Oslo’s Pursuit of an Emission-free Construction Industry

C40 Cities

Next week, on Monday 30th of November, there will be cause for celebration at Oslo´s Climate Agency. One of the busiest streets in the city, Olav V´s gate, will be newly unveiled — upgraded, closed to vehicles and pedestrianized. The whole process has been implemented entirely free of direct emissions. It is groundbreaking and unprecedented — worldwide.

On-site, the deadline for completion is approaching. Although three heavy diggers are at work, there is no noise whatsoever. These machines are all electrically powered like the rest of the construction tools in use.

“People are used to noisy building sites, and most are really amazed at how quiet the ongoing construction is”, says Sjur Wethal Helljesen, technical consultant for environmental solutions at NASTA, a supplier of electric machinery. “It´s also less exhausting for the workers”, he points out.

Sjur Wethal Helljesen, Technical Consultant for Environmental Solutions at NASTA. Credit: Frederik Varfjell, C40

“The ‘green shift’ [shift of environmental policy towards greener alternatives] arrived at least five years earlier than expected in our industry. We’re just at the beginning and our company is now not only the supplier but actually the producer of electrically powered machinery. We’re adjusting to this new reality and innovating all the time in order to fulfill the new requirements”, says Wethal Helljesen who tells us he is extremely impressed by Oslo municipality’s bold move to advocate some really forceful criteria for, amongst others, the electrification of heavy equipment.

The city is paving the way to construction sites becoming fossil-free — aiming for completely emission-free sites by 2025. The Governing Mayor, Raymond Johansen, tells us that almost all municipal building sites are already fossil-free right now.

The pilot project in Olav V´s gate is an important statement to show the industry that an emission-free building site is achievable and will, according to Oslo municipality, be the future standard.

Clean Construction Works at Olav V’s gate. Credit: Frederik Varfjell, C40

Oslo´s climate goal is to reduce emissions by 95 percent by 2030, compared to 2009 levels. Climate goals and annual climate budgets were implemented in 2016 as a pioneering and all-encompassing package in order to combat emissions, striving to make Oslo the first emission-free city in the world.

The climate budget is unique in city governance, as it´s tied up with the ordinary financial budget. “This makes climate action an incorporated part of our policy and gives the climate crisis the attention needed”, explains Johansen.

Johansen says that the largest contributors to emissions are traffic, waste management and construction works. “They make up a total of 88 percent. This spring we got new and updated numbers showing us that the emissions from the building- and construction industry are three times higher than presumed”, he says — adding that further action will be taken in the climate budget of 2021.

“Yes, I know the goals are kind of ambitious”, admits Hilde Olea Simonsen, Director of Resources at the Agency for Planning and Building Services.

“Our job is to influence others — and that´s demanding. Nevertheless, it´s also our job to be at the forefront by implementing our standards on our own building sites, and by doing so, paving the way and creating new opportunities for the industry”, she says.

Vice-Mayor Lan Marie Berg agrees. “By setting up the same set of standards for everyone, we´re giving a strong signal to the industry. We´re a predictable customer, making it favorable for the companies to invest and buy new knowledge and technology,” she says.

Both Berg and Simonsen say it´s essential to have an early and ongoing dialogue with the industry during this process.

Simonsen explains that there are some incentives in place. “We do for instance offer reduced application fees as well as priority in the application process. That doesn´t mean jumping the queue, but rather giving extra attention and clarification to projects with environmental ambitions. Some contractors hedge their bets mainly due to costs and delays in the delivery of equipment or a dearth of relevant equipment altogether. However, participants who are far-sighted and environmentally ambitious will sooner or later get an edge over their competitors”, says Simonsen.

“Our ambitions must be applicable to each and every project collaborating closely with the industry in order to find the right solutions”, says Berg.

She also points at the international collaboration through C40 and their Clean Construction Forum.

“In conjunction with other cities we´ve created a greater market for emission-free equipment. That´s been crucial for us setting our own high standards”, she says.

An important driving force and partner in the strive towards an emission-free city, is FutureBuilt; originally a private company dealing with high-profile sustainable and environmentally friendly projects.

“In 2010 we started a program for pioneering projects in the construction industry. We wanted to build our way out of the climate crisis, so to speak”, says Stein Stoknes, co-founder and program director of FutureBuilt.

