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In learning the various uses of es. A couple of websites talk about the use of the “introductory es”, like this one.

  1. Es werden viele Häuser aus Holz gebaut. Many houses are being built of wood.

  2. Heute werden viele Häuser aus Holz gebaut.

If I assume an “original” sentence of:

  1. Viele Häuser werden aus Holz gebaut.

I can understand how (2) would emphasise heute, but I don’t know what an author would achieve with sentence (1) compared to the original (3).

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    Note that this has nothing in particular to do with the passive voice. "Es stehen viele Häuser aus Holz in der Stadt." is exactly the same construction. – Kilian Foth Nov 13 '17 at 8:13
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You are right that there is no substantial difference regarding the content of what is being said. However, with

Viele Häuser werden aus Holz gebaut

and

Es werden viele Häuser aus Holz gebaut

you have two options to choose from in order to get to a good rhythm of speech, for example.

Also, as you correctly stated, first position in the sentence is always emphasized. ("Heute werden viele Häuser aus Holz gebaut" emphasises "heute"). Similarly, in "Viele Häuser werden aus Holz gebaut", you put stress on "Viele Häuser", which however you do not always want. Sometimes you want to have a sentence without any particular emphasis anywhere, and in such a case "Es werden heute viele Häuser aus Holz gebaut" is your friend.

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    I would add to this that emphasis or stress in German is usually a result of a deviation from the normal sentence order, rather than placement of a word in a specific position within the sentence. So putting any other part but the subject in the first position will emphasise that part, since the subject is usually in the first position. However, for the same reason, the subject in "viele Häuser werden aus Holz gebaut" is not emphasised, since it is normal for the subject to be in the first position. So the reasoning here does not quite add up. – Marcel Hansemann Nov 12 '17 at 21:15
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"Es" is usually introduced in passive-voice sentences that do not have a natural subject of their own, i.e. sentences whose active-voice equivalent doesn't have an accusative object. However, your example sentence does have a natural subject - "viele Häuser". So the introduction of "es" into this sentence is intentional and in adding the extra "es" adds a specific nuance to the sentence (otherwise, it could just have been left out.)

Now, I wasn't able to find references that confirm this, but to my ears, adding "es" here emphasises the activity, or the verb over the subject/object. I.e. something close to "A lot of house-building was going on."

Compare this example:

In Italien wird viel Pizza gegessen.

Es wird viel Pizza in Italien gegessen. (deviation by adding "es" - "A lot of pizza eating is going on in Italy.")

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