Construction is one of the most environmentally damaging industries and, it insists, there will be no greenwashing. In the Danish capital, one developer is trying to lead from the front – and swell its coffers in the process.
On the windswept edge of Copenhagen, beneath the tower cranes and a lowering autumnal sky, men in hard hats hammer, shout and wield power tools. It looks and sounds like a conventional building site, one of several here in Ørestad, the rapidly growing district beside the Amager Faelled nature reserve south of the city centre. But this is a rather radical project. Nordic Real Estate Partners’ (nrep) un17 Village – a €150m, five-building residential complex intended to integrate all 17 of the UN’s sustainable development goals (sdgs) – might be a sign of things to come for the world of construction.
As the billboards outside proclaim, this will be “Denmark’s Healthiest Housing” when completed in 2024. un17 Village is also the flagship project in nrep’s progress towards achieving carbon neutrality by 2028, even as the property and construction company rapidly expands from its Nordic base into northern Europe. The construction and operation of buildings is responsible for more than 40 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions; cement alone accounts for about 8 per cent. Reducing those figures is clearly an urgent priority in the global construction sector, as well as an opportunity worth untold amounts of money for those companies that can erect truly sustainable buildings. nrep claims that un17 Village will produce 30 per cent less emissions than the average newbuild.
“It’s our watershed building,” says nrep’s ceo, Claus Mathisen. “When we started it five years ago, many of the solutions that we now have weren’t around.” un17 Village, designed by architects Sweco and the Lendager Group, will offer 35,000 sq m of affordable rental accommodation to young professionals, families, and elderly and disabled people. “It’s an attempt to generate insight and learning for what we could migrate to our wider portfolio.”
During the planning of un17, nrep came up with 300 solutions based on the sdgs, reducing the list to the eight or so that were most viable. The project innovates in everything from creating communal areas to helping residents to mingle (it will be the city’s largest co-living community), as well other aspects such as acoustics, biodiversity and indoor air quality – all intended to improve the mental and physical well-being of residents and foster a sense of community.
Artificial intelligence has been used to optimise the light in the apartments and, throughout the complex, attempts will be made to nudge residents to make healthier choices – taking the stairs instead of using lifts, for instance, and using the outdoor sports and play areas.
“Our previous research into co-living concepts showed that young families love to have elderly neighbours and the elderly love to have children around the place,” says nrep’s head of communications, Jon Black Andersen, as he shows monocle around the un17 site. “People want diversity.” The housing here will be for middle-income groups, he adds: monthly rents will be about dkk14,000 to dkk15,000 (€1,900 to €2,000) for an average family apartment. “No luxury penthouses; that’s not what nrep does. And, actually, more units at an average rent is better for us in terms of our timescale.” nrep has no immediate plans to sell un17 Village; it will hold on to the site for at least another five years. It turns out that, from a design perspective, some of the sdgs were mutually exclusive. “In Denmark we like open kitchens, which is great for the social side and reduces the amount of materials for walls but it creates particle pollution for the rest of the apartment,” says Mathisen.
nrep’s 2028 carbon-neutral goal is well ahead of the Paris Agreement’s 2050 target, not to mention most of its rivals. Does it make economic sense to move so quickly? “As an investment company, we find problems to solve in order to create value,” says Mathisen. “And right now the emission of carbon is one of the biggest issues of our generation. The solutions are already there. You can actually build co2-neutral today: it’s just that the supply chain is still fragmented. What we want to do is demand more from our suppliers. And, honestly, we want to poke our peers. Our industry is a laggard on some of these topics.”
nrep already has extensive experience with upcycling building materials, such as using recycled aluminium beer cans for façades. There will be more of that on display at un17 Village. The complex will also run on sustainable energy, in part supplied from rooftop solar panels. It is being built with low-emissions materials – lots of wood, bio-cement and potentially Hempcrete (insulation made from hemp). Overall, in un17 the embedded co2 will be reduced by 28 to 34 per cent, depending on the building.
“Cement is the big evil,” says Mathisen, whose father built cement factories. “I have a generational debt. But it’s possible to create very low-emission cement using microorganisms to bind the components.”
Living in Denmark, one can become cynical about greenwashing, particularly when it comes to the construction industry. In August, for instance, the city of Copenhagen dropped its much-vaunted 2025 co2 neutrality goal when it realised that its far-fetched plan to capture carbon from the chimney of its landmark waste-processing plant Amager Bakke (the one with the ski slope on the roof), was simply not possible; a literal pipe dream. What about nrep’s co2-neutral claims? How about its Scope Three emissions, for instance – the “embedded” emissions associated with the extraction, transport, manufacture and end of life of the materials used in buildings? And how much of their reductions will come from offsetting, an often-dismissed carbon fudge? “We are very much a Scope Three-focused operator,” says Mathisen. By next year he says that the company aims to reduce embodied carbon on new developments by a third from 2020 levels and will do so “surprisingly easily”. “Our 2028 ambition is to do it without offsetting,” he says. “If not, we will have failed but it won’t be for lack of trying. I’m not saying that our 2028 plan is not ambitious. The solutions need to scale up. nrep is large in a Danish context – and we want to demonstrate that this is economically viable here – but we are still a tiny part of the built environment. We want others to pick up our ideas, which we share, so that there will be leadership in the industry.”
And, of course, there is also a need for political leadership. “I wish that politicians would create a more ambitious framework and vision for us,” says Mathisen. “We want much more aggressive co2 taxes. It’s not just a question of doing the right thing; there is a risk to humanity if we don’t but also a massive business opportunity to reduce consumption of materials and use the world’s resources better.”
NREP in numbers:
nrep’s construction, development and operational portfolio encompasses everything from gigantic logistics hubs to co-living residential projects and retail, in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, as well as in Poland and Germany. The company is majority-owned by its partners, and backed by Novo Holdings, which is owned by the Novo Nordisk Foundation – one of the world’s largest charitable foundations.
It oversees 7 million sq m of property in total.
It was founded in 2005 and currently has more than 600 employees and €18bn of assets under management.
un17 Village will consist of five buildings, 535 housing units and be home to 1,100 tenants.
The roof will accommodate 1,700 sq m of solar panels.
The building will collect more than 1 million litres of rainwater a year for recycling.