Building the future: Toolkit for sustainable urban planning

City planning sets the long-term framework and goals for the development of the built environment for the coming decades. The urban planners’ work is challenging, as they should be able to assess now how to build our future living environment and what it will be like. VTT has developed several supporting urban planning tools, which enable showing of the impacts of planning choices for decision-makers, residents and other stakeholders.

The purpose of city planning is to set the general guidelines for construction and urban area development. They enable the development of a comfortable, efficient and environmentally friendly living environment. There are several stakeholder groups involved in urban planning, each with its own interests, opinions and perspectives. The urban planners’ role in the process is challenging, as they have to find compromises that will take account of the area’s special features and support ideal development of each area in an individual way. They should be able to estimate how the planning choices affect the area and what kind of consequences they will have on the area’s sustainable development throughout the whole life cycle. Several studies have concluded that the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions required for mitigating climate change are finally made at a local level. City planning is one of the most important practical tools cities have for putting sustainable development goals into practice.

The choices made in the course of the city planning process affect, for example, buildings, housing and services, traffic, the choice of potential energy sources, and the general functionality and attractiveness of the living environment. Decisions need to be made regarding the placing of housing, services and workplaces, recreational areas, and promotion and provision of support for various modes of transport. Sufficiently dense urban structure enables a profitable public transport infrastructure, provision of neighbourhood services, and city’s energy system (e.g. district heating). The local city plan and its terms and conditions applied to plot transfer can include recommendations and offer incentives for planning and selecting eco-efficient solutions.

The energy efficiency requirements for buildings are becoming stricter, and by 2020, all new buildings must be nearly zero energy buildings in Finland. Successful city planning provides the best possible starting point for designing of nearly zero energy buildings. For example, aligning buildings southward facilitates efficient utilisation of solar panels and solar thermal collectors. Local traffic planning, on the other hand, takes a stand on which modes of transport the residents, workers and other local transport users choose in their everyday lives.

It is important that the choices made during the urban planning process are assessed and evaluated in the long term. Most often, the impacts of sustainable development are divided into environmental impacts, economic and social impacts. To support urban planning, VTT has developed the CityTuneTM toolkit (see the figure below), which can be customised to meet the needs of each specific customer and city. CityTuneTM consists of a large selection of assessment methods and tools, including: the Smart City Index suited for the assessment and benchmarking (The main results of the CityKEYS project), urban planning tools (Eco-calculator for city planning, KEKO), forecasting tool for the energy demand of built environment (Method for assessing energy efficiency potential and emission impacts in the building stock, REMA), energy planning and optimization tool (Results of the CITYOPT project), and APROS software for precise simulation of energy systems. This toolkit enables to assess the choices made in urban planning as accurately as needed. The results obtained make it easier for the city planners to explain the choices made and show their impacts to the decision-makers and the residents. In addition to the developed technical solutions and methods for assessing the environmental and economic impacts, VTT has also developed solutions for Living Labs supporting two-way communication between urban planners, decision-makers, residents and other users of an area. It seems that communication facilitates and accelerates the implementation of the urban planning process, which may be very time- and resource-consuming with several commenting rounds.


Indicator model for the assessment of smart cities and the related CITYTuneTM toolkit, which helps to optimize choices made in urban planning
from the very early stages of planning.

Mari Hukkalainen VTT

Mari Hukkalainen
Senior Specialist

Building the future: VTT’s research into the built environment generates innovations for a low-emission society

Thank you for joining the readership of our “Building the future” blog series. This series presents visions by our specialists of future building concepts based on robust research data.

In buildings 40% of all energy is consumed and they account for 30% of all emissions. The objective of VTT’s research into the built environment is to envision a low-emission society with spaces and buildings that provide comfortable and healthy environments for living and working.

VTT’s multidisciplinary research into the built environment is renowned in Finland and internationally. Innovations developed jointly in international research projects are adapted for efficient utilisation in Finnish conditions, with the results benefiting both Finnish society and the Finnish business sector.

