Europe’s building materials are going low carbon: Katrin Hauser, Climate-KIC

Reading time: 6 minutes
23 March 2016

Katrin Hauser, Flagship Manager of the Building Technologies Accelerator at Climate-KIC, explains how the program is driving a shift toward low carbon building solutions across Europe. This is part of The Climate Group's project Home2025.

In 2014, the Building Technologies Accelerator (BTA) program – part of the European Union’s Climate-KIC initiative – embarked on a challenging task: addressing and dismantling the barriers that hinder a timely and effective response to climate change in the building sector.

If the BTA program is successful it could alter the way Europeans live and build, as innovative and environmentally sustainable solutions are adopted for both new buildings and refurbishments.

Many of Europe’s leading science and engineering universities are partners in the BTA program, including ETH Zurich in Switzerland, the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, and Instituto Valenciano de la Edificación in Spain. Researchers at these institutions are hard at work developing unique, low carbon solutions for the building sector.

BTA’s biggest challenge today is convincing the building sector to jettison the materials and solutions they have used for the past 50 years, in order to embrace a new generation of sustainable building products.


While many of these companies are interested in low carbon solutions, there is no pull mechanism driving them to invest, according to York Ostermeyer, Co-Chair of the built environment platform at Climate-KIC.

That’s because the beneficiaries of these sustainable solutions, which improve quality of life and cut energy bills, are more often than not the tenants – rather than the builders and large-property owners that invest the money. The established value chains and business models are a barrier to innovation.

Through its public-private partnership model, BTA aims to bridge that gap. The program’s six Living Labs buildings are invaluable in this endeavor.

Product developers, for example, often feel they are developing products “in the dark” without knowing exactly what the various players in the building market require. Compare that to the Living Labs, where university researchers have unique access to companies in the building industry, working hand-in-hand with them to test, develop and ultimately improve their low carbon products.

Another important selling point is that people actually live and work in the Living Labs, providing a wealth of relevant information to researchers and industry partners alike.

Small companies are earning financial investors’ trust, which leads to investment and the development of more cost-effective production methods. And the big players are interested in the impartiality of our Living Labs.

But BTA is not interested in products that will need to be subsidized throughout their lifetime, rather solutions that will be commercially viable from the very beginning.  By speeding up and improving the product development process, products reach the market faster and are more affordable.

New business models will help more companies adopt sustainable solutions. Our ultimate goal is the widespread adoption of low carbon building products throughout the European continent.

Below are three projects from the BTA program that are driving new, low carbon business models in Europe’s business sector.

Hybrid Composite Slabs. Copyright by ETH Zurich


Researchers at ETH Zurich are examining ways to use beech and other hardwood to store the C0? for longer periods of time through a new generation of floor slabs.

Inspiration for this product can be found in the forests of Europe. Due to changing forest management trends, the proportion of hardwood, and beech in particular, is on the rise. And rather than just cutting it down and burning it right away, in 2012, the researchers began work on a hybrid composite slab made up of concrete and laminated veneer lumber (LVL) using beech wood.

The building industry typically uses slabs made of reinforced concrete. Michael Klippel, an ETH researcher who is working on the project, estimates that C0? emissions could be cut by at least 10% through a reduction in the amount of concrete and steel components used in these hybrid composite slabs. 

High-quality beech wood also has other characteristics that make it attractive for construction, including increased strength and stiffness.  The combined use of beech LVL and concrete leads to improved seismic performance, sound insulation and fire resistance, according to Benjamin Kreis, who is doing his PhD at ETH on the hybrid composite slab.

The new hybrid slabs could also prove to be very cost competitive with current slabs on the market. While hybrid slabs do cost more to produce, their prefabrication speeds up the installation process.

So far, the hybrid composite slabs have already been used in two separate projects in Switzerland: the ETH House of Natural Resources (a Living Lab in Zurich); and a new residential building in Küsnacht. Building permits are also pending for a third building in Germany.

Klippel credits ETH’s close cooperation with industry players including the civil engineering office WaltGalmarini AG in helping quicken the development process and make the best possible product. “The knowledge and experience of our partners is very valuable,” says Klippel. “We need to address their needs in our research so that our product is already developed for the market, and can be widely used in the future.”

Encouragingly, WaltGalmarini has noticed that that “builders’ awareness of environmentally sustainable materials is increasing,” according to Wolfram Kübler, a Partner at WaltGalmarini.

