Uppsala building on the past

“You can’t understand what we’re doing today without knowing the history,” insists Lars Gustafsson, Head of Renovations Gottsunda at Uppsalahem – Uppsala’s municipal housing company. To accelerate its climate transition to meet the stipulations of the Paris Accord, his municipality has identified buildings as a major area in which it could steer emissions savings.

Uppsala, with its growth trajectory skyrocketing by 18% between 2013-2022, foresees an additional 37% growth by 2050. This demographic dynamism places enormous pressure on its housing and infrastructure sectors. The math is simple but the task daunting: approximately 2,000 to 3,000 new apartments need to be integrated annually.

Materials for construction and renovation represent a major carbon cost. At the same time as the demand for materials flies up, tonnes of perfectly good older materials are ending up in landfills all over Europe. Is the solution evident to you? It certainly is for Uppsala.

Our ambition is to reuse as many materials as possible in this process
— David Preuss

“Our local housing company will need to refurbish a large part of its building stock over the coming years, and our ambition is to reuse as many materials as possible in this process,” David Preuss from Uppsala’s Sustainability Department explains.

Industrial repetition to sustainable renewal

The history of mass-building that Gustafsson alludes to starts in the 1970s when the Swedish government sought to build a million apartments in a mere decade. The only way to achieve this mammoth task was by taking an industrial approach, like a gigantic assembly line for buildings and parts. “You needed a lot of repetition,” Gustafsson says, “Otherwise, you can’t make a million apartments in ten years.”

Today’s challenge is to renew these apartments with an equally rigorous, but this time sustainable, industrial mindset. The neighbourhood of Gottsunda, for example, is packed with monumental apartment complexes from the 1970s. “We want to renovate these in a circular manner, with the goal to reuse as much as possible,” Preuss says.

Uppsala's buildings

However, the path to reusing materials is laden with barriers. The first obvious course of action would be to prevent the demolition of buildings in the municipality, instead compelling companies to disassemble old buildings and save the material for reuse. Unfortunately, municipalities do not have a legal mandate to issue such edicts on private land – and in the absence of an established market for reusable building materials, economic incentives for dissassembly remain limited.

Toward a circular future

As part of the EU’s Mission for 100 Sustainable and Climate Neutral Cities by 2030, Uppsala is working through the European-funded, Eurocities supported Net Zero Cities project to reach net zero emissions in just seven years.

As part of achieving this, Uppsala aims to circumvent these issues with a two-pronged approach. On one hand, the municipality will develop a binding climate budget which, like the financial budget, will determine the maximum carbon spend on projects. This constraint, to cover all municipal departments and companies, will incentivise an innovative and sustainable approach. The second facet is to launch pilot initiatives that test the potential for circular renovations of Uppsalahem’s building stock in Gottsunda, and promote the reuse of construction materials in the expansion of Uppsala’s quickly growing Ulleråker district.

A sticker with a carbon price
A sticker in Uppsala shows the cost savings and carbon savings of reuse

In the context of these pilot activities, Uppsala recently opened a new pop-up warehouse in Gottsunda. This warehouse will make use of furnishings in good condition taken from old apartments that would have otherwise been discarded. The project is spearheaded by Uppsalahem and the building contractors’ group ‘Byggmästargruppen,’ who have collaborated to give new life to items like wardrobes, lampshades and even sinks.

It’s learning by doing, trial by fire
— Lars Gustafsson

The municipality’s approach with this warehouse is a radical one, Gustafsson says, “It’s learning by doing, trial by fire. We just wanted to start it and see what happens instead of spending time planning.” During this pilot phase, the items in the centre will only be available to contractors working on the municipal housing stock.

As the new warehouse is as much a communication tool as a resource, presentation is key. The Uppsala team didn’t want it to look like a salvage yard for old junk. “Sometimes when we work with reused materials, that sink ends up in the basement in a dark corner, in the storage room, where the carpenter or technician never goes,” Gustafsson says.

They needed a different approach if they were going to get across the message that using these refurbished materials was just as good, even better, than buying new ones: “Our aim was to recreate the appearance of professional stores, where everything looks as good as new,” Gustafsson recalls.

Another innovation that the warehouse uses to hammer home the importance of re-using materials is presenting a carbon price alongside the monetary one, and not just with an abstract metric of carbon weight. As Gustafsson points out, there’s a challenge in understanding what these carbon figures mean in a practical sense.

“What is a kilo of carbon? We can relate to euros or the Swedish crowns, but we can’t really relate to a carbon footprint – taking a flight with a family of four or five people from Stockholm down to Brussels is about half a tonne of carbon dioxide. People can relate to that, so that’s what we’ll put on our price tags.”

3,000 bricks

The municipality is also communicating the importance of reuse by telling the story of 3,000 bricks.

Historically, Uppsala was always synonymous with brick production. The plains of Uppsala, rich in clay suitable for brick manufacturing, laid the foundation for the municipality’s contribution to Sweden’s industrialisation in the mid-1800s. Numerous brickworks sprang up, and by the turn of the century, Uppsala solidified its reputation as a pivotal supplier of bricks.