This blog series contributes to bringing the results of research into the built environment to the attention of the general public. Blog posts are written by research scientists, and provide readers access to the latest research results.

Riikka Holopainen VTT

Riikka Holopainen
Research Team Leader

Major changes ahead for district heating

Many of us live in apartments that are warmed by district heating. In our daily lives, it doesn’t necessarily occur to us how effortlessly our apartments are warmed and that breaks in heating are rare, brief and barely affect our comfort. Radiators and thermostatic radiator valves, which we don’t even need to touch to maintain a pleasant indoor temperature, are all that remind us of heating. However, district heating will most likely undergo major changes over the next decade.


District heating has a long history. The world’s first systems were implemented at the end of the 1800s. In Finland, the distribution of district heating began in places such as Helsinki and Espoo in the 1950s. Most district heating is still produced by either combined heat and power plants, or separate heating plants. However, the trend is shifting from the current third-generation district heating towards fourth-generation district heating systems. The long-term trend has seen improvements in the energy efficiency of district heating and a fall in water temperature levels during the transition to the next generation.

District heating is more and more often being produced from renewable energy sources and various types of waste heat, which would otherwise remain unused. For example, several data centres have recently been built whose facilities generate a great deal of heat. Waste heat of this kind is already being used as a source of district heating. In the sample calculations for the EFEU research project, carbon dioxide emissions were reduced by half, while a fifth of the district heating produced for the studied area comprised waste heat from the data centre.

Towards changing markets

The district heating markets are also changing. An open, two-way district heating network means one that both distributes district heating to consumers and enables customers or individual heat producers to sell their surplus or other generated heat to the network. This could mean a major increase in the share of, say, solar power or large thermal heat pumps in district heat production. In the EFEU project, it was observed that, since solar and geothermal heat saw the biggest increase during the twenty-year study period, the need for centrally produced heat fell by 34%.

In an open district heating production structure, the operators will also change. Someone must take responsibility for the trade in heat and the related production and demand management. It must be decided under what terms and with what technical solutions trade can be made possible, how demand during peak consumption can be met in all circumstances and how investments will be made.

As the temperature levels of district heating water fall, household heating systems will have to be upgraded. The latest systems are so-called low-temperature systems, whose radiators – for example – are bigger than the current ones. Changes can be implemented during other renovations, which makes them cheaper than when done separately. A building’s heating distribution system would then be ready for either the person’s own renewable energy system, or for the new network – freedom to choose is a blessing.

In the future, network operators may also encourage customers (by using tariffs, for example) to prepare for connection to a low-temperature network. For network operators, lowering the network temperature will open up new markets, such as the possibility to buy and utilise cheap waste heat. In addition, energy-renovated buildings previously disconnected from the network in an ‘old district heating network’ area could reconnect, or new buildings with their own heat production could be connected for the first time. In practice, however, changes in buildings’ systems will occur in stages and only in new district heating areas to begin with.

EFEU research project

Energy system scenarios were created via the Efficient Energy Use (EFEU) programme coordinated by CLIC Innovation Ltd. The scenarios involved research on increasing the use of solar heat and geothermal heat pumps, industrial waste heat recovery, and the impact on energy and emissions of small-scale producers selling heat to consumers. These options were explored in a case study of the Central Uusimaa district heating network.

The publication, ”Visions for future energy efficient district energy systems”, is available online at:

The report sets out visions of the energy systems of the future and the current status of systems connectible to district heating in Finland. The publication describes the challenges, needs and scenarios related to future business activities and services.

Satu Paiho, Senior Scientist

Rinat Abdurafikov, Research Scientist

Energy efficiency is the key component of sustainable development in cities


The UN Habitat New Urban Agenda was released a few weeks in Quito, Equador. The task to write a new urban agenda has not been easy, given that pre-conditions and interests are different in different UN countries. At the same time, there is an urgent need to act in favour of sustainable development in cities.

