Innovation in Renovation
Tasked with refurbishing 1001 homes in a Copenhagen suburb, Vandkunsten architects saw an opportunity to revolutionize renovation practices through material circularity and democratic design. Their exhibit at the Danish pavilion at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale presents innovative strategies for repurposing materials, but also speaks of unforeseen compromise.
The homes of the future are already built. New housing construction has long been an engine of growth in Northern European cities, but flatlining populations and steady economies have begun to reduce the demand for housing. Denmark continues to build around 20,000 new homes each year, yet this amounts to just 1% of the total housing stock. Much of this construction is concentrated in Copenhagen, under the guise of accommodating its gradually growing population but also in an impulsive attempt to curtail the rising cost of homes and ease its affordability crisis. However you look at it, the vast majority of Denmark’s required housing (94.6% by 2025) is already built, owned and lived in.
If cities have already reached a point of saturation, then strategies of repair, maintenance, adaptation, renovation and restructuring will become ever more essential to the construction industry, and thus of architectural practice. This encompasses the need for routine upkeep of aging buildings, but also the more urgent imperative of drastically reducing resource and energy consumption (Europe’s building stock currently accounts for around 40% of total energy consumption). Demographic shifts and changing family structures may appear to be demanding new types of housing, but perhaps these changes can also be accommodated through adaptation and repurposing.
So if the industry has no choice but to engage more directly with the existent built fabric, why is it that housing policies and environmental regulations continue to prioritize new construction, neglecting the existing housing stock? This is reflected in the architectural profession’s enduring inclination toward novel, new-build housing projects, and together these conditions limit the opportunities for innovation in the field where they’re needed the most – renovation.
This emerging debate comes to the fore in the story of Albertslund South, a vast 1960s housing development in the suburbs of Copenhagen. Designed by social housing pioneers Fællestegnestuen, Albertslund is one of Denmark’s largest housing developments, providing affordable housing for 5,500 tenants. The project was experimental and innovative in its applied construction techniques, its ‘atrium’ housing design, and the urban plan that organizes the district – rows of introverted brick bungalows amongst a labyrinthine network of streets and pathways. Albertslund’s uniformity seemed to be a direct representation of Denmark’s highly democratic welfare system; equity in housing equates to equity in opportunity. This was largely a success, and Albertslund has developed a strong and committed community despite sitting firmly in the peripheries of Copenhagen’s urban development.
But fifty years of use has made its mark on Albertslund’s poor construction quality, and in 2012 the municipality launched a competition in search of a strategy for the complete renovation and revitalization of the area. The Danish architecture office Vandkunsten won the competition with a simple proposal; ‘change to preserve’, by closing the material loop. This was developed through an appreciation of the collectively produced cultural value and pride embedded in a place as unique as Albertslund, but also an acceptance that these qualities could not be preserved without extensive renovation works.
In calculating the figures associated with a project of this scale, Vandkunsten were struck by the sheer volume of construction waste that would result from a typical renovation process – the flooring alone amounted to 80,000m² of solid beech parquet that would usually be destined for incineration (albeit to provide district heating). Vandkunsten’s plan therefore aimed for material circularity, where dismantled components could be repurposed and used anew. Timber flooring could become a porch. Patinated roof tiles could form a wall cladding. An inventory of options were drawn up and preliminary assessments were carried out to evaluate the environmental and economic impact of different strategies, taking into account parameters such as LCA (Life Cycle Analysis), LCC (Life Cycle Costing) and energy needs, but also cultural and social factors. Vandkunsten saw the dismantled materials as embodying three kinds of value; a resource value and an economic value, but also a cultural value that was closely connected to the site and its history.
Six prototype homes were renovated alongside an extensive catalogue of online options, from which tenants could select the components that would comprise their refurbished home and see the implications for their rent. Danish social housing tenants are legally entitled to direct these renovation decisions, and elected tenant organizations play a central role in any kind of development (meetings of 800 tenants took place in a local theatre). This formalized collaboration between tenants, municipalities, and architects, as well as housing organizations and suppliers, sets the framework for a determinedly democratic design process, and Vandkunsten hoped that this ‘social strategy would create stronger ownership between the tenants and the development’.