From clay to bricks in 1970s Uppsala

When Gottsunda was undergoing development in the early 1970s, the naturally abundant yellow bricks from Uppsala were the obvious choice due to their cost-effective local production and alignment with the million-houses-programme’s production methods.

However, like all materials, bricks are susceptible to wear and tear over time. Gradually, facades in Gottsunda had weathered to the point that some needed to be replaced. The challenge lay in finding the perfect match to the iconic yellow bricks – and doing so in a climate-friendly manner. The solution appeared serendipitously when a sports field in Kristineberg, Stockholm, was undergoing renovation. The sports field had been built with, you guessed it, Uppsala’s famous bricks.

This was a true collaboration
— Lars Gustafsson

The return of these bricks to their place of origin is not merely a logistical decision; it is emblematic of the deep historical and cultural roots of Uppsala. It is a testament to the municipality’s commitment to sustainable practices, as emphasized by Gustafsson, who celebrates the fact that “the 150-year-old history of these particular bricks will now be extended and continued.”

“This was a true collaboration,” Gustafsson recalls, “It required creative thinking, harnessing experiences, finding common solutions across boundaries, and helping when needed. The bricks united us in what makes a great workplace.”

The economic and environmental benefits of this initiative cannot be overstated. As Gustafsson aptly puts it, “This is proper material reuse! The bricks at the sports field have served for over 90 years and were on the verge of possibly becoming landfill material somewhere. Now, they have a chance to adorn facades in their hometown.”

Old bricks on their way to reuse
Old bricks on their way to reuse

In an age dominated by rapid urbanisation and environmental concerns, Uppsala’s brick story is a message about the importance of preserving the past, even as we forge ahead.

A bumpy ride

Despite these successes, those working in Uppsala are in no doubt about the difficulties that lie ahead in establishing an effective circular construction sector. Taking an old building apart and preserving the materials is a much more complex process than simply demolishing it, and the necessary skills are not widespread.

Popup warehouse in Uppsala
Popup warehouse in Uppsala

When you do take the building apart, you need to be able to identify the materials and establish their useability. The current system, says Preuss, sometimes penalises the reuse of materials, creating disincentives in a process that should ideally promote circularity, “There is a risk that you basically have stricter requirements for existing building materials than the new ones. You don’t want to make it more difficult to reuse materials.”

Left-over materials often end up as waste
— David Preuss

“Challenges like these are often multi-layered”, Preuss notes. “Following the construction of a new building, for example, many developers will have left-over materials from the construction in their inventories. Oftentimes, such materials will still be in brand-new condition. But due to short time limits for return policies, production companies will usually not be required to take them back. For them to do so voluntarily, there would need to be an established market for reusable materials. This is not yet the case, due in part to EU and national building regulations that still tend to incentivise the use of newly produced, uniform materials. As a result, such left-over materials often end up as waste.”

Another significant challenge revolves around waste sorting and definitions. “As soon as something is put in the waste container, we can’t reuse it, even if it’s in perfectly good shape,” says Preuss. Current European and national legislation and waste management practices don’t offer the flexibility needed to enable a truly circular process.

A poster in Uppsala gives some perspective on Co2 use
A poster in Uppsala gives some perspective on Co2 use

Even if an item finds its way to a recycling plant, if it’s classified as waste, its potential for reuse is diminished. One potential solution is to dedicate certain spaces in recycling centres for reusable materials so that people don’t have to leave it with the waste. However, broader changes are needed, especially around legislative definitions of waste.

There are so many challenges
— David Preuss

Preuss concludes, “Some of the challenges we are facing we won’t be able to solve on our own. To do so will require policy changes at EU and national level.” Gustafsson explains that these regulatory issues are part of the motivation behind his ‘trial by fire’ approach. “There are so many challenges. The idea with the pop-up warehouse and the bricks was just to try it and see what happens.” And the result in both cases was an astounding success. For every endeavour, there are hitches and hiccups, but he believes that persistence is the key.

While Uppsala has made strides towards establishing a circular economy, collaboration on a larger scale is essential. The municipality’s challenges, though particular to its context, offer valuable lessons for others aspiring to close the loop in their economies.

Green jobs for a sustainable economy

The heart of the circular economy lies not just in creating products but in the hands of those who would use them. “We have some challenges about the green jobs,” Gustafsson notes, “but we won’t get there until picking up reused materials becomes the obvious choice for carpenters and technicians.”

A new future, brick by brick
A new future, brick by brick
There is a desire from all parts of the industry to actually get this done
— David Preuss

Acting as an advocate for change, the municipality is actively engaging with the industry to explore innovative approaches. “We are in touch basically with all the different parts of the building sector,” Preuss says, and he senses a collaborative spirit in the air, “There is a desire from all parts of the industry to actually get this done.”

Brick by brick, Uppsala will build a new approach to old materials, and an edifice of inspiration for the cities of Europe.

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer