Alexander Passer (AP) in Conversation with Daniel Gethmann

© Lunghammer, TU Graz

Alexander Passer is the Professor of Sustainable Construction at Graz University of Technology (TU Graz). His endowed professorship is based in the Institute of Structural Design. Since 2018 he has chaired the university´s sustainability board, and since 2019 he has also been a board member of the Climate Change Centre Austria (CCCA). Together with Prof. Karin Stieldorf (TU Vienna), Passer teaches the university course "Sustainable Construction" in a program running parallel to job experience. Moreover, he was nominated in 2022 as an academic consultant in the field of construction for the hundred-member Citizens´ Climate Council of the Federal Ministry for Climate Action, Environment, Energy, Mobility, Innovation and Technology.

GAM: Alexander Passer, you accepted the endowed professorship for sustainable construction in the architecture department of TU Graz and started work on January 1, 2022. We are of course first of all interested in your career path: from studying civil engineering at TU Graz to St. Pölten for postgraduate studies and then back to TU Graz for your dissertation. How do you assess these steps in terms of your professional education?

AP: In the more classic degree program of civil engineering, I studied infrastructure in greater depth and then, driven by a desire to add to my knowledge of my profession, decided to pursue postgraduate study in the field of remediation management in parallel to my professional work. This exposed me to exciting input, because even then sustainability was already a much more significant issue. And, of course, I was also able to delve deep into the topic of refurbishment during this postgraduate program as well. This laid the groundwork for my doctoral studies at TU Graz.

GAM: So you started off with infrastructural topics, then completed your degree in 2002 with a thesis on traffic roundabouts, before shifting your focus to the theme of sustainability?

AP: Yes, that’s right, civil engineering education is relatively broad. I was interested in different topics, and my diploma thesis dealt with possible ways to design traffic flow in a more sustainable way. In the 1990s, the first roundabouts were being built around here, and I could prove that roundabouts worked better in practice than other solutions; and they were much more well accepted. Back then, sadly, my professor suddenly passed away, so I had to forge a new path, which is how the idea to enter a postgraduate program arose. Since buildings and infrastructure mutually interact, I decided to place a focus on buildings.

GAM: It makes sense that your 2010 dissertation at TU Graz was titled “Assessment of the Environmental Performance of Buildings.” After that, you were an assistant professor here and a guest professor at ETH Zurich, and you worked on your habilitation?

AP: Yes, in the Institute of Technology and Testing of Construction Materials I was given the opportunity to restructure the domain of sustainability assessment. After finishing my PhD, I had the pleasure of organizing for the first time, with my team, the big 2013 sustainability conference called Sustainable Built Environment (SBE). Over 500 international scientists and scholars traveled to Graz to attend the conference at our university. Then, my colleague Professor Guillaume Habert from ETH Zurich, who is the Chair of Sustainable Construction there, invited me to spend a year in Zurich as a guest professor. I didn’t have to think twice, because an invitation to one of the world’s best universities cannot be turned down. In preparation, we then submitted a joint application to the Swiss National Science Foundation, and we actually received the funding. It was a fascinating experience because the ETH is organized in an extremely professional way, in terms of both teaching and research. We are still in regular contact today.

GAM: In your habilitation of 2016, you then examined the concept of sustainability less in terms of its conceptual history than as an attempt to make it operationalizable, that is, usable or practicable, hence the title of your book: On the Operationalization of Sustainability in Construction: In Special Consideration of the Sustainability Assessment of Construction Products and Buildings. How can one succeed in making an abstract concept practicable in a habilitation thesis?

AP: In my opinion, two thematic areas are very important for this operationalization: the first is the scientific, the act of making something measurable in order to establish a transparent and comprehensible assessment standard, and the second is the implementation process itself. When dealing with implementation, my aim was to really participate in building projects, first of all to observe inhibition thresholds in practice, but also to determine how sustainability can be integrated into the planning process as well. There are different methods for assessment, and I have been involved in standardization committees at a European level, for instance CEN /TC 350. At the time, this was actually pioneering work for everyone involved. We were dealing with methods for the environment, exploring, for example, how to measure global warming and to talk about building products rather than just about the operations. In practice, moreover, it is always a question of costs, not just construction costs but also associated ones from a life cycle perspective. How do I integrate these considerations into projects in order to improve them, and to optimize them with a view to sustainability?

GAM: Which principles are important in the collaboration between the planning discipline and the people carrying out the design at the construction site?

AP: There really are so many interactions with different disciplines. In order to integrate the two aspects you mention, it is necessary to have a good overview along with relatively strong specialist knowledge and an awareness of the needs being addressed. What is more, one has to understand building operations and building construction, how things play out on the job site, et cetera. A truly good design comes about when one is able to implement the client’s wishes in the best possible way—by taking functionality into consideration, what the building needs to do—and then is able to work in a performance- and solution-oriented way instead of just according to certain parameters. This is what we succeeded in doing in many research projects, when it wasn’t just about saving energy. Thinking beyond the classic project boundaries in order to arrive at a better solution.

GAM: Since early 2022 you have held the Professorship of Sustainable Construction at TU Graz and are working in the Faculty of Architecture. Do you see this as a position bridging the civil engineering and architecture departments? Or how would you describe your position in the university departments that deal with construction?

