction methods as key elements.

The mountains are a complex and stimulating research environment, full of potential, where you can experiment with design practices that are mindful of the urgencies of environmental energy sustainability and respect for the territory and the historical memory of places, all of which can no longer be ignored.

South-East and South-West prospects_original 1978 project by Geom. Carlo Milone. Source Municipali Authority of Alagna Valsesia

The scientific research was consolidated in May 2018, with the signing of the framework agreement, stipulated between the Politecnico di Milano and the Italian Alpine Club, which sees me, Prof. Manuela Grecchi and Prof. Francesco Calvetti on the joint management committee for the Politecnico. The subject of the agreement is the collaboration between the two bodies for the promotion of studies and research on technological innovation at high altitude, through initiatives and activities such as dissertations, projects, studies, research and seminars.

The research on the Margherita Hut fits into this context and involved first a detailed analysis of its current architectural and technological state and subsequently the definition of solutions for the spatial technological/functional refurbishment, as well as the structural remediation of the rock mass on which the hut stands.

What are the special features of Europe’s highest mountain hut?

First of all, the location. Considering that almost all huts, including those used strictly for mountaineering, serve as a starting point or intermediate base for a long traverse or summit ascent, the Margherita Observatory Hut is one of a kind; located at 4,556 metres above sea level, on the summit of the largest massif in the Alps (Punta Gnifetti, Monte Rosa massif) which has the highest average elevation, the hut in itself is a worthy destination.

A fundamental reference point for Alpine Rescue operations and part of the historical and cultural heritage of the Italian Alpine Club, the Margherita Hut is a peculiar building that holds several “records” related to altitude, including that of still being the highest mountain hut in Europe. Dedicated to Queen Margherita of Savoy – who stayed there in 1893, the year of its inauguration -, the structure faces east, directly overlooking what is considered the highest wall of its kind in the Alps: over 2,000 metres of ice, snow and rock, giving it a “Himalayan” appearance.

Capanna Margherita
Helicopter view current conditions (photo by Welf Arnoldo)

While the uniqueness of the hut’s location is a source of environmental and other problems that are not easy to solve, it also creates interesting research opportunities in various fields and disciplines, from medicine to earth sciences and meteorology. As a matter of fact, the building is not just considered a simple hut for mountaineers, but a complex structure that facilitates and stimulates scientific research in high-altitude environments. Hence the dual name in Italian: Capanna, a hut for mountaineers, and Osservatorio (observatory), as it houses an important laboratory used for scientific research.

What are the objectives of the Margherita Hut redevelopment project?

In particular, the project to upgrade the technology and construction of the hut envisages the improvement of the building envelope energy performance and systems engineering in terms of energy production, storage and management as well as distribution. In addition to the performance tests, we also came up with various spatial repurposing ideas in order to meet new and changing tourism needs and to facilitate the management of the accommodation and its services. We conducted further modelling analyses to assess the stability and condition, in the medium to long term, of the rocky mass on which the structure stands and which has suffered severe stress due to the rising temperatures recorded at high altitudes in recent decades.

BIM reconstruction
How important is it today to rethink these types of buildings? Today, design is conceived in the name of environmental and energy sustainability, hospitality, services and accessibility – how do all these requirements combine with the needs of conservation?

Current tourism trends highlight the increasing focus on the natural environment, a resource that is increasingly seen as an opportunity for well-being, physical and psychological recreation, as well as a way of ensuring social distancing in response to the recent health epidemic. Mountain hikes and stopovers – both temporary and for several days – at alpine facilities are becoming increasingly common, not only for experienced mountaineers and hikers, but also for less well-prepared and equipped tourists, made up of families with children and young couples. Therefore, renovating high-altitude tourist accommodation to adapt them to these new uses is of fundamental importance today in terms of both safety issuesand the services and spaces offered.

Project idea

In this context, the design proposal for the Margherita Hut offers a possible response to these needs based on a holistic and multidisciplinary approach that focuses on the key issues of safety, hospitality and environmental sustainability. Given the important symbolic and cultural value that these buildings often hold within the community, any technological and functional choices must necessarily be accompanied by more general considerations of the conservation and enhancement of historical and cultural heritage, of which the Alpine buildings are bearers, and of the relative territory, of which they are silent guardians.

The mountain is a kind of extreme laboratory; what are the technological and construction challenges that you will face? What are the most suitable technologies and materials in your opinion?

In general, in high-altitude contexts, such as Punta Gnifetti, where the Margherita Hut stands, the difficult environmental conditions due to the altitude (extremely low temperatures, strong gusts of wind and lower atmospheric pressure, thus with lower oxygen levels) are combined with the very complex morphological characteristics of the site, such as the lack of space and the extreme exposure, making any construction activity on these structures a real engineering challenge. The supply of resources and materials is also an issue of central importance, often requiring special heli-transport operations from the valley. For these reasons, during construction or renovation, the choice of technologies and materials is generally based on parameters such as light weight, sustainability, high performance, ease of installation and disassembly, in order to facilitate not only construction operations but also, and above all, maintenance over time.

Project idea long side
In general, what can we expect from the mountain huts of the future?

The huts of the future must be designed to be energy self-sufficient, comfortable for users, respectful of the site and its historical memory, as well as being in line with current national and European challenges regarding environmental sustainability. The new paradigm therefore no longer envisages the hut as a simple shelter, but as veritable accommodation even for longer stays, with adequate standards of comfort and health, as well as the ambition of serving as laboratories for technological experimentation, where IoT, domotics and energy efficiency are essential elements to guarantee targeted monitoring and maintenance operations. Operation will increasingly be based on integrated technological systems capable of maximum exploitation of that which the environment has to offer, whilst producing minimal waste.

Work team