Smart Solutions

Upcycling Abandoned Houses

A resident-led process of taking desolate/abandoned rural housing and upcycling it into new houses in suitable village locations.

Implemented inRautajärvi

Country : Finland

What’s the solution?

The solution is a resident and volunteer-led process of identifying and then deconstructing desolate and abandoned houses in the local area in order to provide traditional local materials for the construction of new, modern houses in appropriate village locations. The solution includes the engagement of an architect to design houses making use of the traditional materials in harmony with the local area. Whilst the deconstruction and transporting of materials is organised centrally with local volunteers, the eventual construction costs are covered by new buyers.

What makes it smart?

The solution is smart because it uses scarce resources wisely to create new opportunities to change the village’s future development perspectives.

The solution demonstrates the following forms of innovation:

  • Social innovation – it is a show case of how villagers can implement new kinds of partnerships as a key factor for normally really private and market driven processes.
  • Technological innovation – in the buildings there are loads of new building innovations and reintroductions like how to rebuild 100 years old log houses suitable for modern standards , how to make biochar of demolition waste, how to build new housing without plastic etc.
  • Business innovation – it has private building companies building on top of and with the idea and prework done by villagers and learn that private citizens can be good partners in building processes even though they aren’t getting anything out of it.

Praise, pride and believing in the bright future are forces behind this project.

How is the solution implemented?

  1. Form an interest group of people who are interested in developing new housing in your village.
  2. Engage local stakeholders by explaining why this is good thing for all (from the viewpoint of preserving services and taking the village to more sustainable future etc.)
  3. Spend time finding about local/national building regulations such as whether a recycled house counts as a new house and what this means for permits and taxes.
  4. Map and identify abandoned and unused houses in and around the village.
  5. Identify and attempt to contact the owners to find out if they would be interested in allowing the house to be recycled
  6. Engage an architect to design a new house using the traditional materials of the desolate housing
  7. Make the process of buying and building a house visible and easy to understand as possible for potential homeowners.
  8. Tell about the process as widely as you can in media and in your own channels. You can use these processes to build your village brand.

In what local context has it been applied?

Rautajärvi is located in the Pirkanmaa region of southern Finland (capital city Tampere). Until the 1960s, it used to be the biggest village in the Luopioinen municipality, largely due agriculture and forestry. However, it has seen a steady decline in population ever since. In the period 2013-2018 alone it lost 9% of its registered inhabitants.

Nearly every year, the municipality has suggested closing the village school, library, service centres, daycares, units in old people’s home and health centre. Rautajärvi faces a continual struggle to keep its vital services running – often taking a lot of effort and volunteer workers. Nevertheless, the full day care was closed in May 2020 and Rautajärvi will lose its villlage school in summer 2021. Residents in the area increasingly travel to use services in the bigger population centres where supermarkets are.

Land ownership in Rautajärvi village was divided from just two large farms into 120 farms between 1927 and 1947 due to three big land reforms. There are a lot of old farmhouses vacant in the village mostly because owners have built a new house next to it or live away but won’t give up the old family home. Those houses are nearly all made of logs. In 2008-2009 and 2019, villagers asked if unused houses could be rented or sold, but only a couple of owners were willing to do that. In a lot of the houses, the only resident is more than 75 years old and soon there will be many old houses vacant. Unfortunately, old houses that have not been maintained and modernised are not popular among young people. The supply and potential demand for housing does not match.

Who was behind the implementation?

Social enterprise formed by the villages in early 2019 called Rautajärven seudun kylät oy, local builders and future house owners .

What was the local journey?

Back in 2016, the village finished a village zoning plan in which it was found that there are many desolate old houses in and around the local villages. This plan identified plots to sell and infrastructure around the plots belonging to Pälkäne municipality.

Rautajärvi took part in a collaborative project of LAGs in Pirkanmaa region called ‘Finnish villages sequestering and storing carbon’ and started to think about possible solutions for how to combine the attempts to solve many of our problems in the future, including: a) mitigating climate change in rural Finland; b) taking care of our deteriorating built environment; and c) turning around the local population decline.

Towards the end of 2019, the idea was formed to meet the various needs through a project to recycle desolate log houses, involving a circular, environmentally friendly approach to constructing new housing to meet the needs of potential residents.

At the start of 2020, the village made two funding applications: one to a local bank foundation; and the other to LAG Pirkan Helmi. Both applications were successful and work started in April 2020 to search for  desolate old log houses where the owners would allow them to be deconstructed and the materials re‑used to build a new house for free.

