Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy @ Sustainable built environment: Transition Zero
Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy @ Sustainable built environment: Transition Zero
Utrecht 7 april 2016, International Conference SBE16
Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy D66/ALDE
Our world population is rising from 7 to 9 bilion people in the years to come.
The amount of people with a with middle income will rise from 1.5 to 3.5 around billion and all are expected to go for their tv, car, fridge and microwave…
This amount of people and their rise of income will lead to over 70% more food needed. And to 50% more energy used.
But we already use over 1.5 times earth production today and 60% of all ecosystems are under threat.
Climate change seriously effecting our production capacity today already.
So, business as usual is no option. To move towards to a sustainable economy is inevitable. The question is not ‘if’, but ‘when’!
Can you imagine that 50 yrs from now we will look back at the fossil fuel era as a huge historical mistake? By then we will still be cleaning up the mess of that mistake…
By then we will have returned to a natural, circular way of life. A way of life that we used to live for many centuries before.
Away from the produce, use, dispose philosophy. Back to the reusing endlessly.
In many sectors we can witness developments taking us back to a circular way of life. Although, ‘back’ might not be the right word for that. We go forward towards a sort of circularity 2.0. The circular methodology is being improved in such a way that it beats the current pollutive practice.
Several sectors are leading the way.
The energy sector might be the best exemple. Renewable energy is overtaking traditional fossil based power plants with a pace never seen before. Big energy producers like RWE, Vattenfall and many others are completely taken by surprise. Once the investments in renewables are made, additional costs are close to zero. Cheap, clean energy in abundance for all, that’s the future.
And think about cars. Major emitters of CO2, NOx, particularly matter. The are the main cause for bad air quality in our cities. The first cars were electric. In 1900 it was an electric car holding the speed record.
When the combustion engine started to outsmart the electric vehicle, the development of electric engines stopped. But technically it is superior. That was shown by Tesla last week. Almost 300.000 new Model 3 cars were reserved within 72 hours, while these cars will be delivered over 18 months from now.
For me it is clear: the combustion engine is in its last decade. The traditional car industry is about to experience its Kodak moment.
And what about todays topic, the built environment?
It is obvious that the built environment is about cities. And cities are gaining rapidly in importance. People around the world are increasingly living in cities.
In 1800 only 2%, in 1950 30% and now adays close to 60% of the world population lives in cities. In Europe already 72%.
Every day the world population growths with 200.000 people. Almost equal to the urbanisation figures. That means that almost every new inhabitant of planet earth is added to urban area’s.
This metropolitan dominance is reflected in other figures as well. Globally, 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from urban area’s. In Europe the construction sector alone is responsible for 40% of GHG and 40% of all waste. And to make it easier to remember, buildings account also for 40% of total energy consumption.
Therefore, cities, and the construction sector play a crucial role in the global transitional towards a clean and circular economy. So let’s focus on that sector.
Those who believe that working on a sustainable built enviroment is new, are wrong. Already more than 50 years ago, we were able to build in a modern times sustainable way.
Take the famous Fallingwater House, designed by one of the best known architects ever, Frank Lloyd Wright. He choose for a more natural approach to design, in construction and performance of buildings. The basis of his architectural philosophy was focused on native and local material usage, energy efficiency and natural land and element use.
Amory Lovins is another example of a construction pioneer. He built a private residence in the Rocky Mountains around the concept of energy efficiency, matching regular construction costs of the area. Even though it was completed in the early 80s, his designs form the basis of many contemporary energy efficiency technologies in use today. Perhaps more importantly he showed that sustainability was cost-effective. High energy and water saving techniques had a pay back time of 8 months! It saved $19 a day.
So, if we were able to build houses 50 years ago that were energy neutral, resource efficient, healthy and with lower land use, why haven’t we applied that way thinking massively since then? Why isn’t every contruction we make nowadays energy neutral, or even better, energy positive?
Is it conservatism in the construction sector? Is it a lack of incentives, both from governments and the market? Or maybe a lack of innovation within the sector?
I’m afraid it’s a combination of all.
First of all we have a structural problem with time lines. Buildings and infrastructure are per definition long term projects. Most buildings are constructed to last for decades or, as you can see in a city like Utrecht, even centuries.
But the industry’ focus is short term, from project to project. The user of the building has quite often totally different interests than the constructor. It doesn’t come as a surprise that houses where owners who have been intensily involved in design and construction have a much stronger focus on sustainability. Just like Amory Lovins, they would love to get rid of their energy bill after 8 months!
The key is to make sure that buildings are compatible with demands across the construction’s lifespan. This means that life-time mapping and transferability are crucial to a fully sustainable approach.
Secondly, a lack of innovation in the sector. The sector is highly fragmented. And the so-called industrial process system that has been adopted in the almost every economic sector has not yet been fully introduced in construction. And the benefits are astronomical as is being shown in for instance Japan and China. It means working faster, cheaper and cleaner.
According to a McKinsey study industrial and modular processes could lower construction costs by 50% compared with on-site traditional construction.
And practice shows that it can lower construction waste to less than 1%, compared to up to 30% by conventional methods. It almost sounds too good to be true: half the costs!
And also other innovative developments are staying behind. The design I already touched upon in previous examples. But what about material performance and at the social level; a higher flexibility in building use, function and change.
And finally, on innovation, we need a much more holistic approach on cities. I believe the EU Urban Agenda in that sense is a very important initiative. Infrastructure, including buildings, plays a crucial role in the ecological footprint of a city. I really would like to congratulate the Dutch government for focussing on the Urban Agenda during this presidency.
And that brings me to the role of the public sector. Have governments created sufficient incentives to move towards a sustainable construction sector?
No. They have not.
We can surely find examples of good governance, especially in Scandinavia, but in general there has been a great lack of priority. At the European level the only policy is on energy efficiency, but it is a non binding target, badly enforced in our member states.
This low priority is very frustrating since governments play such a decisive role. Through infrastructure investments, public transport, zoning laws, building standards, certification systems, fiscal instruments and many many more.
Why not introduce a fast track permit system for sustainable projects. I know of a very succesfull experiment in California, where houseprojects with energy neutrality and watersaving installations were placed on top of the permit list.
And we can bring diffent players together in joined projects. One example is a European project called Buildings as Material Banks. 16 actors from the whole value chain will during 3 years work on a systemic change for the sector through circular solutions. For instance by developing a resource passport. With such a passport more knowledge is available about content and quality of materials. Crucial for future reuse or recycling.
And finally, governments can give a huge boost to the construction sector and at the same time make huge environmental gains by making use of the extremely low interest rates. With the creation of revolving funds the public sector can guarantee the upfront investments for making buildings much more energy efficient. It is the low hanging fruit. We know it, but it is not yet done at the necessary scale.
I started my speech by explaining not only the necessity of the transition towards a sustainable economy, but I also called it inevitable. It’s up to us to speed up the transition, because the later we start, the more expensive it will get.
In the built environment it is not a technological obstacle. To a very large extend we know what we have to do. The challenge is to unite behind the objective and just do it. We should spread the knowledge in this highly fragmented and conservative sector and ensure that the changes will take place.
Let us be inspired by a man who has done so all my life. This week he officially openend the new Sir David Attenborough Building of Cambridge University. A carbon neutral, sustainable building dedicated to the University’s work on nature conservation.
Sir David will turn 90 next month, but opened the new institute by abseiling along a 16 meters so called living wall, a vertical garden.
By doing so he showed that both the building and he himself are innovative, coherent, daring, creative and blessed with an impressive ‘just-do-it’ mentality.
Exactly what we need in the built environment!