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Susan Smith
Susan Smith
Susan Smith has worked as an editor and writer in the technology industry for over 16 years. As an editor she has been responsible for the launch of a number of technology trade publications, both in print and online. Currently, Susan is the Editor of GISCafe and AECCafe, as well as those sites’ … More »

Sustainable Architecture Meets Reforestation in China — Interview with Wolfgang Frey

August 1st, 2016 by Susan Smith

Wolfgang Frey, a practicing architect who specializes in sustainability at his architectural firm Frey Architekten, in the eco-city of Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, has found a way to offset his own carbon dioxide “debt.“ In the spring of 2014 Mr. Frey began a reforestation project on the Chinese mountain Xishan (‘West Mountain’ in English) in Taiyuan in the Chinese province of Shanxi.


Recently, Mr. Frey celebrated the second year of his efforts to reduce his carbon footprint in China. Mr. Frey has planted over 6,000 trees on 12.4 acres. Every growing plant absorbs CO2.

Wolfgang Frey’s goal is to compensate for his own personal CO2 emissions as an architect with the help of the trees he plants.

As one of the pioneers in sustainable architecture, Frey Architekten has been using solar panels since 1972. In addition, the office has an international presence in China, Russia and other parts of Europe.


Apart from the absorption of carbon dioxide, the trees also provide other positive aspects such as the production of oxygen and the overall improvement to the micro-climate. The reforestation project has not yet ended: Wolfgang Frey wants to expand his forest. He flies to China about three times a year and plants between between 150 and 200 saplings each time, resulting in about 600 acacia trees annually. In addition, date trees bought directly from China are being planted. The plan is to continue to expand the forest’s acreage.

In Germany, Wolfgang Frey also owns 111 acres of forest, the wood from which is used – among other things – for sustainable projects.

How is it that you are able to plant more trees in China than the Nature Conservancy, who also has a tree planting effort there?

You may not know this (not many people do, even the Chinese themselves!) but China has the world’s largest reforestation program. I recently drove four hours straight along one of its reforestation programs. Because of my work as an architect and my plane travel, I wanted to personally offset my carbon footprint by planting trees there. That’s why I started this reforestation initiative in China.


Are the acacia trees planted indigenous to the area of China they are planted in, or are what would be called an invasive species?

They are so-called pioneer wood trees, meaning they can survive arid climates. Although not indigenous, they do a great job of absorbing CO2, producing oxygen and sustaining the soil to avoid further desertification.

Can you grow trees from seed there in China so that you wouldn’t have to ship them?

At present we have done well by transporting them along with us when we travel.

Does the tree planting give native people jobs, and if so, how many does the project employ?

My Chinese friend, a well-situated individual, had the same idea as I did. He bought two mountains that span 40.000 hectares. I work with my friend’s infrastructure who has employed people to care for the land.

What are some of the considerations taken with sustainable building, both in China and Germany, and elsewhere in the world where you have projects ongoing?

My goal is to work with local resources suitable to the people who live there. Because China does not have a lot of wood, we opt not to build with wood there yet. The good news is we recently did a climate analysis and found that within the span of 17 years, the forest we have planted will grow to the point that it will reduce the climate by 2.5 degrees, thereby allowing for more rain and thus more trees!

What geographical areas are your trees being planted in? Are you creating new forests or are the plantings around existing buildings in urban areas?

The forest area borders the Gobi desert. We are creating new forests on the mountain of Xishan (“West Mountain” in English).

What future projects do you see with the tree planting and bringing sustainability to China?

Reforestation will take a few generations, but we will continue our efforts there.

In the city of Kunshan, we have been tasked with reducing the smog. Another project is Zuhai, a waterfront development that runs 1.3 miles, which will become the heart of the city with bike paths, walkways and water sanitation that makes sustainability transparent for everyone. The recreational park, for instance, will illustrate the city’s sustainability efforts, which will in turn positively impact people’s attitudes about their own behaviors. Sustainable cities and sustainable living will unify in the residents’ mindsets.




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