El-Björn promotes collaboration on fossil-free construction sites

Oslo is one of the fastest growing cities in Europe. This naturally affects air pollution, and a quarter of the city’s emissions come from construction transport. Added to this are emissions from the construction sites themselves, which creates a number of challenges: Greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by 50 per cent by 2020 and Oslo is committed to becoming totally fossil-free by 2030.

Back in 2015, Oslo city council decided to ban diesel cars from the city during days of high air pollution. In January this year, diesel cars were banned from driving on municipal roads and streets for seven hours each week. Ninety per cent of all construction equipment in Norway runs on oil or gas.

Someone has to take responsibility, and the municipal companies have been instructed to take the lead and formulate effective solutions. It is important to show the way, and public construction companies are also expected to take active steps to improve the environmental performance of new buildings and construction sites. The latter includes using fossil-free construction machinery and transport, and using zero-carbon heating and drying on construction sites.

Omsorgsbygg is a municipal construction company in Oslo that builds, manages and maintains a property portfolio comprising almost 1,200 buildings with a combined area of 900,000 square metres. In autumn 2015 a project manager from the construction company wrote a rather visionary post on LinkedIn about how the company believed that technology such as solar panels could enable construction sites to become fossil-free within a few years. They were looking for revolutionary solutions, but it appeared there was some mismatch between what they expected from their suppliers and what the market could offer.

Odd Ivar Jørgensen works at El-Bjørn AS in Norway, and since El-Björn offers heating and drying systems based on district energy that support these environmental aims, Odd reached out to Omsorgsbygg. He got in touch with the author to get a little more background information, and quickly realised that the company was at the visionary stage, rather than having concrete knowledge about the possibilities. Although solutions such as solar panels for construction sites, biofuels and electric excavators offer exciting potential, they are still at the development stage.

"I asked why they were not using existing solutions instead of pinning their hopes on systems that are still under development," explains Odd. "We already have established and proven solutions that can meet all the specified requirements."

Omsorgsbygg felt that this input was very positive and constructive, and invited several representatives from El-Björn to an information meeting. At the meeting Omsorgsbygg was able to explain its challenges in more detail; they were well aware of the challenge of emissions from construction sites, but had relatively little experience with possible solutions.

"El-Björn got in touch and suggested a meeting at which they could give their views on specific solutions, so we naturally accepted," says Lene Lad Johansen, research and development coordinator at Omsorgsbygg. "During the meeting we learned that there were already a large number of solutions, but that they were not yet widely used."

The challenges mostly revolved around fossil-free and low-energy solutions, but also the construction-specific challenges, specifying requirements and providing documentation. With the expertise of El-Björn on hand, Omsorgsbygg gained a better insight into the opportunities that already exist, and their challenge shifted instead to specifying requirements for their construction contractors.

"The question was how to formulate their requirements to ensure the best solutions are used and how they can assure the quality of those solutions," adds Odd. "The interesting thing is that Omsorgsbygg has continued with the same approach by gathering information from the market."

"Without El-Björn the consultation conference would not have been as successful"

In spring 2016, Omsorgsbygg arranged another meeting, this time in the form of a bigger consultation conference. They invited existing and prospective suppliers, hire companies, contractors and other building companies, including the large, state-owned Statsbygg.

"After the consultation conference we simply made it a minimum requirement that all projects have fossil-free construction sites with water-borne heating," explains Lene. "Since then we have added further requirements, including the use of electric excavators."

Lene believes that without the input of El-Björn the consultation conference would not have been as successful. Omsorgsbygg is currently building a new care home, Tåsenhjemmet, and has specified that emissions should be reduced by as much as 17 per cent, which in turn puts entirely new demands on the contractors enlisted by Omsorgsbygg. During the conference the delegates had time to discuss what was currently available on the market, as well as future solutions and technologies. So what does it take for a hire company or contractor to meet the challenges that exist on a construction site?

"Aside from having relatively little awareness of fossil-free solutions it turned out that it was still easier and more profitable to offer solutions that use gas or diesel," says Odd. "There was simply no incentive for change, which in turn hampers the development of fossil-free solutions."

The importance of specifying requirements clearly was one of the factors that became apparent, along with a number of concrete measures such as only using LED lighting. Construction sites must be planned earlier and more efficiently, partly to enable the use of district energy for heating and drying wherever possible. But it is also important to consider all emissions and not just focus on being fossil-free.

"We have set up a research project with Sintef, Skanska and Bellona that will look at the environmental consequences of planning construction sites more effectively," concludes Lene Lad Johansen. "We will then evaluate their conclusions and convert them into feasible requirements in consultation with the construction industry."

Statsbygg, one of three major construction companies in Oslo and one of the participants in the consultation conference, has shown great interest and this approach is now spreading nationwide.  Norway has made more progress than Sweden, so they will establish the precedent, which will then "infect us" in Sweden. So there is every reason to keep a close eye on developments. In the same way that a ban on diesel is now being discussed in Stockholm, we are likely to see more of the innovative district energy solutions that are currently being explored in Norway in Sweden soon as well, and we will come back to this in future articles.