Sustainable building part 2: energy efficiency and furniture

A Swedish town changes residents’ lives—with their help

a tree growing in the center of a gathering hall

Photo: Vestre
This will be a roundabout and hall inside The Plus that will increase production efficiency. Employees can meet there at lunch time or on their breaks.

Business and Sports Editor
The Norwegian American

In Part 1 of this feature about sustainable building, we learned about the challenges facing old and new buildings to meet sustainability goals, and not only the use of sustainable timber in construction, but an architect’s philosophy in building structures that are a good fit for a community. In Part 2, we look at other necessities for homes and building: energy efficiency and furniture, and how the Swedish town of Helsingborg is improving quality of life with input from residents, businesses, politicians, and academics.

Sjur Usken, CEO of ClevAir, Norway

Those who remember the 1960s futuristic show, Lost in Space, will recall the robot waving its arms, yelling, “Danger Will Robinson!” Now, in this futuristic world, ClevAir, described by Usken as a “software robot,” does not have arms to wave, but it can look at weather patterns, detect “warning” signs, and adjust the energy efficiency in a building appropriately.

“We deliver ClevAir to make energy efficient autonomous buildings,” said Usken. “Why we do it? Our vision is a sustainable planet. We need to make buildings a solution, not the problem. It is a problem today. We need to change it and we need to change it now. We built ClevAir, which optimizes your building 24/7. It predicts the weather, tells the building how to properly prepare, and then adjusts as it goes. This quality ensures indoor air environment while not wasting energy.” 

First, ClevAir “connects” to the building and imports data about it, including heating, cooling, heat pumps, and how many people are in the building.

“Then, we gather this together with the weather predictions and the other sources of data and use our algorithm to figure out: how can this building perform better?” said Usken. “We provide the dashboards, the insights into it, and the algorithms. What happens then? We activate ClevAir and the usage drops and drops. We still make sure the indoor air climate is good. The ClevAir algorithm puts the building on the energy temperature curve. It just uses as much energy as it should. Previously, a caretaker needed to adjust every setting every day to try to keep the building on their perfect curve. We keep it there.”

In just one month, a 3,000-square-meter building saved 35.3% of energy consumption. “This energy saving was not the reason they called us,” said Uksen. “The temperature inside was varying a lot. We fixed that, but they also got the bonus of a lot of savings.”

Over 20 months, a furniture store saved 1 million kilowatt hours (kWh). Said Uksen, “Before us, this was wasted energy.”

The potential savings in Norway is 10 billion kWh. Among ClevAir customers are Sparebank, Gjesdal kommune, Koehler Group, and Posten. ClevAir has also added smart technology to the platform.

Soraya Axelsson, head of H22, Helsingborg, Sweden

Imagine changing a whole town’s way of doing things—its “cultural DNA,” as Axelsson says. Residents, businesses, politicians, and academics meet to solve the city’s needs and improve quality of life. Welcome to Helsingborg, a medieval southern Sweden coastal town of over 112,000 people, but “one of the most innovative cities in Europe, according to the European Commission and named Sweden’s No. 1 green city four years in a row.”

In 2019, the city allocated $30 million that was limited for use toward innovation, collaboration, and ensuring that “Helsingborg is a hub of possibilities.”

“We’re disrupting the fundamental role of cities, transforming from providers to enablers for citizens, city workers, companies, and academia. We’ve developed the system that is changing the city’s whole DNA and we’re not in it alone,” said Axelsson. 

One of the major partners is IKEA, who will use Helsingborg as a “test bed,” that could change the nature of the business and what a future home and neighborhood will look like, and “then scaling it up globally.” 

IKEA is excited about it. “I hope this will have a big societal impact, starting off from Helsingborg, in the way that we are developing things,” said Marcus Engman, chief creative officer of IKEA Sweden. “This is the first time that we are leaving the safety of just talking about the home (furnishings) and starting off talking about neighborhoods and city planning, together with people. We are creating a big boom there. That’s what we aim for.”

“It’s ground breaking for two reasons,” added Fredrik Håkansson Lundh, area manager, IKEA Sweden. “The first reason is that we’re collaborating with the whole city—with other partners, but with the people in the city. The other one is that we are doing this for a longer period, a number of years.”

There are three areas IKEA is working on toward accomplishing sustainable neighborhoods: environmentally, economically, and socially.

There are exciting venues where people are working toward the future. 

“In the Fredriksdal forest, the future sustainable community will be brought to life using the vision of students across the whole world,” said Axelsson. “In Drottninghög, we’re working together with the citizens to create a circular society. Picture a local urban farm, a community kitchen, and a dynamic marketplace, all engaging citizens to make a sustainable neighborhood.”

At Drottninghög, IKEA will create programming and solutions that will enhance skills development in the residents that will foster engagement in the neighborhood, and “strengthen community spirit and inclusion,” as it says on the Helsingborg website.

At a warehouse in the Oceanhamnen harbor, IKEA will exhibit ideas around “The Future of Manufacturing,” “The Future of Retail,” and “The Future of Home.”

Other developments started with years of education from which residents are now seeing the practical uses.

