The Urban Village Project From Denmark Makes The Case For More Affordable And Sustainable Living


The Urban Village Project, a concept for how to design, build and share our future homes, neighborhoods and cities by Danish research and design lab Space10, Copenhagen-based Effekt Architects and Ikea, will allow for cheaper homes to enter the market, make it easier to live sustainably and ensure cross-generational living with shared services and facilities like daycare, urban farming, communal dining, fitness and shared transportation to counter the lack of affordable housing and climate change. Homes will be made out of cross-laminated timber (CLT) – easy to manufacture with precision, customize, flat-pack and transport – which outperforms steel and concrete on multiple levels and has benefits in terms of sustainability, seismic performance, fire security and well-being. Guillaume Charny-Brunet, Development Director, and Jack Crocker, Building Systems Specialist, both from Space10, answer my questions.

Space10 has developed The Urban Village Project with Effekt Architects and Ikea. Why has it not yet taken flight? What are the main challenges to making it happen? What can be done to promote industry adoption of new systems/technologies to achieve economies of scale?

Urban Villages are absolutely achievable today, but they’d be savagely expensive which, to some extent, defeats the purpose of the original mission: sustainable, affordable housing. Delivering Urban Villages at a scale that actually allows costs to come down presents different challenges. The biggest of these challenges are the industry adoption of new technologies. In the eyes of contractors, new technology is risky and expensive. The process of building is really slow. In order to create economies of scale in production, these new building systems need to be used in dozens, if not hundreds, of projects per year (~1,000-5,000 units/year). Developing a system that you can confidently roll out over that many projects requires a few iterations, each of which may take two to three years. Culturally, developers value novelty. Technologies that allow repeatability in the construction process which reduce cost and “uniqueness” in design which attract customers are at odds with one another. Developing systems that solve both isn’t impossible, but it’s hard.

What is the timeline for The Urban Village Project? When do you foresee the first building being built? Have you had much demand from cities worldwide since you launched the concept?

If Urban Village was thought of as a one-shot construction project, it could be done in a matter of months and it would be expensive. But Urban Village is a building system that needs to be developed and tested extensively in order to start scaling. The project received enormous traction from the industry when published, from real estate developers and cities to architects, general contractors and investors. It shows the industry is really longing for innovation. Engaging with existing players gave us a unique opportunity to refine the project, break it down into pieces and find a core focus and development strategy. Today, our focus is on creating a product platform, on leveraging new partnerships and technologies to realize economies of scale and optimize processes in order to actually reduce costs and time of construction, while in the meantime considerably reducing the environmental footprint. It’s a journey. It’s not easy. But it is so worth it. We’re therefore busy turning the concept into a strategy and raising funds to bring the vision to market.

What is unique about The Urban Village Project? What new design ideas or technologies does it incorporate that have not been done before in the built environment?

The obvious thing to point out is the primary focus on using architectural CLT (cross-laminated timber), which is becoming an increasingly compelling building material for a number of reasons, particularly in regard to sustainability and reducing construction time. But Urban Village is really a synthesis of ideas that have been bubbling away for decades in more fringe areas of the real estate sector. In the last several years, we’ve seen much more interest in things like prefabrication, sustainability and affordability/access, both from the industry and from the market, so much so that they are now the global zeitgeist. It would be naive for us to say that Urban Village was the first to explore these ideas and technologies, but where Urban Village is unique is in pulling all of these ideas into a cohesive vision, and then building underneath it the capacity to deliver the model on a bigger scale.

What resources and raw materials will be used? Where would they be sourced or procured from?

Scandinavia, where we are, is well known for some of the most sustainable forest management practices in the world and for producing wood products of the highest quality. So we’re betting big on wood, and we think that it’s an inevitable shift if we want a sustainable future for the residential sector. We learned that every four hours, an eight-story house grows in the forests where we will be sourcing our materials. That’s a mind-blowing statistic. Between the sustainable supply, numerous technical advantages and inherent esthetic quality, anchoring on timber-based construction makes a lot of sense.

What are the expected numerical outcomes, performance data/numbers that the sustainability features/programs of the project provide? How much energy, water and carbon can be saved? What are the ways that this project has been incorporated to achieve this?

It’s worth reiterating that Urban Village isn’t one particular project, so numerical data will differ from project to project. What we know, for example, is that it takes about a third of the CO2 emissions to produce a material like CLT than it does to produce the volumetric equivalent in concrete. We also know that using low-voltage electrical wiring to run lights and appliances reduces energy consumption of those devices by up to 90 %. While we’re definitely interested in assessing the potential ROI of different technologies, we acknowledge that economic viability isn’t always there and are mindful of excessive costs being passed on to the residents. What we’re focused on for now is materials and systems that can have a significant impact for all Urban Village projects and ones that give residents the highest environmental return on investment.

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