The Sustainable Built Environment D-A-CH Conference 2019 will take place at TU Graz from 11 to 14 September. It is part of a major international conference series dedicated to sustainable buildings and construction. This year is the first time that the event will have a cross-border format encompassing all three German-speaking nations. It is being organised in conjunction with the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna (BOKU), Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and ETH Zurich. SBE19 Graz will shine the spotlight on all aspects of sustainable building, with a programme focusing in particular on buildings, building design, urban development, construction processes and products, and digitalisation (building information modelling). It also addresses the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, especially Goal 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities) and Goal 13 (Climate Action). In the run-up to the conference, we asked Alexander Passer ten questions about the event and the topic of sustainable building.
1. Who will be attending the conference?
The conference serves as a platform for the exchange of ideas between the worlds of business, research and politics. International experts from all three of these areas will be coming to Graz. The well-known climate researcher, and review editor of the IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius, Diana Ürge-Vorsatz is going to talk about why a radical rethink is now needed in the industry if climate targets are to be met. British architect, researcher and author Richard Lorch, who advises the European Commission on sustainable urban development, will also be one of the keynote speakers. He is a member of the Edge, a think tank which wants to radically change the political agenda regarding the reduction of carbon emissions in the construction industry. The event also comprises over 200 academic sessions and a comprehensive exhibition, offering visitors insights into the latest sustainability-related developments in the building sector.
2. What will the programme be focusing on?
The overarching theme is sustainable development in the building sector, especially the question of the environmental impact of buildings. The programme addresses topics such as steps aimed at reducing construction waste, carbon emissions and water footprint – a calculation of the amount of water used to produce materials – in the building sector, and features sessions on the latest sustainable building materials, as well as presentations of new digital planning methods and recent best-practice projects.
3. What exactly does sustainable building mean?
It’s a term which encompasses much more than just the environmental aspects of construction or energy efficiency. Sustainable building starts with urban spatial planning and continues right through to the careful use of natural resources. In short, sustainable building means planning, constructing and operating buildings holistically – considering environmental, economic and socio-cultural factors – and from a lifecycle perspective, so that they don’t represent a burden for future generations.
4. What materials are being used in place of others?
Just like in other areas, the preference is for local rather than global sourcing, and the more natural, the better. Of course, “environmentally friendly” products such as wood and clay building materials, as well as wool, hemp fibre and other renewable raw materials which can be used for insulation, have a head start. Although you always have to look at the entire life cycle and all the environmental impacts. Sustainable building isn't only concerned with finished building materials, but also with buildings themselves. You have to factor in the grey energy – the energy needed for the production and disposal of building materials. The concrete and brickmaking industries are constantly working on innovative ways of addressing this. Basically, the life cycle of the material is crucial. Building information modelling (BIM) – the computer-assisted planning and construction of buildings – holds great potential in this regard. BIM also takes into account future aspects such as resource scarcity and climate change.
5. Is sustainability well established in the building sector, or are there still concerns about cost effectiveness?
A lot has been done in the industry over recent years, and when it comes to sustainability many of the right levers are being pulled. In Alexander Passer’s opinion, changing values in society is one of the reasons for this: investors, companies and building users have a stronger sense of environmental responsibility nowadays. The opportunities available to us aren’t being exploited nearly enough, though, and we need to make much stronger efforts, particularly in view of our climate goals. Climate-friendly buildings and affordable housing are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, as the example of thermal retrofitting shows us, the cost of these upgrades are more than offset by the reduced energy costs over the life cycle.
6. How can we create greater awareness of sustainable building?
I think there’s already a strong sense of awareness in society. What we need, though, is a clear commitment to sustainable building from politicians. Thanks to standards for sustainable building, there is a common understanding of the concept of sustainability. But we haven’t taken the next step and more precisely defined and refined the parameters for construction. One possible approach is setting personal CO2 budgets for various aspects of life.
7. What political decisions are required to achieve this?
Incentives and funding need to be directed even more intensively towards sustainable building projects. However, this requires a clear definition of what constitutes such projects. At the European level, experts are currently working on a classification system which aims to answer this question.
8. What are the advantages of sustainable building for property developers and building users?
For property developers the advantages are long-term preservation of building value and risk minimisation. Higher build quality generates significant added value for end users.
9. Is sustainable building more expensive? When does it start paying for itself?
Sustainable building certainly requires more careful planning, which doesn’t inevitably entail additional costs, but rather avoids unpleasant surprises in the construction phase. Climate change adaption measures, replacing heating systems, or the subsequent installation of a cooling system can be very expensive and result in a decrease in value.
10. Are there any flagship projects in Austria?
The Sustainable Construction Working Group at TU Graz has been involved in several best-practice sustainable building projects in Graz. Smart City Graz, for instance, with its 14-storey Science Tower, which has a facade that features electricity-producing energy glass. The building’s heating and cooling is largely emission-free thanks to deep geothermal probes in combination with a thermoactive concrete core. It also has a mobile sun-protection system with integrated photovoltaic panels. Another project is Plusenergieverbund Reininghaus Süd, a neighbourhood of the city that generates its own electricity and energy. Alexander Passer’s working group also provided scientific support for the first energy surplus retrofitting project in the town of Kapfenberg, which involved the use of prefabricated facade elements with integrated active solar panels.
Further information on the topic can be found in the article "Sustainable building is a matter of attitude" on Planet Research.