Unique research environment for sustainable construction

Photo: Tengbom architects

The university’s education and research within the field of construction features sustainability as a common theme. Construction engineering, choice of materials, recycling and landfill are key aspects of reducing environmental impact during renovation and construction. This knowledge can quickly be put to use through close cooperation with the industry.

“We’ve always been good at first-cycle education,” says Kimmo Kurkinen, Director of Studies for structural engineering. “A few years ago, we decided that we need more research in order to continue to offer excellent first-cycle education.” Kimmo began studying the structural engineering programme in the 1990s and has remained at the university, first as an adjunct lecturer and subsequently as Director of Studies.

At around the same time that internal discussions began on the need for more research, senior lecturer in engineering studies Agnes Nagy was a member of an industry council together with local representatives from the construction sector. The council discussed both future visions and the current needs of the housing market in Borås and the surrounding area.

“We agreed that the university needed to do something concrete, linked to reality in Borås,” she recalls. “That’s when Norrby was mentioned, a residential area built around 50 years ago that needed to be renovated and re-profiled as an area.”

Foundation for Sustainable Society Development

Gunnar Ivarson, founder of the construction company Wästbygg, was also a member of the same industry council. He had recently donated funding for scholarships for talented construction students, and had now decided to create the Gunnar Ivarson Foundation for Sustainable Society Development, which was established in 2012. To date, donations have totalled more than SEK 25 million.

These donations have funded everything from construction pub evenings to professorships and doctoral students. The pub evenings for students and businesses have given students valuable contacts in an informal setting, and have provided opportunities for practical experience and employment. Businesses have also been able to benefit from the latest research within the field of construction, and have made contact with students who can carry out degree projects on issues that the industry needs to investigate.

Structural Engineering is part of the Centre for Sustainable Society Development (CSHB), a multidisciplinary platform for research and collaboration in which the university meets industry, culture and public sector social players. Its role is to support, initiate and develop activities relating to sustainable society building, with the aim of contributing towards the creation of an ecologically, socially, financially and technologically sustainable society. 

Structural Engineering will work to develop Borås’ future supply systems, to achieve energy-efficiency improvements and make construction energy-efficient, and to develop new building materials and processes that can contribute towards sustainable construction.

Collaboration between the municipality, industry, academia and citizens

Structural Engineering is part of the newly formed Centre for Sustainable Society Development at the University of Borås, a multidisciplinary centre with a sustainability perspective. One important part of the centre is Norrby Innovation Platform, an arena for collaboration between the municipality, industry, academia and citizens. The parties work together to deal with the challenges that exist within sustainable society development.

“Our research within construction is characterised by the needs of society and building in a sustainable manner,” continues Agnes. “By being linked to Norrby Innovation Platform, we have also been able to build incredible networks including everyone who works with sustainable society development.”

The two-year master’s programme in structural engineering is a direct result of Norrby Innovation Platform. The need for knowledge within sustainable construction became apparent since the buildings were not sufficiently sustainable.

It was this close, practical collaboration with industry and society that attracted Staffan Svensson to apply for the Gunnar Ivarson Professorship. In autumn 2014 he was appointed Professor of Building Materials and Construction Technology.

“We’re still getting started, but a great deal has been achieved in a short space of time. It’s important to think about how we can build better from all aspects – the building materials we use, as well as financial and social sustainability. That’s where laboratory work comes in.”

Constructions labs are being created

In addition to Norrby Innovation Platform, which represents a real environment for research and innovation, two construction labs are also being created at the University of Borås: one for concrete, and one for other materials. 

“We are one of only a few universities to be building laboratories with a focus on structural engineering and mechanics. Most educational institutions have closed down their construction labs, but we’ve identified a real need – both for education and for research.”

Staffan’s own research focuses on materials and construction, and his first doctoral student – who started in June last year – is researching how a combination of wood and concrete can be used. The aim is to build in a safe and sustainable way, and to replace materials that require a large amount of energy to produce, that are not renewable or that cause permanent damage to the environment from which they are extracted.

“Europe is showing a growing interest in replacing environmentally burdensome materials with materials that benefit the environment – in other words, wood. And wood is a field where we have extensive expertise.”

Staffan sees construction physics and energy-efficient buildings as additional key developments for the university.

Project about recycling construction waste

Thanks to the Gunnar Ivarson Foundation, the university has also been able to recruit Katarina Malaga, CEO of the Swedish Cement and Concrete Research Institute, as an adjunct professor at the centre. She was already well-acquainted with the university, with construction students often visiting the institute for study visits and to carry out laboratory experiments. She has supervised a number of these students, and even gone on to employ some of them. She is currently expecting her first doctoral student, who will be carrying out a project about recycling construction waste.

“Dealing with and recycling materials and construction waste is a central issue within construction. Can we recycle or reuse the waste? If not, how should it be used for landfill?”

Katarina’s role also involves helping to develop a two-year master’s degree programme. She sees recycling and renovation as an important future specialisation for the University of Borås.

“There are currently no programmes that focus on renovating buildings. Much of the housing built in Sweden during the 1960s and the 1970s needs to be renovated – and that’s where our expertise is needed.”

Five or six doctoral students are expected to be working within the field of construction by the end of 2016, financed via the foundation and other funders of research. The trend towards a separate field of research – sustainable society development – has begun, and is of strategic importance to the university.

The process will take a few years

Staffan believes that the process will take a few years. The field must first grow, attracting more active researchers and teaching staff. He sees great potential in the two construction labs, and believes that they will put the University of Borås firmly on the map.

“We also have the support of the university’s management, which is investing heavily in sustainability,” adds Agnes. “There’s a lot happening within sustainable society development right now.”

Kimmo, who was involved in the development of the field as a student more than twenty years ago, is also enthusiastic about the rapid growth in recent years.

“There are high numbers of applicants for both first-cycle education and the one-year master’s programme. We enjoy close cooperation with industry and other stakeholders within the region, and we have two construction labs and a strong source of funding in the form of the foundation. The next steps will be the two-year master’s degree programme and a separate research field!”