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Making the Construction Industry Paris-Proof

Environnement | Les territoires et les entreprises

With smart use of software and technology, business models for green buildings are possible

The construction industry is the world’s heaviest polluter, with buildings responsible for 39% of global CO2 emissions. At the same time, the industry only invests 2.3% of its turnover into innovation, according to the latest EU industrial R&D investment scoreboard[1]. This figure is among the lowest of the sectors included in the report, and even so is held aloft by the outsized contribution of Chinese construction companies; outside of China, investment in construction R&D appears to be essentially negligible. While the construction industry continues business as usual, climate change is accelerating. We see countless catastrophic consequences of climate change, among which is the fact that the world’s coastal regions, home to 11% of the global population, are endangered. Especially vulnerable are low-lying river deltas like the Netherlands.

Development corporations, investors, and architects all help to shape our future and, as such, are strongly implicated in this situation. Buildings that are planned and realised today will be required to survive massive changes in environmental conditions during their lifespan. This almost demands the creation of resilient buildings that do not emit CO2, yet the global construction markets, with their tight budgets and low profit margins, typically do not allow for such buildings. As a consequence, the industry has adopted greenwashing on a large scale. In most cases, this is not necessarily fraudulent, but simply doing what is possible within the economic limitations. Green labels are widely applied, promising ‘excellent’ or ‘outstanding’ buildings and ‘gold’ or ‘platinum’ certificates; these labels lead to measures such as gender-neutral toilets, bird nests, bicycle parking, and measuring the energy use of buildings. Yet they are ineffective against climate change. Even if every building in the world received a green label, we would still be headed towards 3 degrees of global warming.

The urgent question, then, is whether there are solutions to this situation. The first and most critical fact is that most countries have signed on to the Paris Agreement, which has the goal of keeping global warming below 2 degrees celsius. Christiana Figueres, one of the architects of the Paris Agreement, is more than worried; she calls our current behaviour ‘suicidal’. The action needs to be now as we are running out of time. Considering this urgency, the largest immediate effect that the construction industry can make is lowering embodied carbon, the emissions created during the act of construction. The energy use of buildings is also important, but this is a saving that will pay off over decades – the need to lower emissions is now.

Bringing construction down to a Paris Agreement level would roughly halve the CO2 emissions allowable for constructing buildings, from around 800 kilograms of CO2 equivalent released per square metre of floor area down to around 400 kilograms. The question then arises, how can this be done?

It starts with an investment in software and expertise. In 3D software, building projects can be analysed to identify the proposed materials that have the biggest embodied emissions. The next challenge is how to replace them with something less carbon-intensive, or how to avoid using them at all. Concrete is among the most widely-used and useful materials in construction, and yet it is also responsible for a significant portion of construction-related emissions. Replacing concrete parts with lighter versions or components made of timber leads to lighter buildings, which can reduce the size of the foundations required – also usually made of concrete. In many places, this is possible in a budget-neutral way. The clue here is being informed about the building’s components and using the right databases and information technology. In a moderate European climate, it is possible to reduce CO2 emissions in this way by at least 50%. In Brussels, we successfully tested this method for an office and housing tower. Inner-city locations can benefit from smaller basements or avoiding parking basements altogether. Even the use of technology like an automated parking system, which stores cars as densely as possible, can have a large impact when compared to traditional underground parking.

A rundown 1960’s shopping centre in Paris was a testbed for innovative densification. Timber constructions placed on top of existing buildings can, in some cases, avoid a complete overhaul of the existing building underneath thanks to their relative light weight. Instead of needing to strengthen the building’s foundation, a collective timber housing block was added to the roof without reinforcements.

If nothing but concrete works, it is also possible to create buildings ready for transformation, such as parking garages that can be turned into housing, or buildings made of standard components that can later be disassembled and reused elsewhere, as tested in the Matrix Innovation Center at Amsterdam Science Park.

MVRDV Matrix ONE 4 © Daria Scagliola

Reuse, transformation, and conversion can also turn into a relevant business model. In the past, it was clear that new construction was cheaper than a highly customised transformation. Yet the speed of transformation, which can reduce the construction time dramatically, can help fund the additional labour during the survey and design phases. Almost as a side effect, the reuse of existing concrete construction and floors has a massive impact on CO2 emissions. For a tired skyscraper from the 90’s in Shenzhen, transformation meant a processing time from sketch to completion of only 18 months, instead of 6 years. The project gained 4,5 years of additional rental income and saved the CO2 equivalent of 11,800 flights from Shenzhen to Amsterdam by reusing the concrete structure – a clear win-win situation for both the economy and the planet.

Many cities such as Paris plant trees and green the city to lower heat stress in summer. In Eindhoven, a Dutch tech-city, a masterplan titled ‘National Park Eindhoven’ will increase the amount of greenery in order to make the city more attractive for investments and to make it appealing for expats.

MVRDV Eindhoven Supervision 02 © MVRDV

These are only a few examples of the countless possibilities that allow the construction industry to lower its climate impact. If idealism alone is not enough to effect this change, the European Green Deal and ESG reporting will soon dictate a change in behaviour. The key is for the developer, investor, and architect to collaborate early in the design stage when things can still be changed to lower the emissions – and of course, that all parties actually try to do so. Too often there is no effort at all, but we have reached the stage where doing business as usual has become immoral. We owe it to our children to be better and to respect the Paris Agreement. Smart designs and consideration of the economic feasibility of these ‘Paris-Proof’ buildings is essential. There are new ways and there are great business models; the important thing is that there needs to be ambition.

Jan Knikker, Partner & Strategy Director, MVRDV

[1] Page 39-40 https://op.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/1e5c204f-9da6-11ee-b164-01aa75ed71a1/language-en