The Scandinavian way to zero-carbon construction

Friday 9 Jul 2021

Quiet, clean and green are not words you would typically use to describe a construction site. But the site at Olav Vs gate, one of the busiest streets in the heart of Norway's capital city, Oslo, was special. In a first of its kind in the world, all the machinery used on site – excavators, diggers and loaders – were electric.

Work began on the site in September 2019, converting what was once a hectic turning zone for the city's taxis into a new pedestrianised area. Locals may have initially raised eyebrows at what appeared to be just another inconvenient construction site, but soon it was clear there something very different about it. In fact, this was a pilot project for the first zero-emission urban construction site in the world.

"When I visited the zero-emission construction site I was extremely impressed," says Mark Preston Aragonès, a policy advisor at environmental non-profit Bellona. "I was looking at these big excavators that you generally associate with fumes and noise and general annoyances, but on this site, when the operator turned it on you couldn't tell the difference between when it was on or off. It was really impressive to see such big machines make such little noise."

Decarbonising the construction industry is something in which Oslo wants to lead the world. And it's with good reason. At present, the construction sector alone is responsible for more than 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The impact of construction is even more evident when looking at CO2 emissions from energy use – with the sector contributing 38% of the world's emissions.

The city now wants all municipal construction sites to be zero emission by 2025 and all construction work, public or private, to be zero emission by 2030. Six more of Norway's biggest cities have also recently committed to the same goals as Oslo. Norway has the rare benefit of an electricity grid with 98% renewable energy, most from hydropower, which makes the country an ideal testing ground for zero-emission sites.

Nevertheless, the pilot project in Olav Vs gate is a statement to show the industry that an emission-free construction site is achievable and will, according to Oslo, be the future standard. To move things forward, the City of Oslo has been using its purchasing power as a strategic tool. Since 2019, public tenders for construction work, for example roads, schools, nursery homes, water and sewage pipes, have been awarded to those building with zero-emission machinery and trucks.

Another innovation looking to increase efficiency and reduce waste is modular construction. The process is where a building, or parts of it, are constructed off-site, which brings its own advantages. In Denmark and the Nordic countries, given they are located in the northern part of Europe with limited daylight in the winter months, builders don't have much time out in the field. Instead, many of the buildings are using a lot of prefabricated elements. This is a trend that actually reduces waste.

"When it comes to modular construction, safety, productivity and environmental impact, all of those things tie together," says Jochen Teizer, associate professor in the department of civil and architectural engineering at Aarhus University. "If I do offsite fabrication and then ship it, I improve all of those things; reduce the waste in the assembly process but also increase the safety for the workers. That's another advantage."

But while innovations like electrification, digitisation and modular construction are all helping the industry to decarbonise and reduce waste, they don’t always work together at the same time.


WoodWorks 2021 Update: With Shambeel Eaqub as a keynote speaker speaking on the carbon benefits of mass timber for building, New Zealand's WoodWorks 2021 Conference will be a treat for local architects, engineers, specifiers, building project managers, designers, quantity surveyors, BIM specialists, engineers and wood producers. It's running in Rotorua on 21-22 September.

The conference brings together leaders in architecture, engineered wood design and construction. Register now to secure your place on the Red Stag CLT factory tours – seats are strictly limited and will sell out fast. Details and online registrations are on the event website.

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