The Harpa model 

Reykjavik’s Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre offers a sustainability blueprint for arts venues across the globe,
Natasha Dixon discovers its recent efforts and calls on its international counterparts to recognise audience expectations and follow suit

Upon arriving at the Harpa Concert Hall it feels as if you have entered into another world entirely, captivated by its sheer beauty and breathtaking views across the North Atlantic Ocean and Reykjavik’s surrounding mountains. Far from your average European city concert hall, Reykjavik’s Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre places a premium on the visitor experience, attracting over one million guests each year with its unique setting and award-winning facilities. 

But Harpa’s appreciation of the natural world goes far beyond a mere marketing ploy and instead reflects a true desire to protect Iceland’s environment and address the wider sustainability challenges facing performing arts venues across the globe. 

 Like many other arts venues and institutions, Harpa has expressed its commitment to The Paris Agreement, the landmark United Nations international treaty seeking to limit global warming to well below 2°C. However, its actions to support these lofty environmental goals and understanding of the detrimental sustainability impact of traditional arts venues, marks it out as a pioneer within the sector. 

Since 2015, Harpa has worked in close collaboration with experts at the Environment Agency of Iceland to successfully complete all five steps of the Government’s Green Steps Programme and implement numerous additional measures to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. 

 A major challenge to the sustainability of any concert hall is the sheer energy consumption involved in delivering a programme of events that stretches into the thousands each year. Therefore, it is this area where Harpa focused its efforts. With the help of the Icelandic power grid, Harpa was able to embrace renewable technologies, with nearly all energy coming from clean renewable hydroelectric or geothermal energy sources. To ensure maximum impact, the switch to renewable sources was coupled with energy efficiency measures, such as setting hall ventilation in line with usage and installing sensors to maximise energy utilisation. 

Harpa has also made strides in addressing its waste, another common challenge faced by large audience-centric venues. Common measures like encouraging visitors to sort their waste and ensuring all disposable food packaging is recyclable have been supplemented by wider initiatives, such as switching all published material across the venue from printed to electronic. Harpa’s waste reduction efforts have also required a reassessment of its supplier relationships, now seeking to use environmentally certified suppliers as much as possible and encouraging its wider supply chain to minimise the use of non-recycled packaging. 

Harpa’s location in one of the most forward-thinking countries on sustainability issues, well situated to take advantage of geothermal energy sources, clearly contributes to its success. However, many of its measures could easily be implemented by concert halls and performing arts venues whatever their location. Replacing light bulbs with LED lighting, using recycled packaging and reducing the use of printed programmes all represent important first steps to reducing adverse environmental impacts and performance venues should not dismiss Harpa as a unique exception to the norm. 

Far from exulting its positive record, Harpa recognises that despite its lengthy strides in improving the venue’s environmental credentials, it still has a considerable way to go before it can offset all preventable greenhouse gas emissions. The venue continues to regularly interrogate its own sustainability record and has set itself ambitious targets for the future. It is this transparency and a true desire to improve that marks Harpa as a pioneer within the sector, whose actions should be emulated by performing arts institutions across the globe.

Click here to discover more about Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre.