Alicia Hannah, from C40’s Global Communications team, writes about the unexpected joy of zero-emission construction.

I fondly remember visiting my dad on construction sites as a child. We would chat with him in the break room away from the noise, surrounded by the odds and ends of furniture from the building’s past life. 

But today, I’m standing on a building site in Oslo, Norway, and something is amiss. Anyone who has been around construction machinery powered by a combustion engine or has had the pleasure of a neighbour doing major renovations will know how your ears ring from the inescapable racket. Now, I’m watching someone who works on a site called Sophie’s Minde, or Sophie’s Memory in English, chat with their co-worker while they operate a giant digger. Another person is moving rubble from the ground to a skip, yet all I can hear is a dull hum and the rocks clang as they hit the metal container.

This is the unexpected joy of 100% efficient, electric and battery-powered machinery.

A zero-emission digger at Sophie’s Minde, Oslo, Norway © C40 Cities

Sophie’s Minde (pronounced Soff-ee-ay’s Minn-deh) is an old red brick building from 1898. Its name comes from the specialist orthopaedic centre that once occupied the walls. Protected trees surround the building, and not too far down the road, there are summer houses with well-loved allotments. 

The building is being transformed for a new purpose by recycling and reusing resources, with the help of zero-emission construction machinery and the climate budgeting process. 

DEFINITION: Climate budgeting is a governance system that ensures a city’s climate commitments are at the heart of its policies, actions, and spending decision-making.

Sophie’s memory will not be lost in the renovation, as part of the site will serve as a prenatal and health clinic. Most of the building will be for a kindergarten with capacity for 360 children and the rest for new district administration offices, with a cafeteria to serve all occupants.

Mathias Kolsaker, Project Manager, Sophie’s Minde, and Anita Lindahl Trosdahl from Oslo Kommune © C40 Cities

Mathias Kolsaker, Project Manager, Sophie’s Minde, said: “There are many pros and undeniable challenges. But they are outweighed by the climate impact, given there’s no local air pollution as there is no diesel being used, and the positive feedback we have had from the drivers of the machines, especially those who have only ever worked on sites powered by combustion engines. There is little noise or vibrations from the engines, which makes all the difference. Our machines run on 100% efficiency, compared to the 30% efficiency of combustion engine-powered machines.”

Not one drop of fossil fuel has been used on this site, and not one drop will be used in the future.

Mathias Kolsaker, Project Manager, Sophie’s Minde

Most challenges of running a zero-emission site are around how much power the energy systems can reliably deliver via the grid, and a need for more innovation in green construction machinery.

It is difficult to secure enough capacity on the power grid and create the infrastructure to charge machines and equipment. This is because more machines are required than at a regular site, as the battery-powered machines need recharging between uses. Sophie’s Minde is estimated to have 10-15% more machinery than a typical building site.

There’s a significant lack of electric machines, especially large cranes and excavators. Mathias Kolsaker recalled a member of the team finding people through YouTube who owned zero-emission construction machinery and having to reach out directly to ask where they got the equipment from. Given the current lack of demand, big companies might not invest in electric machinery. Due to gaps in supply, special machines have been developed just for this project, such as a roadroller.

Climate and wellbeing considerations are threaded through all aspects of this project. Doors, furniture, and bricks have been rescued from the old site for reuse, with 10,000 fit-for-use bricks saved. Even the steel beams that once made up the roof of the orthopaedic centre will have a new lease of life after being recertified and fitted to support the new structure. Of course, not all materials are reusable due to age and condition, but all efforts are made to reuse, refit and recycle materials.

C40 Executive Director Mark Watts stands under a repurposed door at Sophie’s Minde © C40 Cities

A large basement is currently being renovated to store bikes and coats for all occupants, and trees will be planted wherever possible alongside the protected greenery around the site. 

Children will soon run alongside the brick that once made up a hospital; while they learn, the roof over their heads will be supported by steel beams starting their second life. They will exist in tandem with the history of their city and thrive in the joy of a climate-positive space.

As I watch the workers go about their day building this social hub, I wonder if their families have visited too and chatted outside while the quiet battery-powered machines run.

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