Sustainable BuildingsConstructionMalmö: City of Construction Circularity

Malmö: City of Construction Circularity

Karl Dickinson
Karl Dickinson
Change matters. It takes courage. As a writer - and citizen - I am inspired by stories of those who challenge the 'we've always done it this way' attitude. We can do better - it's time to listen to those who go against the grain.

Sweden’s premier southwestern city Malmö is not only a crowning glory in Scandinavian architecture, nature, and quality of life, but also in sustainability. The city is gaining notoriety as a bastion in new construction practices. The municipality’s Sustainability Strategist Anna Bernstad tells us what makes Malmö a trailblazer in reusing building materials and highlights its other innovative initiatives, all contributing to making it a leader in cutting carbon, from construction to cars.

As Malmö Stad Stadsfastigheter’s Sustainability Strategist, Dr Anna Bernstad is part of a city ecosystem that erects the municipality’s public buildings: libraries, schools, kindergartens, etc. Her role is to reduce the climate impact of their construction. Circularity is becoming big business in Malmö!

A New Vision for Old Buildings

Globally, the building sector produces up to 60% of all waste and 40% of greenhouse gas emissions. Crushing, processing, and remanufacturing demolition material reduces waste but does little to combat carbon. So, while recycling is effective for repurposing household waste, construction requires a bolder approach.

Anna used to work for state-owned public company Akademiska Hus, refurbishing the country’s university buildings. She paints a picture: “We had a few examples of going from one use of a building to another and trying to maintain as much of the material as possible and also deconstructing a building and using as much material as possible in a new construction on the same site.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we work and study. Many offices and university classrooms and auditoriums, our expert says, have become obsolete. Working and studying from home has become more common. In a dash for economic recovery, Malmö looks towards new ideas of circularity. ‘Small’ cosmetic alterations, such as adding movable walls and doors, add flexibility to workplaces. This means “the space will be used in a more efficient manner” and can adapt to meet more diverse business needs again and again.

“We have a strong need for students housing in many Swedish cities,” Anna notes. Underused offices can be refurnished, refurbished, or reconstructed to be used as co-living accommodation. It doesn’t only release some of the social pressure:

“This is maybe one of the most efficient and cheapest and fastest ways to achieve lower climate impact from construction, to just focus on what we have and change how we use it to fit new needs instead of demolishing and construct new buildings.”

A Haven for Deconstruction

Learning from its collaboration with Gothenburg, a city with more experience in the practice, Malmö plans to reuse components from decommissioned buildings, such as bricks and roof tiles.

The Svävarterminalen (hovercraft terminal) in the Smörkajen district used to be a busy port, ferrying people to Copenhagen. It’s now closed and scheduled for dismantling.

Svävarterminalen -
Malmö’s Svävarterminalen. Image credit: Anna Bernstad

The heavy load-bearing beams and pillars account for “as much as 60-70% of the total climate impact from construction” of the building, Anna points out.

It’s the largest project of its kind in Malmö but there’s an abundance of smaller reuse projects. The City has teamed up with a company that buys the steel from the hovercraft terminal. They’ll use this to create circular signs for the city. When they’re defunct, the company will take them back, replace the cover, and redistribute them as a new sign. Minimal processing and waste.

Is It Economical?

Anna is certain that reusing building components will become “in the near future one of the cheapest ways to achieve lower climate impacts from construction”.

The upfront investments needed to stop raw concrete as the default and convert the Swedish steel industry from coal to electricity, Anna admits, “are enormous”. This is largely due to establishing new supply chains:

“We have a couple of years in front of us, where we still have to find new systems, where we have to put a lot more hours into finding the material because it’s not on the market where we are used to finding it.”

There is currently a gap between the entrepreneurs, who are the typical pioneers and drivers of transformative business structures, and those who offer reclaimed building materials. The City is working with traders of virgin building materials – sand, concrete, gravel, etc. – to expand their supply to include reused resources.

This avoids creating a parallel market, simplifying access to goods. Logistical processes and equipment are already in place. It’s more cost-efficient to innovate than start from scratch. The expertise needed already exists. They just need to adapt.

Malmö -
Image credit: Pixabay / cybertotte

Meetings & Markets

“One of the challenges at the moment is that we are all very new to these issues. And we really need to collaborate to move forward.”

The City of Malmö, being an example to other municipalities, has taken the reigns to implement fresh concepts. It accepts its responsibility to tell the market what it wants change to look like.

“If we don’t understand the arena, then we can’t really demand that they should deliver anything else than business as usual,” Anna confesses. That’s why she facilitates open dialogue with consultants, architects, constructors, suppliers, and local entrepreneurs. “The input that we get from these kinds of meetings is super important,” she continues, “because they can actually show us that this is the demand that you have and that makes it possible for us to change”. It also prepares the construction chain for the changes ahead.

