News+Stories: You hold the endowed Professorship for Sustainable Construction at Graz University of Technology (TU Graz), what is your main motivation for this task?
Alexander Passer: II want to help create a new culture in construction. Around 40 per cent of EU-wide energy consumption and about 36 per cent of CO2 emissions can be attributed to the construction sector. That is much more than is caused by traffic, for example. Buildings and infrastructure are thus the largest single emitters of greenhouse gases. It is therefore crucial today to act in a more climate-friendly way – and equally important not to leave a legacy of pollution for future generations.
For the Paris 1.5 degree target, global greenhouse gas emissions (and thus also those in Austria) must fall by about 45 per cent below 2019 levels by 2030 and by about 90 per cent by 2050. Only by joining forces will it be possible to come closer to these goals.
What does “sustainable” mean to you?
Alexander Passer: On the one hand, there is the old German meaning of the word (“nachhaltig”), which means "with lasting effect". But there is also the English word “sustainable”, which means “compatible in the long term”. Therefore, sustainable development is, among other things, about taking into account the needs of future generations.
Sustainable development is, among other things, about taking into account the needs of future generations.
How widespread do you see this forward-looking thinking and action among actors in architecture and the planning and construction of buildings?
Alexander Passer: With houses and dwellings, we create a predetermined and an almost unchangeable living environment in terms of energy and resource consumption. Unfortunately, awareness of this is not yet everywhere fully developed. I am shocked when sustainability is described as a “soft skill”. Sustainability and climate protection are currently not compulsory subjects in education and training. We need to equip our students with the necessary tools. And we need to embed awareness in today’s building practice. These are the goals I am pursuing in my professorship.
Have you always wanted to be a civil engineer and sustainability expert?
Alexander Passer: I come from a family of civil engineers and I was brought up with a passion for building. My grandfather was president of the civil engineers in Tyrol and Vorarlberg, and my father was a partner at the Innsbruck civil engineering firm Passer & Partner. The decision to study civil engineering was unsurprising and the good reputation of TU Graz drew me here. The issue of sustainability came about from my own interest.
Introduction to civil engineering at TU Graz is via the Bachelor’s degree programme in Civil Engineering Sciences and Construction Management. Anyone who wants to work on solutions to the climate problem in general is in the right place in the Bachelor’s degree programme in Environmental Systems Sciences / Natural Sciences-Technology (USW NAWI-TECH).
What happened after your studies in civil engineering at TU Graz?
Alexander Passer: This was followed by a postgraduate Master’s degree in remediation management at Danube University Krems. At TU Graz I wrote my doctoral thesis on the topic of assessment methods for the environmental quality of buildings, and this is where I began working as an assistant professor, and I eventually established the topic of “sustainable building” as an associate professor – initially in the form of a working group. Today we are located at the Institute of Structural Design at TU Graz and can therefore apply an interdisciplinary approach in research and teaching to an even greater extent.
What should the path to a climate-friendly building culture look like specifically?
Alexander Passer: To find out how sustainable a building is, the building’s entire life cycle must be pictured and holistically assessed. For example, we conduct basic research into new, dynamic life cycle assessment (LCA) models that anticipate future developments, and in applied research we are working on implementating innovative building projects. Particularly with innovative concepts, it may be the case that more resources are needed initially and that production causes higher greenhouse gas emissions. However, such measures can make sense over the life cycle and pay for themselves ecologically after a few years. Even if higher planning and construction costs are incurred, in most cases this pays off within a short time.
What all goes into an LCA model??
Alexander Passer: We try to picture the entire life cycle of buildings. In addition to greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity and land use must also be considered, as well as the environmental compatibility of building materials and the energy consumption of the buildings and their recyclability. Sustainability requires holistic thinking – from architecture to engineering, and from materials science to the energy industry.
We try to picture the entire life cycle of buildings. In addition to greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity and land use must also be considered, as well as the environmental compatibility of building materials and the energy consumption of the buildings and their recyclability.
What does “holistic thinking” mean here in concrete terms?
Alexander Passer: Holistic thinking means taking all criteria into account, in ecological, economic and socio-cultural dimensions. But a building not only has an effect on the environment, but also on people. This is then taken into account in the functional and technical quality. The life cycle perspective over time is a key point, but the holistic view also includes the planning and construction processes.
Alexander Passer, together with Karin Stieldorf, Vienna University of Technology, is the scientific director of the postgraduate university programme in sustainable construction. The course is aimed at planners, clients and investors, public administration departments and managers in the construction industry.
Does this mean the whole value chain is involved?
Alexander Passer: The challenges posed by the climate crisis are huge. We therefore take into account all the material and energy flows caused by (construction) products and buildings. Our complex models require data along the entire construction value chain. Bringing these together requires good cooperation between science and industry.
Are you a team player?
Alexander Passer: Yes, for me this means combining all the forces from architecture and engineering to materials and energy research across disciplines. I therefore see it as a great advantage that the Professorship for Sustainable Building at TU Graz has not been endowed by one particular company, but by the Trade Association of the Stone and Ceramics Industry. The more than 300 members of the trade association are companies from a wide range of industries in the building materials sector, including manufacturers of natural stone, clay and gypsum products, as well as the cement, concrete and brick industries. In our strongly interdisciplinary team, we support each other with the necessary expertise. This is the only way we can be successful in research..
Besides all the research and coordination work, do you have time for hobbies??
Alexander Passer: Scientifically supporting the Climate Council and the Climate Research Network is something I do as a hobby, in a way (laughs). But if you are thinking more of classic leisure activities, as a native of Tyrol, I love the fresh air in the mountains. In general, I recharge my batteries by way of sporting activities such as skiing, running and cycling. I also love the element of water and am an avid windsurfer. I seem to have passed this on to my three daughters, who are all not only passionate swimmers but also already very good windsurfers.