This prefabricated “second skin” turns outdated apartment buildings into net zero

At a German factory, robots are assembling panels shaped to fit snugly over the walls of an old apartment building like a second skin, with built-in insulation designed to help the building drastically reduce energy use. It’s part of a system that aims to solve one of the challenges in the transition to a net-zero world: with so many outdated, inefficient buildings that are a major source of global climate emissions, the traditional retrofitting process is painfully slow.

By one estimate, at the current rate of renovation in Europe, it would take 500 years to fully decarbonize any existing building. (The US is likely to move even slower.) To avoid the worst effects of climate change, the world must reach net-zero by 2050 at the latest, which means the world’s existing building stock must be converted in less than three decades.

[Photo: courtesy Ecoworks]

Ecoworks, the German startup behind the new system, starts with a 3D scan of an old building, both inside and out, and creates a digital twin of the structure. “If you have a digital twin, you can actually automate the planning, which would take months and many engineers and architects for a normal renovation,” says founder Emanuel Heisenberg. The plans can be sent to its suppliers and a factory where almost everything is built in advance; Each panel contains windows, ventilation and channels for pipes. A modular roof has built-in solar panels. On the construction site, construction workers can assemble a façade panel in just 20 minutes. Converting an entire building, including replacing fossil fuel heat, can be completed in weeks compared to the months or years required for a traditional construction project.

Heisenberg, a renewable energy entrepreneur, was inspired by a similar system for retrofitting buildings in the Netherlands. He shared the idea with several construction companies, but none wanted to change the status quo. (The industry doesn’t welcome innovation, he says.) “The crux of the problem is that the construction industry invests less than 1% in research and development,” he says. So he decided to start his own company and develop a process that was as automated as possible.

[Photo: courtesy Ecoworks]

Over the past year, the startup has been monitoring changes in energy consumption in 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 additional energy, which it feeds into the grid. “After the renovation, we have negative emissions,” says Heisenberg. Because the new facade is made of wood and trees absorb carbon as they grow — and because the project reuses most of the old building rather than building from scratch — the project also has a low carbon footprint from construction. Heisenberg predicts that within two years the building will have fully offset the footprint of the construction, including emissions from the manufacture of the solar panels.

[Photo: courtesy Ecoworks]

The company is currently working on seven new projects, with installation beginning this summer. But it also wants to go on a much larger scale. According to the German Energy Agency, more than 30 million apartments will have to be renovated in the next 25 years in Germany alone. A new EU law, which may soon be passed, will require the least efficient buildings to be retrofitted over the next five years. Technology isn’t the only challenge; Heisenberg is also trying to work with the government to create uniform building codes. (As in the US, codes vary by location.) Financing is less difficult, with Germany offering grants for some of the cost of the retrofit and subsidized loans to cover the rest.

[Photo: courtesy Ecoworks]

The startup uses AI to identify the buildings that best fit its approach – it’s easiest to work with simple, blocky apartment complexes. But there are plans to later expand to schools and eventually single family homes and work in other countries. There is no way to meet the global challenge in time, says Heisenberg, without turning away from traditional construction. “You really need technology to solve this problem.” This prefabricated “second skin” turns outdated apartment buildings into net zero


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