The Procurement Process

Anna pumps new life into public procurement.

Reduced to simplest terms, this follows two steps:

  • Find and reduce the demand for linear production lines that stump the move towards circularity.
  • Create incentives for private businesses to trade in and purchase reused material.

Being a public body, accountable to the people and led by regulations, the procurement process is “very controlled,” our expert tells us. What the City can sell is restricted. Circular supply is a longer process with cost implications for the extra time and labour.

Anna acknowledges that, at first, the municipality has to foot the bill. “At the moment, it’s kind of cumbersome, and you have to really make sure that you cover all the extra costs.” That outgoing reduces what the administration can do elsewhere, which impacts citizens, so needs much consideration.

However, this is an investment. Establishing a market for reused goods creates a financially competitive, environmentally considerate landscape from which it can establish lasting relationships with the companies that have the circular construction competencies. In turn, they are assured building work for, usually, 4-5 years.

National laws are moving in favour of reuse, too. Since January 2022, all new constructions must include a climate calculation. Suppliers and contractors know they can no longer bury their heads in the sand. The City simply won’t consider a procurement offer that doesn’t meet its standards for sustainability. “We’re demanding that they should do a calculation of the climate impact on the production, on the construction that they’re building.”

Malmö's liveable streets -
Image credit: Pixabay / Jonny_Joka

Malmö’s Multiple Measures

It’s not only construction where Malmö is setting the bar high in urban transformation.

Eyebrows were raised when it announced an ambitious plan to run entirely on renewables by 2030.

The municipal waste management company is focussing on decreasing the use of fossil fuels and CO2 emissions. They have what Anna calls “a very ambitious plan to invest in things like the separation of plastics, so that you can achieve a higher grade of plastic recycling”. They are investigating how to shift towards biochar, making ‘organic’ fuel from garden and park waste.

Our CityChanger uses the word “tough” to describe the City’s stance on the volume of waste generation. Anna authored a book based on Malmö’s experiences on “how to provide a good system for sustainable waste management from the actual household”. How do we get citizens to accept their personal responsibility? With appropriate infrastructure: “You need to make sure that you can separate your waste very close to where you live.”

Malmö’s plan to become climate neutral has in the past been scuppered by their waste-to-energy treatment plant, which incinerates waste from households, small-scale industries, and construction sites. The city’s carbon capture and storage (CCS) strategy will divert emissions from the waste combustion equipment. And it’s innovating. Together with the local university, Malmö is “piloting new technology that would be much more energy-efficient than the more mature technologies used today for CCS”.

Take It Easy

In 2009, the City of Malmö’s 10-year Environmental Programme included a simple 4-point plan. One objective being: “It’s easy to do the right thing in Malmö”.

Reciting the line in Swedish – which satisfyingly rhymes – Anna explains that “what it comes down to is basically nudging”.

We can’t rely on goodwill. “Information alone doesn’t really work,” Anna explains, “if it is still too cumbersome, expensive, and time-inefficient to do the right thing”. Our expert illustrates: “We know that we shouldn’t take the car shorter distances, but we do it if it’s the easiest thing to do”. Make the right behaviour the convenient behaviour, and suddenly everyone’s an environmentalist.

It’s a reoccurring theme. The City’s own website, summarising the Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan, claims “it’s easy to go by bike in Malmö”. This includes minimum quotas of parking spots for bicycles, sensors that quickly change traffic lights to prioritise cyclists to frustrate motorised traffic flow, and bike rental schemes hosted by employers, themselves incentivised by tax benefits.

“It’s extremely expensive to park your car in Malmö,” Anna adds. Conversely, priority is given priority to Malmö’s hybrid biogas-electric Bus Rapid Transit system, which cuts waiting and travel times, increasing customer capacity as well as improving reliability.

Bike park in Malmö -
Image credit: Unsplash / Susan Q Yin

Reach for the (Clean) Skies

Anna doesn’t believe in half measures.

“You shouldn’t be scared of setting ambitious goals. We don’t know if we can reach them. We don’t know what’s the cost of reaching them. And there is no way that we can wait to have all the facts on the table to present all the possibilities and the consequences.”

Sometimes the situation calls for action before calculation.

“It doesn’t matter if they are perfect. That’s not the main thing. Just having goals, and also implementing support to reach those goals, will make things happen.”

Malmö in a Nutshell

Leading by example, Malmö is a shining light for city administration-led initiatives for handling carbon reduction. The city shows how open dialogue is important in understanding how circularity can be implemented into construction. The combination of a strict stance for non-compliance with easy-to-use processes is resulting in alterations in citizen and business behaviour. It’s clear a lot of work has gone into making this work but now Malmö is ahead of the game and their journey can now become easier and more affordable.

See a sustainable city in action for yourself! Malmö is less than an hour via public transport from Helsingborg, host city of the Urban Future 22 conference.

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