An IKEA-Style Solution to Making Houses More Sustainable

A flat-packed renovation aims to improve the energy efficiency of homes that already exist

Photo: Pexels

Under the Paris climate agreement, the world is attempting to limit the dangerous global temperature rise to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius. The agreement has also set an ambitious target for the European Union to be climate neutral (net-zero carbon dioxide emissions) by 2050. In addition to the usual suspects causing global warming, such as burning fossil fuels, significant contributions also come from the buildings that make up the towns and cities around us.

But now, a Danish architecture company is developing easy-to-install kits aimed at making homes more energy efficient. If produced on a global scale, they could have a major impact on the climate contributions of buildings everywhere.

Residential and commercial buildings account for over 40% of all energy consumption and over 30% of all carbon dioxide emissions in the United States. This is measured with a combination of two factors: operational carbon emissions, which refers to those released during the day-to-day use of a building, from heating and cooling a home to keeping the lights on in an office environment; and the “embodied carbon” of a building, which is the carbon released through the construction process, the materials used, and transportation involved in making the building.

From these two factors, a building’s total energy use — known as the “built environment’s energy intensity” — can be calculated. According to the World Green Building Council, energy intensity per square meter of buildings needs to be improved by around 30% by 2030 to have any chance of meeting climate targets. Strides are being made, but not at a pace that’s fast enough to keep up with building construction. At the current construction rate, CO2 emissions related to buildings are expected to double if action isn’t taken soon.

But there’s a bigger issue at play. While new buildings perform better in all these scores thanks to modern materials and better construction methods, most of the housing stock that will exist in 2050 has already been constructed.

So how can we improve the emissions of buildings that already exist?

A new facade

Henning Larsen, an architecture practice based in Denmark, has collaborated with several other organizations to form a strategic partnership called REBUS (Renovating Buildings Sustainably) to develop and test a potential solution: prefabricated kits for renovating the existing housing stock to be more energy efficient. They began with a style of social housing built in Denmark in the 1960s and 1970s.

The team focused on two main goals: renovating this specific housing stock in an energy-efficient, lower-emissions manner, and achieving this without causing huge disruption to the residents. The result of their efforts is a prefabricated panel system — best described as an IKEA-style flat-packed facade — that can be fitted onto the building or even on top of the existing facade. The additional layer allows extra insulation to be added to the building, boosting its eco-properties while improving the building’s appearance.

By using a simple bracket system, the panels can be attached while the residents continue to live inside the residences, causing minimal disruption.

Image: Henning Larsen/REBUS

Because the panels are simple and easy to install, the kits even allow residents or building owners to be more involved in the renovation. Henning Larsen designed a versatile catalog of renovation options that allow tenants to choose from various finishes and extras, from materials choices (all sustainably sourced) to different styles of windows, such as bigger window openings to outdoor balconies. It enables the prefab kits to be flexible, serving each building and each resident in the best possible way. Is the room too dark? Choose the bay window option and enjoy a new spot to sit and read in natural daylight. Poor ventilation in your home? Choose the larger window to let in more air.

According to Henning Larsen’s website, the project will significantly impact building performance: Buildings “will consume 50% less energy, with the renovation process using 30% fewer resources and yielding a 20% higher productivity.”

While the first installation has been delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the team hopes to start the project later this year on a housing development located in Copenhagen. Because the system can be easily adapted and scaled, there will be many more potential sites and opportunities to further test the project should the first phase succeed. But the team is under no illusions that there are still many hurdles and challenges ahead. A project with so many moving parts — design, materials, construction, the environment, and maintenance — is likely to face problems. As project co-leader Martin Vraa Nielsen notes, “Like all of design, it’s an iterative process. It will allow us to improve on our ideas and help others to avoid pitfalls in the process when they take it on.”

While there are various systems and forms of facade cladding currently on the market, using various materials from zinc to porcelain, these solutions are designed for new construction projects, meaning they are adapted into projects as they are being built. The REBUS project is one of the first to focus on lowering the carbon footprint of existing buildings. And it could prove to be a perfect solution — renovating the existing housing stock is by far the least carbon-intensive option available.

This potential human-led design approach will allow fast-fitting, cost-effective renovations that will improve building performance and appearance without rehousing and disrupting tenants.

Best of all, it’s a shining example of flat-packed design, done right.

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