The striking fact is that urban settlements covers roughly 2.7% of the surface area of the globe, but consume 70% of resources and hence produces 75% of CO2 emissions. Moreover, we face many challenges if we are to transform our cities into healthy, safe and comfortable living and working areas.

Starting from these pre-conditions, the New Urban Agenda for the first time highlights the importance of energy. As is well-known, energy production is the main source of CO2 emissions and air quality problems in cities. Energy is needed in cities for transport, heating, cooling, lighting as well as for water and sanitary systems. We also need energy to run equipment and appliances. To transform ourselves into low carbon society, we need to de-carbonise our energy production, but also, very importantly, we need to use energy more efficiently. Energy that does not need to be produced is the most environmental friendly. Energy efficiency is not only beneficial in preventing pollution but is also a key component for resilient cities. Energy efficiency entails reducing overall demand and more importantly reducing peak demand. In combination with smart technologies, demand can be controlled based on self-learning and adaptive algorithms to reduce and shift the demand even more efficiently without compromising users’ well-being, but rather in ways that can also further enhance well-being.

Smart cities and efficient resources

In addition to energy, the concept of smart cities was for the first time raised onto the agenda. The concept of smart cities is quite unique, since it is applicable both to industrialised cities/districts and to developing economies. The benefit of smart cities is that by using easy-to-install and adaptable sensors and self-learning control algorithms, existing infrastructure can be made more efficient. Moreover, new methods allow for generating urban services more efficiently in developing countries, without heavy and costly infrastructure requirements. Good examples for this are the implementation of renewable energy sources for cities and communities. In addition, smart communications enable citizen engagement and ownership within their own living areas, which evidently improves the perceived living quality and attractiveness of the area.

Smart systems enable us to use our resources more efficiently. This can be done by using and combining data from different sources. Currently, in modern buildings, there are typically over 20 000 data points, and hence in cities there exists an unimaginable amount of data; it is evident that no-one has the capacity to process all the data. We need, therefore, smart self-learning and predictive systems to make the most of the data available. One of the leading principles in smart cities is to enrich data to create meaningful information that supports our decision-making and helps in making our everyday lives run smoothly and that helps us to achieve environmental sustainability. More importantly, this saves time for the most important things in our lives.

Miimu Airaksinen
Research Professor
UN Habitat Policy Unit 9

Miimu Airaksinen was nominated in 2015 as an expert for the United Nations Policy Unit 9 on Urban Services and Technology to prepare the UN urbanization strategy.

Twitter: @MiimuAiraksinen

Bulk or personalised heating services?

Too many ‘service concepts’ are based on the same bulk offering, no matter the customer. But doesn’t genuine service ultimately mean giving the customer the service product that he or she, in particular, really needs right at that moment? One of the logical justifications for bulk services lies in their rational and, from the viewpoint of service production, cost-effective nature. Or that, since genuine individual needs simply cannot be identified during the provision of bulk services, they cannot be fulfilled anyway.

A concrete example of bulk services is the production of heat for the end users of various premises. Heating for buildings is traditionally produced by adjusting heating and cooling systems to provide an ‘appropriate’ level of heat; for example, a temperature of 21.5˚C. After this, the end-users of the premises are told that if the ‘suitable’ temperature level happens to be unsuitable, they can select a more suitable one using individual controls in each room. However, surveys of real estate managers reveal that complaints are made about excessively high temperatures in over 90 per cent of buildings, but that complaints about excessively low temperatures are made in the same percentage of cases, according to the same surveys. Why?

