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Living Places as seen from above

Hemmed in by a tangle of railway tracks and storage depots, the Copenhagen neighbourhood of Jernbanebyen finds itself slightly off the beaten path even though it lies close to the city centre. The district has emerged as a haven for exploring new ways of living, from a community food hub and garden to indoor–outdoor co-housing, making it fertile ground for an ambitious redevelopment. This scrappy, rapidly evolving context also makes a fitting — and fittingly temporary — home for the Living Places prototype, an experiment in decarbonized living.

Living Places as seen from above

Led by Danish window manufacturer Velux and designed by local firm Effekt Architects with input from energy consultancy Artelia, the prototype consists of two full-scale homes and five open pavilions for hosting educational exhibitions and events, and all seven structures share a wooden deck. In between, trees and productive gardens are interspersed with public benches. It’s an ambitious test bed for healthy, socially oriented and low-carbon future communities; the homes boast substantially better air quality than the Danish average, and only a third of the embodied and operational carbon footprint. Yet it looks like something that could be assembled after a few weekend trips to Home Depot. What gives?

In Copenhagen's old rail district, two houses and five open (and semi-enclosed) pavilions for hosting educational events make up Living Places, designed by Effekt Architects.
In Copenhagen’s old rail district, two houses and five open (and semi-enclosed) pavilions for hosting educational events make up Living Places, designed by Effekt Architects.

According to Effekt founding partner Sinus Lynge, simplicity is the point. “You don’t need rocket science to achieve a radical reduction,” he says. “We’re only using building components and materials that you can buy at any construction market.” By meticulously studying every material, design choice and building technique — and how they fit together — through a comprehensive Life Cycle Assessment, the designers prove that a transformation in building practices is possible with a basic low-tech kit of parts. “The most important learning for us was to start visualizing the carbon footprint as a budget. For every building component, we knew exactly how much CO2 it would emit over the life cycle of the building,” says Lynge.

The homes are constructed from a kit of parts that includes timber frames and a sloped roof clad in magnesium-treated steel plates and punctured with Velux windows.

The assessment started with the foundation. A screw pile system was chosen for its relatively low up-front carbon costs and ease of disassembly. It also allows the structures to sit lightly on the landscape, preserving much of the ecology. While the five pavilions are pared-down timber frames partially enclosed with translucent polycarbonate, the two Living Places model homes are fully functional (though unoccupied) residential prototypes.

The two residences are built with different materials and mechanical systems, yet both feature the same two-storey form, accented with a steep, eye-catching sloped roof that welcomes natural light and facilitates airflow. One prototype, constructed with a standard timber frame and all-wood window trim, emphasizes fully natural ventilation; the other features a CLT structure, wood and aluminum windows, and a hybrid ventilation system that incorporates both passive and mechanical cooling. Crucially, both achieve similar reductions in embodied and operational carbon, with an independently certified annual footprint of just 3.8 kilograms of CO2 per square metre — less than a third of the Danish average.

Kitchens by the sustainable Danish brand Stykka, based on a prefabricated modular system that can be made to adapt to any space, are used in both home models.
Kitchens by the sustainable Danish brand Stykka, based on a prefabricated modular system that can be made to adapt to any space, are used in both home models.

Inside, the homes are outfitted with minimal, surprisingly elegant finishes. Plywood ceilings, natural wood surfaces and environmentally friendly lime paint make up the simple material palette, which amplifies the effect of the tall ceilings and sunlit rooms. Upstairs, the operable windows are carefully positioned to facilitate natural ventilation and improve air quality. As Lynge puts it, the whole of it was basically assembled “with a screwdriver,” allowing for easy repair and replacement. Appliances and windows are installed without glue, while even plumbing and electrical systems are housed behind screwed-in panels. “That was the dogma: to design for disassembly.”

Home interior at Living Places in Copenhagen

And that’s exactly what will happen here. Throughout 2023, the homes and pavilions will host a series of educational lectures, debates and exhibitions, all focused on sustainable design. Then come the screwdrivers: Living Places will be disassembled, leaving little trace of ever having been here. For the two residential prototypes, the next test is relocation — and new sites are now being sought. In the meantime, the quaint setting feels full of life. “It was important to show how these homes are part of a community,” says Lynge. “And even though it’s not a ‘real’ community, you kind of get the understanding that a home is part of a village.”

Skylights and operable windows ensure fresh air circulates even on the uppermost level.
Skylights and operable windows ensure fresh air circulates even on the uppermost level.
In Copenhagen, Effekt Prototypes the Village of the Future

The residential experiment Living Places achieves radical sustainability from a simple kit of parts.

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