The bank foundation ‘Luopioisten säästöpankkisäätiö’ funded the work of a young architect from Tampere University to design 5 houses out of found houses and the basic plan was finalised in October 2020. All houses have two rooms, a sauna and a garage as well as large 3000+ gardens (at least 3000 m2) with plots where the growing of vegetables, herbs and fruit trees is encouraged.

The deconstruction of the first house took place in June 2020, with the second and third taking place in October and November 2020. Volunteers were engaged for the work of taking down the existing housing.

Volunteer work days take place nearly every Saturday and the social enterprise is teaching how to make biochar from the demolition waste and making biochar better known. Biochar is charcoal that is produced by pyrolysis of biomass, in the absence of oxygen, and is used as a soil ameliorant for both carbon sequestration and soil health benefits.

The construction of the new houses is paid for by the new owners, so a key step is to find potential buyers who will pay to build the new house.

In late 2020 the first building permits were requested.

The village has also started to form a village brand based on the principles of sustainable, communal and resilient rural lifestyles.

As part of a more comprehensive strategy, there are also five additional and complementary housing initiatives either completed or under way in the village, both with new and old housing:

  1. Construction of new ‘granny cottages’ – which are pretty, but also small (70-100m2) and cheap houses to build.
  2. The renovation of a 100-year-old abandoned mental hospital made from wood.
  3. A new residential area ‘garden village’.
  4. Villagers renovating semi publicly owned terraced houses to form affordable family accommodation in the village from empty and unused properties.
  5. The construction of an area of rentable ‘Eco Villas’ in the village centre – made by transporting small houses from urban locations where they are no longer used (such as sites used for workers in Helsinki).

What have been the main outputs & results?

Already by the end of 2020:

  • four desolate log houses had been confirmed for deconstruction and the work undertaken on three of them.
  • biochar worth 3 000 kg of CO2 emissions was made from the waste of the first deconstructed house
  • carbon storage of more than 50 000 kg of CO2 has been secured from the first house alone by not letting it rot away
  • dozens of new people had been trained in how to make biochar
  • 1 new graduate architect has developed their skills and competence in traditional housing solutions
  • Creation of a ‘Laipanmaa wilderness and lake Kukkia’ village brand based on the villages’ historical background and principles of sustainable, communal and resilient lifestyles in the middle of nature.
  • Together with the other housing projects, the solution contributes to creating a positive narrative and village brand for Rautajärvi which can be invaluable for turning around its fortunes and attracting more young people and families to live in the village and creating virtuous circles in support of local services.
  • More specifically, the creation of new, modern housing using traditional materials aims to meet the housing needs of a new generation of potential residents.
  • The solution has also fostered and encouraged volunteering and community engagement around the long-term sustainability of the village, both in terms of its housing and environmentally. This can enhance long-term community engagement and social cohesion.

What does it bring the village/community?

What’s needed

Financial resources

Main types of cost:

Set up costs to make the solution work: 26 500€

The main costs related to this set up are:

• 11,500€ for the architect designs,

• 12,000€ consultancy research,

• 3000€ worth of machine work to unbuild a house and move the parts (on top of the volunteer work)

In addition, the construction of each house is at the charge of the new owners.

Ongoing costs: 0€: Once the houses are built all subsequent costs are for the property owners.

Funding received:
LAG Pirkan Helmi: local development project Rautajärven Torppakylä15,000 €Idea development, preparation and research – as well as informing about it and other practical work in the project
Local bank foundation9,000 €Design work by the architect
Social enterprise’s own resources2,500 €Remaining costs

Human resources

Volunteers or social enterprise workers to carry out key coordination tasks such as:

• Finding unused houses and their owners to find out which houses could be used

• Deconstructing desolate houses

• Supporting the building of new houses

• Marketing the initiatives, the houses and the village

Architects/designers to plan the new builds

Experts in construction to oversee new builds

Experts in the production of biochar to train others

Physical resources

• Sites where to build

• Houses to move

• Tractors, diggers, lorry

What to do…

  • DO. Consider forming a social enterprise as a vehicle to deliver the solution - try to get together different kinds of agents with different views
  • DO. Communicate as broadly as you can to engage local people in the solution, including as volunteers in identifying and deconstructing housing
  • DO Promote your village widely as an attractive place to live that is developing sustainable principles

and not to do

  • DON’T set yourself unrealistic targets or deadlines. There will be set backs and delays.
  • DON’T give up easily, just find another way

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