I would explain this by suggesting that there was no means of identifying individual heating needs and thereby using personalised services to guarantee satisfied customers. In studies conducted at VTT over the last two years, I have found individual physiques to be the key factor in explaining personal heating needs. Of course, there is no right or wrong physique – we are all certainly individual in this respect. For example, there is one difference between the sexes that is of statistical significance: on average, men have 5 to 15kg more muscle mass than women. In light of this, I have one, eternal question for people who live in heterosexual relationships: if their clothing and activity levels are similar, which one will feel the chill more easily in the same temperature – the man or the woman? Stated in dry, engineering terms, muscle typically produces 1 to 4W of heat per kg of muscle, when fat tissue, our ‘fuel tank’, produces only 0.004W per kg of fat.

How, then, might the personalised heating services of the future work in technical terms? Three steps are needed:

  1. The heated/cooled space and its users need to be monitored
  2. A temperature setting should be made based on the actual need derived from the monitoring data
  3. The right temperature can be created for the space in question, using building automation and an HVAC system

So what should the user of the room do to ensure that this personalised service concept works in practice? Nothing more than entering the room and enjoying the comfortable temperature.

Of course, I am aware that many questions on such a service remain open and unresolved. First, at least two critical, privacy protection issues come to mind: how can confidentiality be guaranteed with respect to data on the physique of the person concerned, and how can we ensure that information on their movements while on the premises is not misused? The second practical challenge is technical: how can existing buildings be equipped with sensors and adjusted on a case-by-case basis? And then there is the problem of open-plan offices and meeting rooms: based on whom should the temperature be set when there are as many preferences in the room as there are people? On the other hand, the basic setting could be chosen on some grounds or other: the lowest setting for the season when in energy-saving mode; or the average of the preferences of those present – or the setting preferred by the most experienced or oldest person present. In any case, it would be better than the current situation, where everyone adapts to whatever the bulk service offers at the time.

I have been championing the testing of a personalised room heating service of this kind in suitable premises in VTT. I think there is considerable potential in the idea. Above all, it could increase the satisfaction of office users with the quality of their indoor environment – which would do no harm in terms of comfort and thereby productivity. In addition, this service concept would take the use, or lack of use, of the facilities into account – energy efficiency would improve if there was no need to heat or cool empty facilities. At the same time, we could even promote the commercialisation of high-tech via VTT.

Pekka Tuomaala, Principal Scientist

Local energy systems have a host of advantages

By the end of 2020, all new buildings must be almost zero-energy. This means buildings that consume very little energy. In addition, the energy required should be renewable as far as possible. Where this renewable energy would best and most sensibly produced is up for grabs. If the energy is produced locally to fulfil, say, the needs of entire neighbourhoods, huge benefits can be reaped without placing unreasonable demands on single buildings.

A range of zero energy solutions have been proposed and analysed by the international scientific literature, but few have been implemented. In my opinion challenges in implementation, such as high costs or complex system solutions, may be the reason for this. The more systems there are, the more demanding their use and maintenance is. Such barriers are lowered if zero-energy areas replace zero-energy buildings.

Local renewable energy sources can be chosen in order to improve an area’s energy self-sufficiency and emission reduction. In densely built areas, it makes sense to design buildings that serve as an effective part of the local energy system. For example, solar energy systems can be placed optimally with respect to the entire area, to avoid shade due to differences in altitude, or to trees or other buildings. In Germany, solar thermal collectors intended for residential heating are installed e.g. as roadside sound barriers and roofs for parking facilities.

Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Canada implemented local, solar thermal systems combined with district heating and seasonal storage years ago. Pilots for the seasonal thermal energy storage (STES) of solar energy on a local basis are few and far between in Finland, despite demonstrations by international studies that the utilisation level of solar energy can exceed 50% of the annual local heat requirement in similar climate zones. STES can also be enhanced through the more effective use of a variety of waste heat solutions, such as excess heat from data centres.

Greater use could be made of local renewable energy, waste heat and heat storage if district heating networks were opened out to a range of heat producers. This has been done in Stockholm. New players and competition thereby enter the heat production market. At the same time, energy flows can be recycled and local energy efficiency improves.