Stein Stoknes, Co-founder and Program Director of FutureBuilt. Credit: Frederik Varfjell, C40

Back then, Oslo municipality showed a keen interest and FutureBuilt is now in essence a collaborative initiative to test and prove new approaches towards clean constructions.

“We´re a half-public half-private fusion that facilitates greener alternatives. Our role is to advise, support, inspire, showcase and connect developers and engineering teams with specialists in the field. Our aim is always to be at the forefront — the cutting edge. Working in conjunction with the authorities, we´ve been able to work out a set of strict criteria for the construction industry that would help us reach our climate goals”, explains Stoknes.

Kilden kindergarten is a prime example. Completed in 2016, it was one of Oslo´s first plus-house kindergartens. The requirements for a plus-house is that it produces more energy than it consumes.

At Kilden kindergarten, local energy production is crucial and provided by huge solar panels as an integrated part of the architecture. Walls and ceilings are covered with environmental and climate friendly materials and a highly efficient ventilation and heating system minimizes the use of energy. There has also been extensive reuse of materials.

Conservation and restoration are two important tools that can be employed in the process to reverse emissions.

“Additionally, preserving the character of the buildings and areas is of outmost importance in order to make people thrive”, Simonsen says.

“To reuse and restore buildings is also a cost-effective way of doing things”, says Berg.

In their guidelines for the planning process for constructions, the Agency for Planning and Building Services encourage environmentally friendly buildings, a reduction of energy use and a move away from demolition if possible. Reusing materials is also a priority.

“The production of steel and concrete in particular accounts for a huge amount of emissions worldwide”, says Simonsen.

“Reusing a steel girder or a concrete element, reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 95 percent”, explains Stoknes.

“In our management of energy use, materials are left as a considerable expense on the climate account. It´s critical that we maintain what we’ve got and stop the ongoing trend of demolishing buildings”, says Stoknes.

Although, and according to Simonsen, the most environmentally friendly buildings are the ones we never built — there are always new buildings under construction. We’re standing with Stoknes in front of the newly opened Deichman library building on the seafront in Oslo. It´s the latest addition to the so-called Barcode development, a row of flagship buildings in the recent urban development of the city.

Deichman Bjørvika / Oslo Public Library. Credit: Frederik Varfjell, C40

Deichman is one of FutureBuilt´s projects and the architects wanted it to have a transparent character. To achieve that effect, the entire front is clad with glass. But beneath the exterior and almost invisible to the eye, half the surface consists of dense composite columns with insulating properties that keep the energy consumption at low level.

“That´s an element of innovation that was brought into the project at an early stage”, explains Stoknes. He also points at some concrete elements at the top of the building, explaining that they are made of carbon concrete; a material consisting of left-over products from industrial processes.

“However, this product is almost outdated by now as the process is ongoing, and the next step is to make concrete out of clay”, says Stoknes.

FutureBuilt is certainly a frontrunner in the field. However, they welcome collaboration with other companies as this presents mutual advantages.

“This is a field of learning and the exchange of experiences”, says Simonsen. “FutureBuilt is an extremely innovative platform that provides us with tools in order to implement strict criteria in the industry, like requiring building sites to be free of fossil fuel in the future”, she explains.

Stoknes tells us that municipal collaboration is essential for FutureBuilt´s aim to move forward, be bold and at the forefront when it comes to climate action in the construction industry.

“I´m really impressed by their ambitions and ability to implement strict requirements needed to reduce emissions. I think the establishment of Climate Agency as well as the climate budget back in 2016 in particular has proven that they mean business”, says Stoknes.

Back in Olav V´s gate, Wethal Helljesen once again takes a brief look at the building site whilst stating that this is groundbreaking work presenting numerous challenges that will need a solution in the future. “Our main problem at the moment is the availability of equipment and time frame for delivery. But Rome wasn’t built in a day either”, he reminds us.

Vice-Mayor Berg is aware of the problem and says that in order to be able to reach our climate goal, the big construction machine manufacturers must offer emission-free alternatives as a matter of course, which is not an option at the moment.

“We must continue to seek pro-active involvement from the private sector, and we would welcome a collaboration with other large cities and national authorities as well as the EU, in order to find and develop common new green solutions”, she concludes.

C40 is a leading global network of cities taking bold and ambitious climate action to deliver a healthy, equitable and sustainable future for all.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store