AP: International experience shows that this rather stringent division between architecture and civil engineering is quite typical for Austria. At KU Leuven in Belgium, as one of many examples, there is for instance “Architectural Engineering” as an endeavor to bring specialist disciplines closer together. At TU Graz, we initiated the postgraduate program “Sustainable Construction” many years ago, thus giving the architecture and civil engineering departments a joint curriculum with TU Vienna. So we are striving in our thematic field for collaboration among everyone involved. This means that the Faculty of Architecture is a good option because design marks the beginning of the planning process, after which other disciplines are brought in. It is important to bring this into the entire planning process as early as possible, at the latest during the competition announcement. In the architecture department, I think the point is to show students what an important role sustainability plays in the teaching of design and to integrate it in a better way.

GAM: How do you apply this to the curriculum? What is your vision for offering your support in the context of architecture? Your group is of course already strongly represented in the civil engineering program.

AP: It seems important to raise awareness for sustainability among students early on in their studies. Topics like the mitigation and adaptation of climate change are new aspects that now need to be taken into consideration during the design work. In the master’s program, this must be deepened accordingly, and appropriate methods and tools for measuring must be learned and applied.

GAM: The Sustainable Construction workgroup that you run is strongly oriented to research. What are the cross-connections between research and teaching in this case?

AP: The reason why we are very active in our research is because the subject matter is moving at such a fast pace; we need to anticipate where the journey is going in terms of research-based teaching. In this respect, we had the opportunity to work at a European level, directly for the European Commission, on pressing issues of importance to all of us, so in a way we’ve had a certain head start in terms of knowledge and time. So by working on the topics and staying aware of which regulations will be changing, it is our task to already now prepare students for what they might have to know and implement a few years down the road.

GAM: In which formats could your impulses have an impact on the teaching of architecture?

AP: We offer different formats. Lectures, workshops, and seminars. The students are extremely innovative and future-oriented thinkers. We also organized an international summer school for four years; back then the question of how buildings could be made more climate resilient was already an issue. The students are able to take an open approach, which is really necessary, because all of our assignments are very challenging and evolve rapidly, whether working on an existing object or designing something new. What is exciting is being able to prepare architecture students as well as possible for these quickly changing challenges. This is what we’re doing right now by introducing new courses, and I’m interested to see how we will succeed.

GAM: At the moment, the theme of sustainability is one that has hardly any declared opponents. This is perhaps the biggest difference compared to other research topics. And it is why, in such a situation, I am interested in what the research areas or topics of the future might be within mainstream sustainability. Which area is truly innovative? And where do you want to focus your next research efforts?

AP: That’s a good question, because it also has to do with the importance of the methods, and of the professional expertise. In my subjective opinion, within the German language there is a disconnect in the term “sustainability”—the Old German word nachhaltig means “with lasting effect,” while the English word sustainable means “compatible in the long term.” In addition, there is the classic misunderstanding that sustainability can be divided into three dimensions (society, environment, economy) that are considered completely independently of each other. Companies tend to pick their own subjective yardstick and build the most sustainable car, the most sustainable plane, the most sustainable material, and the most sustainable or—to use a more recent term—the most climate-positive building. Thus, both the term and the goal become arbitrary, which is why methods for making sustainability measurable are so important. We aim to make a contribution to this and to define criteria. So if, on a European level, we assert that we want to be a climate-neutral continent, what does this mean for the individual building, and how can we break down the targets? How can we apply the Paris climate protection goals not only to Austria, but also in a way that takes those responsible into account and is oriented toward the future? We’ve devoted a number of publications to these issues.

GAM: How does this manifest in terms of buildings themselves?

AP: Even a “sustainable” building situated somewhere in a green field usually has a relatively high carbon footprint because of the building-induced mobility and the necessary infrastructure. This means that we must consider all of the aspects, so that a sustainable solution emerges in the long term. And this is what we are trying to address in our research. We work with explorative questions that involve how climate neutrality can be truly assessed. Many people actually tend to forget that so-called “embodied carbon emissions” are produced when building a house, a street, a car. And we have to take this into account because otherwise the greenhouse gas budget calculation will not balance out in the end.

GAM: Given the boom in the sustainability discourse, have you actually looked back to see which group has worked sustainably in its operational processes? And from which processes we can thus learn a great deal?

AP: When we anticipate entering a world driven by renewable energy in which the circular economy is once again playing a stronger role, then we will once again have to more strongly adapt in terms of available resources. This is why looking back is so important, yet due to the swiftly changing framework conditions, we must take our responsibility that much more seriously and look into the future as well. What might the climate be like in fifty years? If everyone assumes that buildings will last at least a hundred years and we are supposed to do a (prospective) life cycle assessment for the next hundred years, do I have to take into account what will change in terms of society and climate in the next hundred years?

GAM: This necessitates a different way of thinking, doesn’t it?

AP: Yes, when we are younger, there may be more of a focus on getting things done, but the older we get, you also think about whether everything you have to answer for to your children was and is really as sustainable as it seems.

GAM: Thank you for the talk!

Translation: Dawn Michelle d´Atri