Nordic Edge

Challenges, solutions for climate issues with old and new buildings

Photo: Helen & Hard / Nordic Edge
When it comes to the warm feeling of wood and timber constructions, you will find the best partners in Norway. The finance park in Stavanger designed by architecture firm Helen & Hard is a good example.

Business & Sports Editor
The Norwegian American

Part 1 of 2: Challenges; architecture, and design

In all the discussions about climate change, creating smart cities, increasing use of electric mobility vehicles, and setting sustainability goals, the effect on buildings, both old and new, tend to be overlooked. A session at Nordic Edge Cross Atlantic webinar highlighted “Sustainable Urban Living: Spectacular Design Meets Climate Missions.” There were seven presenters, and we have split the program into two parts.

Lia Cairone, deputy regional director for North America, C40 Cities, laid out the challenges. C40s is a conglomerate of 97% of the “greatest cities,” representing 700 million people and 25% of the global economy.

Amazingly, carbon emissions from buildings account for 40% of worldwide energy emissions, with it higher in cities. You can’t snap your fingers and make old buildings new.

“Our mayors are committed to delivering on the most ambitious goals of the Paris agreement at the local level,” said Cairone. “To meet these goals, we know that we must decarbonize our building stock while also improving the quality of life for residents. To address this challenge, we need to both transform our existing buildings and construct new buildings to be healthy, resilient and net zero emissions. In the U.S. and Nordic context, it’s especially important that we tackle our existing building stock through retrofits. This is an enormous task given how built out our respective regions are, but it is an area where cities are already making huge strides through innovative policy.”

For example, New York City, with its old skyscrapers, intends to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. Monumental legislation mandates that current buildings meet austere greenhouse gas emissions standards beginning in 2024, with compliance being more crucial as years go on. New York is the first city to enact a law like this. What does this mean? In NYC alone, 1 million current buildings will need to be improved. Reducing emissions by 2030 is similar to removing 1.3 million cars from the street. “This will lead to significant job creation, air quality and public improvement,” said Cairone.

Washington, D.C., has established energy performance standards required for current buildings, while Boston plans on introducing carbon performance standards.

“These cities’ leadership is driving the real estate industry to think seriously about climate and to start making critical investments,” said Cairone. “In order to ensure success of these policies, cities and businesses must work together to innovate and drive down retrofit costs to preserve and enhance affordability for both residents and local businesses, as well as to find effective ways to accelerate retrofits and to do it at scale. By 2050, an additional 2.5 billion people will live in cities and 60% of buildings that will exist in 2050 have yet to be built. This means the equivalent of a city the size of New York will be built every month from now until 2050. To stay on track, new buildings will need to be built with sustainable materials and to operate at net zero emissions.

“We must think about how to do so in a holistic manner so that our built environment becomes healthier, safer, more comfortable, and more resilient for all people regardless of their background or station in life. The opportunity is enormous for businesses that want to be part of the solution.”

Seattle, San Francisco, and 30 other municipalities in California have passed laws prohibiting fossil fuels, including natural gas, being used to heat and cool new buildings. Portland, Ore., has targeted improving construction materials. More cities need to follow suit.

Cairone stressed that to be successful, collaboration across geographies and the public and private sectors is essential. “Now, more than ever, as we work to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, we must be thoughtful about the impact of the decisions we make,” she said. In her words, “Now is the time to reimagine our built environment serving the needs of all people.”

Krister Moen, senior adviser at Innovation Norway

The use of wood and timber in construction has a long history in Norway. “Centuries ago, Viking ships, stave churches, and development of different sailing ships were important parts of the development of the kingdom of Norway,” said Moen.

Over the last three decades, the use of timber has escalated. “It all started with the Olympic Winter Games in 1994 in Lillehammer,” said Moen. “It was decided that Norway should once more be a global leader of innovation in use of wood.”

“Today, innovation in large-scale timber constructions is happening all over Norway, in buildings, bridges, and airports,” said Moen.

He took us on a tour of some of the most magnificent timber construction buildings in the country: the 18-story Mjøstårnet (The Tower of Lake Mjøsa), the largest timber building in Norway; parts of a rebuilt Gardermoen Airport; Bollywood, an office building in Oslo; one of the several student residences that have multiple stories (90% of student residences are made with timber); and The Ship, an office building in Bergen made with cross-laminated timber. The Gardemoen experience has influenced Bodø in the rebuilding of its airport.

“In timber frame constructions, CO2 emissions are more than half,” said Moen. “We now know the capital market first looks for sustainability when making investments. The office buildings are popular. Most Norwegians live in homes made of timber. The Ship was the first delivery from a completely new production line of cross laminated timber in Norway. What is special when planning timber structure is early effort and cooperation between different fields of expertise. This results in saved costs.

“When it comes to the warm feeling of wood and timber constructions, you will find the best partners in Norway. Architects, engineers, researchers, different experts, and suppliers all know the meaning of true digital planning and cooperation to win gold medals in sustainable building that are good for the environment, people, and wallet.”

Siv Helene Stangeland, partner and creative director of architecture at Helen & Hard

What would it be like if people could have a say in how their home should be constructed? Or workers and bosses could suggest what will provide the best working environment? In a Q&A with moderator and head of Nordic Edge Expo Karine Næss Frafjord, Stangeland repeatedly came back to this missing element in construction.

“We believe that architecture production and how it affects people’s lives, can really affect sustainable cities a lot,” said Stangeland. “We can build with sustainable materials. We can design for future disassembly. We can use recycled materials. We can transform buildings. What is also important to remember, in the end, is the impact of architecture. That’s why we really try to make physical environments uplifting spaces where people can live, work, and recreate.”

A common theme of all discussions around climate change and sustainability is the importance of collaboration. Helen & Hard incorporates that in their process.

“When we are looking for these best sustainable solutions, we need to have a collective or collaborative approach,” she said. “We call it a relational design approach. That means we seek to have adaptable design concepts that really can include different feedback from experts, from the end user to the different stakeholders, because we need buildings that are sustainable. That is why the architecture also has to be designed for processes.”

While the firm works with wood, timber is the preferred choice.

“Timber is maybe the most sustainable material, at least when you have it available locally,” said Stangeland. “It’s a material that is both climate neutral and also eco-friendly in other ways. For us as architects, it is also a material that gives us fantastic tectonic potentials as a spatial construction in office buildings and housing. Now, we have just realized a big bank, seven floors high and 13,000 square meters, which is built with a visible timber structure. It’s also showing how this created a very good working indoor climate and environment. The bank has even calculated, I don’t know really how, that although building timber is a little more expensive, they think that in four years, they will have that extra cost covered because people are more productive and efficient in such a work environment.”

Asked about what is important to her when “building a building,” Stangeland noted the overall impact on the entire community where the building will reside. Retrofitting is another area they can use their expertise and gain new insight.

“We think the building should always care for the individual needs, but also a social realm around the building,” she said. “Also, it should have a good effect on the whole community. A new building should make the whole urban situation better.

“Retrofitting is something we have been doing from very early on. We love it because we can work with historic places and add new technology or new solutions. You get a much richer architecture where we also implant a core of timber. You get a new fresh green environment within the old. These two together make a very interesting work environment.”

“How do we create attractive places for people to live in cities?” asked Frafjord.

“We have to look at homes as something much more than just your private home,” she said. “You need to have more flexible spaces available around you. Helen & Hard has investigated how we also can provide a living as something you share with other people.

“One example is located in an area where there are 40 homes sharing 500 square meters with different shared facilities. They live on a little bit smaller area than normal but then you have access to much more. This small community was a real buffer zone. They could arrange themselves in a social way, while keeping all the social restrictions that we needed to.

“We have to rethink how we organize if we are going to achieve more climate neutral cities. This is one way to do it.”

This article originally appeared in the May 21, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Michael Kleiner

Michael Kleiner, business and sports editor, has more than three decades of experience as an award-winning journalist and public relations professional. He has operated his own PR and web design business for small businesses, authors and community organizations in Philadelphia since 1999. Not of Norwegian descent, he lived in Norway for a year with his family at age 11 and has returned as an adult. He is the author of a memoir, Beyond the Cold: An American’s Warm Portrait of Norway, and a member of NorCham Philadelphia. Visit;