Their vision was 1001 unique renovations, each showcasing innovative ways of repurposing materials while proclaiming the individuality of its occupant. But the reality will be 1001 very similar renovations, as most tenants simply chose the same set of components. While the interiors may embrace different layouts, fixtures and decorations, the majority of Albertslund’s residents deemed Vandkunsten’s reuse strategies too avant-garde and opted for the external components that matched their neighbors, fortuitously retaining the architectural homogeneity and simplicity that characterizes the original plan. Democracy in action.
‘We failed completely in our attempts to implement reuse strategies in the actual renovation.’
Søren Nielsen, Partner at Vandkunsten
Accepting that compromise is intrinsic to participation, Vandkunsten collaborated with demolition contractors and used-material suppliers to find other ways of putting dismantled components to use. They may not be recirculated within the project itself, but many are now available on the European market through online materials suppliers such as Genbyg A/S, saving them from incineration. The project’s focus has now shifted to the optimization of the building process rather than its components, reducing the time that each renovation will take (from 108 days to 68) and implementing other strategies such as ‘design for disassembly’.
More significantly, Vandkunsten were determined to develop their repurposing concept and initiated a major innovation project, Rebeauty – Nordic Built Component Reuse, to record and promulgate their findings in collaboration with Genbyg, Asplan Viak, and Malmö Tekniska Högskola. The team systematically produce and analyze 1:1 prototypes using all kinds of reclaimed building materials, repurposing them with a commitment to their ‘aesthetic qualities as well as their performance’.
It is some of these prototypes that comprise Vandkunsten’s contribution to the Danish pavilion at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale. Reclaimed timber flooring makes up a partition wall, a metal facade is formed from flattened ventilations ducts, and an exterior cladding is assembled with patinated roof tiles. These installations aim to show how energy, money and resources might be conserved through reuse, but also the aesthetic value in doing so. This is fundamental to Vandkunsten’s approach – only when repurposed components become a feasible and attractive alternative will the material loop begin to close. In this way Nielsen imagines the Venice Biennale exhibit as a ‘possible Albertslund project in perhaps 20 or 30 years when we have become culturally acclimatized to reused materials’.
Vandkunsten’s exhibit may not represent the reality of the Albertslund renovation, but it is a demonstration of their commitment to the material reuse agenda despite the project’s many constraints. Most innovation is additive – such a democratic design process may have led to compromise, but it catalyzed a research project with genuinely innovative and scalable output, with the potential to transform construction practice far beyond Albertslund’s 1001 homes. The homes of the future may already be built, but Vandkunsten’s tenacity has taken another step toward innovation in their renovation.
Client: Boligselskabet BO-VEST, Albertslund Boligselskab SYD
Location: Albertslund, Denmark
Architect: Vandkunsten / Vandkunsten Landscape
Collaborators: Boligforeningen AB Syd, Boligforeningen Vridsløselille Andelsboligforening, afdeling 4 Nord, Boligforeningen Vridsløselille Andelsboligforening, afdeling 4 Syd, Bo-Vest, Landsbyggefonden, Wissenberg AS, Ecosistema Urbano , Transolar, Imagine Envelope, LCA, Lise Gamst, Daniel Vedel, Albertslund Kommune, NCC AS, Energistyrelsen, EUDP, Formas, Nordic Built, Genbyg AS, Asplan Viak AS, Hjellnes Consult AS , Malmö Tekniska, KADK, CINARK
Architect’s team: Søren Nielsen, Tanja Nors Tardrup, Rasmus Olsen, Klaus Richter Gydesen, Anders Paw Jensen, Van Anh Nguyen, Rasmus Voss Nyborg, Julie Gjettermann Bergelin, Mirjam Hallin, Katrine West Kristensen, Sofie Peschardt, Henriette Nielsen, Thomas Hansen, Casper Phillip Ebbesen, Thomas Nybo Rasmussen, Martin Erik Andersen
Venice Biennale installation: Arkitekt Julie Hunæus Reuther, Arkitekt Asbjørn Lund, Arkitekt Hans Becker, Arkitekt Rasmus Gulløv, Arkitekt Søren Nielsen, Carl Hansen og Søn AS (udlån af stole), Lokalhistorisk Samling Albertslund (film), Fabrikken for Kunst og Design (værksted).