Hybrid Composite Slabs. Copyright by ETH Zurich


<p>In the Netherlands, many apartments built after the end of World War II are in urgent need of renovation to make them more energy efficient. The challenge is that traditional methods of renovation cause considerable disruption to the tenants, forcing them to move out for weeks at a time. Such renovations are also expensive.</p>

<p>Researchers at the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) are working together with a consortium of partners including the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences and Dutch construction company Royal BAM Group on a low carbon system called 2nd&nbsp;Skin, that aims to make the refurbishment of aging buildings easier for tenants and owners alike.</p>

<p>The so- called 2nd&nbsp;Skin is a prefabricated “envelope” system that is attached to the outside of a building. Elements embedded within the 2nd Skin include insulation, solar panels to generate electricity and a heat pump. The skin is designed with the goal that the building will be energy neutral, with the various components providing for all energy, heating and ventilation needs.</p>

<p>The panels are prefabricated and then transported to the building site for installation. “It’s minimally invasive,” explains Sybren Steensma, Business Developer for the 2nd&nbsp;Skin project. “Families can stay where they are and drink coffee on their couch while workers apply the façade.”</p>

<p>The technology is ready – the researchers have built a mock-up in Rotterdam – and the focus now is on finding ways to reduce costs so that it becomes an attractive option for many property owners, according to Tillmann Klein, an Associate Professor at TU Delft involved in the 2nd&nbsp;Skin project. A price tag of between EUR45,000 (US$50,000) and EUR60,000 (US$67,00) per apartment would be very interesting for housing corporations, according to the researchers.</p>

<p>With some 400,000 such apartments in need of energy-efficient renovations in the Netherlands and far more in other European countries, “the time has come to do this,” says Steensma.</p>

<p>For BAM, 2nd&nbsp;Skin is an attractive solution. “Our clients understand they have to do something about the energy performance of their building stock, but they also face financial challenges and they want to keep their renters comfortable. With 2nd&nbsp;Skin, we hope to bring a solution that’s not only environment-friendly but really ticks all of those boxes.”</p>

<p><img alt="BTA Infographic" src="/_assets/images/cache/autoxauto/4380.jpg" /></p>


<p>In the spring of 2016, between 30 and 40 students and researchers at the Chalmers University of Technology will move into new apartments in the HSB Living Lab in Gothenburg Sweden, a partnership between Chalmers, Johanneberg Science Park, and the HSB Housing Corporation – Sweden’s largest housing cooperative.</p>

<p>The Living Lab is built with flexible modules so the layout can change depending on the solutions that are in development each year. And some of the new, sustainable products that will be tested in the HSB Living Lab have the potential to disrupt the building market.</p>

<p>In the common kitchens and laundry room, solutions to reduce energy usage and improve quality of life will be examined. Chalmers will install more than 2,000 different measurement devices in the building.</p>

<p>Zeno Winkels, Business Developer at Climate-KIC and the Johannberg Science Park, says interest from would-be renters is “huge”: the Chalmers University students are excited about the opportunity to live in such an innovative, cutting-edge environment.</p>

<p>The project has also had significant success in attracting nine partners from industry, including well-known Swedish appliance maker Electrolux AG and Scandinavian IT provider Tieto.</p>

<p>For these companies, the HSB Living Lab represents a unique opportunity for their experts to come together with researchers in academia to develop and test low carbon solutions in a real environment. “A researcher with a brilliant idea often needs a business to help develop it, and a company with a great idea needs a university to validate it,” says Winkels.</p>

<p>Through this intense collaboration, the companies can make necessary improvements and ensure the product is commercially viable, reducing the risks they face in deploying new technologies on a widespread basis.</p>

<p>While HSB admits that low carbon products may not yet be the top priority among its members, it believes that research gleaned from the Living Lab could prove to be a catalyst for change.</p>

<p>“HSB Living will be a perfect symbol and tool for us to use when we want our members to understand sustainability and to help them introduce the necessary changes for a sustainable way of living,” says Cecilia Lööf, a spokeswoman for HSB in Gothenburg.</p>

<p><img alt="HSB Living Lab" src="/_assets/images/cache/autoxauto/4381.jpg" /></p>

<p><em>Image: HSB Living Lab. Copyright by Tengbom Arkitekter.</em></p>

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HSB Living Lab. Copyright by Tengbom Arkitekter.
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