This prefab ‘second skin’ makes obsolete apartment buildings net zero

At a German factory, robots assemble panels molded to fit snugly over the walls of an old apartment building like a second skin, with built-in insulation designed to help the building dramatically reduce energy consumption. It is part of a system aimed at solving one of the challenges of the transition to a zero-zero world: with so many outdated, inefficient buildings, which are a major source of global climate emissions, the traditional renovation process is painfully slow.

According to one estimate, at the current rate of renovation in Europe, it would take 500 years to completely decarbonise any existing building. (The US is probably going even slower.) To avoid the worst impacts of climate change, the world must reach net zero by 2050 at the latest, which means transforming the world’s existing building stock in less than three decades.

[Photo: courtesy Ecoworks]Ecoworks, the German startup behind the new system, will start by taking a 3D scan of an old building, both inside and out, creating a digital twin of the structure. “If you have a digital twin, you can even automate planning, which in a typical renovation would take months and many engineers and architects,” says founder Emanuel Heisenberg. The plans can be sent to his suppliers and a factory, where almost everything is built in advance; each panel has windows, ventilation and ducts for pipes. A modular roof has built-in solar panels. On site, construction workers can install a facade panel in just 20 minutes. Converting an entire building, including replacing fossil heat, can be done in weeks, compared to the months or years required in a traditional construction project.

Heisenberg, an entrepreneur in the field of sustainable energy, was inspired by a similar system for the renovation of buildings from the Netherlands. He shared the idea with several construction companies, but none wanted to change the status quo. (The industry doesn’t embrace innovation, he says.) “The core problem is that the construction industry invests less than 1% in R&D,” he says. So he decided to start his own business and develop a process that would be as automated as possible.

[Photo: courtesy Ecoworks]For the past year, the startup has tracked changes in energy consumption on one of its first projects: a 1930s apartment complex in a small German town. Before the renovation, the 12-unit building used 450 kilowatt-hours of energy per square meter, making it one of the least efficient buildings in the country. Now the building actually produces extra energy that it feeds back to the grid. “After renovation, we have negative emissions,” says Heisenberg. Because the new facade is made of wood and trees capture carbon as they grow – and because the project reuses most of the old building rather than rebuilding it from scratch – the project also has a low carbon footprint from its construction. Heisenberg predicts that within two years the building will fully offset the construction footprint, including the emissions from making the solar panels.

[Photo: courtesy Ecoworks]The company is now working on seven new projects that it will install this summer. But it also wants to go to a much larger scale. In Germany alone, more than 30 million apartments will have to be renovated over the next 25 years, according to the German Energy Agency. A new EU law soon to be passed will require the least efficient buildings to be upgraded over the next five years. Technology is not the only challenge; Heisenberg is also trying to work with the government to create standardized building codes. (As in the US, codes vary by location.) Financing is less of a challenge, as Germany offers grants for part of the cost of adaptation and subsidized loans to cover the rest.

[Photo: courtesy Ecoworks]The startup is using AI to identify the buildings that best suit its approach — it’s easiest to work with simple, block-like apartment complexes. But it plans to later expand to schools and eventually single-family homes, and work in other countries. There’s no way to meet the global challenge in time, Heisenberg says, without moving away from traditional construction. “You really need technology to solve that problem.”

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