Recycling cities

Recycling and renovating buildings is key to minimising greenhouse gas emissions. Making the new buildings sustainable and carbon neutral, like Urbanharbor has, is better still.

Recycling isn’t just about tin cans and plastic packaging. In one southern German project, it has entailed the repurposing of a whole complex of early 20th century warehouses into a modern carbon negative working environment.

And because buildings, especially structures made with concrete and brick, are carbon intensive, this type of macro-scale recycling has the potential to make a big difference in the global drive to sustainability.

Urbanharbor is 200,000 square meters of old industrial space in Ludwigsburg, a town near Stuttgart. Centred around a concrete-shelled industrial hall built in 1914, the site has become home to some of the German auto industry’s most high-tech businesses – a far cry from its origins in the manufacture of brewery kettles.

By focusing on efficiencies across a number of key areas, Urbanharbor aims to be among the most highly sustainable business parks possible.

It is already proving to be carbon negative. Some 5000 square metres of solar panels generate power that is sold into the electricity grid, through the local provider SWLB. Meanwhile, cutting-edge technologies continually identify how and where buildings are used and adjust lighting and climate control systems to suit the occupants. 

But the project doesn’t limit itself to the efficient use of power. It also aims to do away with single-use plastics and paper products by creating a central canteen and food service system that only use stainless steel containers and that are able to track each container.

Ground-up sustainability

But sustainability has to be from the ground up – literally in this case. That means minimising the carbon embedded in the manufacture of buildings.   

Studies suggest that some 45 per cent of total emissions of a building – known as embodied carbon – occur during the construction phase of a building. That’s particularly important in Europe, where some 90 per cent of buildings were built before 1990, and 60 per cent before 1960. Studies have shown that refurbishing can result in 70 per cent less emissions than new construction given the issue of the previously mentioned embodied carbon emissions.  

In Urbanharbor’s case, keeping old infrastructure saved 2 million kg equivalent of CO2, according to Max Maier, one of the development’s principals.

Unfortunately, many old buildings are unsuitable for direct conversion into new spaces. Urbanharbor’s solution at the Ludwigsburg site was to, in effect, build a building within a building.

These buildings within buildings demand significantly less construction material than structures that are expected to stand on their own. But the buffer between them and the original fabric offers insulating properties and allows for the spaces themselves to be created around the user needs. The spaces can be made flexible, so for instance one side of the building can be contemporary offices, with windows cut through the fabric of the old structure, while the back can be used for engineering development. At the Ludwigsburg, this meant tailoring the buildings to the needs of tenants, including Porsche and Bosch.

Urbanharbor’s future is to create residential spaces – short and medium term accommodation. Given the highly international nature of human capital in the tech industry, companies need to be able to host workers from abroad who come to work on projects that take anything from a few weeks to a number of months to complete, according to Maier. At the same time, there are opportunities to implement similar projects wherever there are districts of old industrial buildings that have outlived their past functions.

Crucially, this “fusion of energy efficiency with the workplace of tomorrow” concept can be scaled, and the Urbanharbor team are already looking for new sites across Germany, says Max Maier.

Insights for investors

  • In 1960 the world's urban population was 1 billion while the rural population was 2 billion. By 2017 that had flipped to 4.1 billion in cities and 3.4 billion in the countryside.
  • Rising incomes and shifts away from agriculture will accelerate that trend -- by 2050 more than two-thirds of the population will live in urban areas, according to Our World in Data.
  • Only 1 per cent of global land is defined as a built-up area. Urban populations are richer and have higher living standards with better sanitation, access to clean drinking water and cleaner fuel and lower levels of malnutrition, according to Our World in Data https://ourworldindata.org/urbanization#number-of-people-living-in-urban-areas
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