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No AC but the ‘greenest’ ever Games? Inside Paris’ landmark Olympic Village

<i>Nathan Laine/Bloomberg/Getty Images via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Solar panels and green roofs top some of the buildings where athletes will stay during the Games.
Nathan Laine/Bloomberg/Getty Images via CNN Newsource
Solar panels and green roofs top some of the buildings where athletes will stay during the Games.

By Joshua Berlinger, CNN

Saint-Denis, France (CNN) — When Paris last hosted the Summer Olympics 100 years ago, organizers were so keen to bring athletes under the same roof that they built the first-ever Olympic Village.

It was spartan, made up of furnished wood huts, and it was razed shortly after.

The competition is back in the City of Lights a century later, but French officials are doing something completely different this time around. As part of their effort to make Paris 2024 the “most responsible and sustainable games in history,” they’re building something that’s meant to last.

“This village was thought up as a neighborhood, a neighborhood that is going to have a life afterwards,” said Georgina Grenon, the Paris 2024 director of sustainability. “Paris 2024 is renting it for a few months.”

Instead of rooming in apartments tailor-made for them, athletes in the Olympic Village this summer will be living in what will become someone else’s home or workplace.

Once the Paralympics have finished on September 8, the village — which contains 82 buildings — will be converted into office space for 6,000 workers and apartments to house another 6,000 people.

The hope is that the project will provide a model to alleviate a housing crisis in the French capital, where rising interest rates, surging prices and a supply crunch have made it harder than ever to buy or rent a home. Demand for affordable housing is so intense that when a small 10 square meter (108 square feet) apartment in Paris’ up-and-coming 10th arrondissement hit the rental market last year at a price of 610 euros ($614) per month, it attracted a staggering 765 applicants in less than a week.

The site for the Olympic Village was chosen in the hopes it would revitalize some of the city’s historically impoverished northern suburbs. The village lies at the juncture of three suburbs: Saint-Denis, a diverse, working-class neighborhood long associated with crime and insecurity; the rapidly gentrifying Saint-Ouen; and Ile-Saint-Denis, an island on the Seine River. Organizers say post-Olympics, 32% of the new homes in Saint-Denis and Saint-Ouen, and 48% of those in Ile-Saint-Denis built for the Games will be set aside for public housing.

There’s a risk, however, that current residents could be priced out. Similar pledges to build affordable housing in east London were made in advance of the 2012 Olympics, but those promises ended up largely falling flat. A BBC report in 2022 found that of the 9,000 homes built within the Olympic Park, less than 200 were offered at the cheapest levels of rent.

‘It’s a huge test lab’

Like the Olympics themselves — which organizers say will run 100% on renewable energy — everything built for the village was done with sustainability in mind. To minimize the amount of construction, organizers temporarily or permanently retrofitted several existing structures on the site, including an old electric factory that’s been turned into a “resident center.” They also rented existing movie studios in the area to be used as training facilities for athletes instead of building new training facilities which has been done at some other Games.

The buildings that were erected were built with wood and recycled materials, employing processes that, according to Grenon, reduced the project’s carbon footprint by 30% per square meter — more than French ecological regulations require.

A third of all the rooftops are equipped with solar panels, while another third have gardens meant to bring down the temperature inside, Grenon said. And long, straight openings leading to the Seine were left in between the buildings to form wind tunnels carrying the fresh air near the river as far inland as possible. Temperatures this summer are expected to be warmer than normal, according to France’s national weather service, and there is widespread concern heat could jeopardize athlete safety.

But the structures themselves aren’t the only thing that will be recycled.

The village will house about 3,000 apartments containing a total of 14,250 beds made with recyclable materials similar to the ones used in Tokyo. The mattresses were manufactured with reused materials and their firmness can be adjusted by flipping them over. Stools were made with cardboard meaning they can be easily recycled after the Olympics.

Across the village, organizers are running a handful of experiments to see if new green technologies and construction methods are viable in the real world.

“It’s a huge test lab,” Grenon said.

One sidewalk has been made with seashells. In theory, those shells are supposed to absorb rain. On hot days, the stored water should evaporate and help cool passers-by.

The village’s main drag features five experimental outdoor air filters. These giant, UFO-like towers are designed like vacuums to suck in the polluted air and filter out dangerous particles. The device can clean “95% of the air of the particulate matter — all sizes,” its creator, Jerome Giacomoni, told CNN. The five devices can clean the equivalent of the volume of 40 Olympic-sized swimming pools an hour with very little electricity consumption, Giacomoni said.

Keeping cool

The most scrutinized innovation will likely be the geothermal cooling system, as athletes in Paris could face the same level of sweltering heat and humidity that broiled Tokyo during the Summer Olympics there three years ago.

“Climate change should increasingly be viewed as an existential threat to sport,” Sebastian Coe, the president of World Athletics, said in a report published last week (June 18) examining the heat risks associated with this summer’s games.

While the ground floor of some buildings in the Olympic Village are equipped with traditional air conditioning because they will be converted into shops after the Olympics, the athlete apartments will use geothermal cooling instead of air conditioning.

This system takes water cooled to 4 degrees Celsius (39 degrees Fahrenheit) from wells as deep as 70 meters (230 feet) underground at a nearby geothermal plant and transports them to pipes under the floors of each apartment. That cold water should be able to cool the building by 6 to 10 degrees Celsius compared to the temperature outside, according to Laurent Michaud, the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Village director. While the system will be controlled at the building level, each apartment has a thermostat that allows them to lower or raise the temperature by 2 degrees Celsius in each unit. The system will also heat apartments in the winter.

The human-caused climate crisis has made heat waves more frequent and intense, and they are starting earlier in the year in many parts of the world. Paris is particularly vulnerable — people in the French capital are more likely to die from extreme heat than any other city in Europe, a study that looked at more than 850 cities showed.

As of 2022, just 19% of all households in Europe were equipped with air conditioning, according to the most recent figures from the International Energy Agency. But extreme heat across the world has driven up global demand for AC units, creating a climate Catch-22, as air conditioning systems use large amounts of energy, much of which still comes from fossil fuels that emit carbon dioxide and heats the planet.

For delegations concerned about the system’s efficacy during a heat wave, the village will offer them the option to rent individual air conditioning units.

Asked about the lack of air conditioning in the Village by news agency Reuters in March, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said the village was “designed to avoid the need for air conditioning, even in very, very high temperatures.”

“We are on the brink of a precipice. Everyone, including the athletes, must be aware of this,” Hidalgo said. “We have to trust the scientists when they help us to construct buildings in a sober way that allows us to make do without air conditioning.”

CNN’s Saskya Vandoorne and Derek Van Dam contributed to this report

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