• Securing High-Quality Housing Through Cross-Disciplinary Design

    Part sustainability product and part urban design proposal, REBUS - which stands for REnovating BUildings Sustainably - is our answer to the growing need for renovations of the aging social housing stock across Europe. Mark Hocking, lead design architect, and Martin Vraa Nielsen, project manager, discuss the wide ranging social and environmental implications of this design solution.

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  • Creating large-scale modular housing solutions is a new territory for Henning Larsen. What is the urgency for getting involved in this type of project and producing a new sustainable standard for renovations?

    Mark: REBUS is unique in that it can renovate a social housing block façade without necessarily taking off the existent façade— it just gets mounted on top. By doing that we reduce the carbon price of the entire renovation while improving not only the thermal performance, but also the quality of life and aesthetic value of the building as well. The building owner gets involved in a much faster timeline, between choosing and selecting preferences in terms of aesthetics and functionality while knowing how much it will cost upfront, which is a process that doesn’t currently exist and often gives people cold feet about renovating these social housing blocks.

    Martin: I think it’s important to understand that renovation is a key element in the sustainable transition of the building sector. In fact, we must renovate at about double speed if we’re going to meet climate goals such as the Paris Agreement. But renovating exists as a very fragmented value chain today and this product was born out of a wish and need for a different approach from a process perspective —a different design and tendering process, which is currently very inefficient and varies from project to project, a different process for residents that enables them to be more involved, and from a technical perspective, a different installation process that allows residents to keep living in their homes during renovation.

    The multistory family housing built during the 60s and 70s is the biggest chunk of square meters we’ve ever built in Denmark. Sweden built one million of these units and many Northern European countries had similar programs. These buildings embody the predominant postwar typology of providing housing for the masses. It’s a typology that people love to hate, which can be attributed in large part to a range of social issues and prejudices. I think it makes it even more interesting to take on, especially because there’s so much of it and the potential for improvements are massive across environmental, social, and economical factors.

    REBUS is equally an urban design proposal interested in improving quality of life for residents of these social housing blocks. How does REBUS approach these issues and propose a solution for them?

    Martin: I think it has an overall sustainability approach which of course has the environmental side, the social side of things you’re referring to, and then the economic perspective. In terms of social and improvement of life, the typology behind the façade is already quite good—the apartments are spacious and are well laid out. So REBUS is very much focused on façade improvements for the residents ranging from better daylight conditions, thermal and acoustic comfort, and air quality. We’ve focused on “opening up” this typology by enabling you to inhabit the façade—giving you a place to sit in your windowsill or a balcony to sit out on, and so on.

    Mark: One could say these buildings represent a very introverted typology. Now we’re trying to open up the outside to in and the inside to out. While these houses are already quite efficient in terms of their floor plan and window placement, the quality of daylight wasn’t addressed in the original design. This opening up improves the internal functionality, but also establishes a welcoming feeling and appearance when seen from the street. These modular housing buildings from the 60s and 70s all have the same spatial increment of 300mm and the REBUS façade follows this logic. So, no matter if the building is 7 floors tall or 200 meters long, the same panels can be used and customized to the individual building.

    What does resident involvement look like for REBUS—both during the design process and future renovations?

    Martin: Both the housing associations and the residents themselves were involved in the REBUS project. It’s a premise for social housing in Denmark that the residents have a residents’ board that must approve all renovations. REBUS is like the “IKEA Kitchen” of facades: the base principle and structure of the façade are already sorted and ready to be constructed, with a wide range of design options and possibilities built into the system. This is great both from a housing association’s economic perspective, but also from the resident’s perspective. They are involved in making the building fit how they use it and how they organize their lives within it.

    How did the cross-disciplinary collaboration in this project lead to a unique end result?

    Mark: We’ve been sitting and working together throughout the project, rather than being an isolated (apart from the lockdown) design team. Every time a design was modelled and tested, there was instant feedback which made the process smoother and ensured no glaring omissions, both aesthetically and technically.

    Martin: The fact that we generated a product, not a project really sums up the uniqueness of REBUS. It’s a product that’s been prodded from every possible angle— construction, fire, moisture, insulation—and it’s ready to roll out. We were able to go through all aspects of the product, from the nitty gritty where the bolts are to overall architectural ambitions and create a product that can work in many buildings. With REBUS, all the knowledge is packed into the product which can then be utilized and refined from project to project and over time.

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