“We’ve spent 30 years educating every school child in Helsingborg about our global challenges,” said Axelsson. “Today, most households in our region have eight sorting bins, so citizens can play their part. We have waste on demand services that allow residents to order a trash pickup whenever they need it by sliding a sensor on the bin that sends a signal to the collection company. Our landfill has been transformed into a circularity park where innovators from around the world can use our city’s waste to develop amazing green products.

“For 50 years, our circular system has been converting waste into district heating. As we say in Helsingborg, ‘waste is golden.’ We’ve even started building our sewers in a circular way. In 2020, we launched a groundbreaking three pipe sewer system that turns everything we put into our pipes into resources.”

One pipe collects food waste, another toilet, and the third washing and bathing water.

Change couldn’t happen without residents buying in and feeling their ideas were respected.

“Citizen engagement is key, and we take every opportunity to reinvent urban development,” said Axelsson. “In one case, we started out by sitting down at 300 kitchen tables and talked to the residents about how they would like to develop the area. The citizens continue to be engaged in developing housing models, so that they can keep calling this new district their home.

“Remember that new DNA I mentioned in the beginning? All the innovations in every corner of Helsingborg, along with the mindset and ambition of our people, are vital building blocks in that new DNA. But like every living system, it needs to grow. It’s when we combine an innovative culture with exciting new partnerships that change truly can happen.” 

A model of Vestre's new furniture factory: a large building with four wings laid out in the shape of a plus.

Photo: Vestre
Vestre is scheduled to move into a new factory, The Plus, in December in Magnor, that will be revolutionary. It’s shaped like a plus sign because there will be four production wings with different production in all of them.

Jan Christian Vestre, CEO, Vestre AS, Norway

We’ve heard the climate change challenges for buildings, the use of sustainable timber in construction, the architect’s views, and the energy efficiency expert. Vestre now completes the discussion with furniture. His grandfather started a mechanic business shortly after the end of World War II.

Now, 34-year-old Jan Christian runs the family-owned business, one of Europe’s top social and sustainable furniture companies. In his presentation, he was rather direct in how Vestre is changing the human dynamic and contributing to social and political change. He was also direct and encouraging other businesses and people can do the same, because “If Vestre can do it, so can you.”

Jan Christian Vestre talks with Jonas Gahr Støre while looking at a building model of Vestre's new furniture factory.

Photo: Vidar Ruud/NTB
Labor leader Jonas Gahr Støre looks at a model of the furniture factory to be built at Magnor, together with Jan Christian Vestre, the general manager of Vestre.

They have offices in Oslo, Germany, Sweden, United Kingdom, Denmark, France, Switzerland, and New York City, where Times Square has Vestre furnishings. In Los Angeles, Vestre outfitted Jack London Square. Vestre products have been exported to 25 countries.

“Believe it or not, our mission is not to sell as many products as possible,” he said. “Our mission is to change the world one neighborhood at a time. We do so by creating caring meeting places where people get together, share life experiences and a variety of ideas, get to know each other, and become confident in each other. Places where our cultures and social backgrounds meet and where we can communally discuss the issues that affect our world. We create meeting places where trust, unity, and new groundbreaking ideas arise.”

Vestre draws on the Nordic concept “Allemanns-retten,” which means the outdoors are for everyone. Therefore, Vestre does not make what Jan Christian calls “hostile design,” like public benches made to prevent homeless people from using them.

“If we have created this society where people can’t afford a proper place to live, that’s something that must be dealt with by political reforms, not by hostile designs,” he said.

“It’s not my job to produce benches designed to cover for basic injustices in our societies. I simply don’t want to make money on things that are wrong, and hostile designs are never right. Our mission does not stop here. Building more inclusive societies is just one of the major issues we must deal with today.”

Another is climate change. Their furniture has always been durable, lasting for decades. In 2009, they were the first carbon-neutral furniture maker. In 2016, they incorporated the United Nations’ sustainability goals into their business model. Climate and energy footprint are included on all products, and they are the first furniture company to do so. Within the year, Vestre will move into a new factory, the Plus, believed to be the most environmentally friendly factory in the world. It is built with timber, “which reduces greenhouse gas by at least 55% and supplied energy needs by 90%.” The transparency and openness will allow people to come up to the outside of the building and watch the furniture being made.

A hallway in Vestre's future furniture factory that has colorful walls and rainbow stripes on the floor

Photo: Vestre
One of the production wings of the future Vestre furniture factory is full of movement and color.

“In this way, we want to inspire more people to take part in accelerating the green shift,” said Jan Christian. “There is too much talk about the green shift today. We want to see more, and real, action. We want to contribute to a less polarized debate about these issues by bridging the gap between climate activists and people concerned about the need for new jobs.

“Friends, it all comes down to this: What responsibility do private companies have? Is it enough to be profitable, create jobs, and pay taxes? Nope. It’s a good start, but people should actually expect more from us. We should be the frontrunners in the green shift. We can couple economic growth from emissions and create a real sustainable future. We can treat people and planet with respect and decency without exploiting anyone. We can do it if we work together and unleash the best of our creative abilities.”

This article originally appeared in the June 4, 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;