A recently completed study by VTT presents options for heat and power generation based on local energy systems. Energy needs and ‑production on Vartiosaari in Helsinki were explored as a case area. The project studied the impact of introducing solar thermal energy on local self-sufficiency and emissions from heating energy, if excess solar heat in the summer is stored using BTES (borehole thermal energy storage) or tank-based storage for use in the winter. Around 60% self-sufficiency in heat production would have been achieved in the cases studied. In addition, carbon dioxide emissions could be reduced by around 50%, and sulphur dioxide and particulate emissions by up to 70%.

Satu Paiho

Senior Scientist

Read the publication “Paikallista energiaa asuinalueella – Esimerkkinä Helsingin Vartiosaari” online.

It is more sensible to renovate entire residential districts than individual buildings

According to Statistics Finland, there are more than 20,000 blocks of residential flats in Finland built between 1960 and 1979, which have a total of approximately 0.5 million apartments with permanent residents. Within the next 10 years, many housing companies will face different repair needs as the structures and technical systems begin to show signs of deterioration. In connection with such repairs, it is also natural to consider energy-efficiency improvements to the buildings.

Ecological energy efficiency will be faster and cheaper by means of district renovation

With a view to energy efficiency, it would be advisable to repair entire residential districts rather than individual buildings. This would include renovating both the buildings and the adjacent energy, water and waste management infrastructures. This is the only way of ensuring that the building-specific measures aimed at improving energy efficiency would also affect the entire residential district and its energy production. If renovation is limited to an individual building, that particular site may save energy and water, but the measures will not necessarily have any impact on the energy production and water needs within the district.

Residential districts typically have many building characteristic of a specific era, and the renovation solutions needed are therefore quite similar. Even though there is a wide range of different renovation techniques, and new ones are being developed all the time, elevating the prefabrication level of renovation solutions would speed up the process significantly. This would also require the development of renovation processes, practices and services. When moving from one staircase and building to the next, it would speed up the renovation work if the same solutions could be employed extensively in similar buildings and lessons could be learned from earlier sites and their repairs applied to the next. This would also lower the price of renovation construction.

Often, when examining the emissions caused by heating and other energy consumption of buildings, the focus is only on carbon dioxide emissions, even though they constitute only part of the harmful emissions. However, when the impact of renovation on the harmful emissions of energy production is examined at district level, the conclusions drawn may differ from those that would seem most sensible for an individual building. For example, it is usually more advantageous to use renewable energy in district solutions than in building-specific solutions.

The idea of demolishing and reconstructing old buildings rather than renovating them to meet the current requirements emerges in public debates every now and then. In scientific literature, relatively few comparisons have been made between renovation of buildings and demolition and reconstruction. However, examples from Western Europe show that, from the viewpoint of sustainable development, demolition and reconstruction can only be recommended if the buildings are in extremely poor condition.

New operating methods are required – decision-making is a challenge

District renovation requires new operating methods from the actors involved. From society’s point of view, district-level energy renovation has clear benefits, such as certainty of improved energy efficiency and reduced emissions throughout the energy chain. The renovation of entire residential districts could also be more interesting from the viewpoint of companies, because it would lead to bigger building contracts. In housing companies, decision-making is often the challenging factor. District repair projects would require consistent decisions from several housing companies, but, on the other hand, it would mean lower unit costs for renovation.

I presented the idea of comprehensive energy-efficient district renovations in my dissertation, in which I studied how the energy efficiency of Russian suburbs built in the Soviet era could be improved by renovating the buildings to make them more energy efficient and by reducing the losses from energy infrastructure. The topic was examined from the perspectives of energy savings, the energy needs of a residential district, emissions from energy production, investment costs, and business models of district renovation. Even though the cases studies were in Russia, the same methods and solutions could also be applied to Finland. The benefits would be the same, although not as big as in Russia.

Satu Paiho

Senior Scientist

Dissertation: Energy-efficient renovation of residential districts Cases from the Russian market