Glad you asked - here are the seven reasons that propel us forward.
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1) The global situation
Buildings generate about 39% of global greenhouse gases (2021, WorldGBC). This can be compared to, for example, aviation, which answers to approximately 2%. Building also generates about 30% of all global waste, and is the no.1 consumer of all resources. The situation will be made worse by population growth, which is expected to reach 10 Billion by 2050, as well as urbanisation, as it’s estimated that 70% of these people will live in cities. So the pressures on the building industry and the expectations to solve the problems are great, and every choice truly has an impact.
2) The building pressure
The EU aims for Europe to become the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050, and many countries, Finland included, have even more ambitious goals. The building legislation is being updated in many countries to enable the monitoring of the consequences that construction has on the environment. In Finland, Norway and Denmark the reform will take effect in 2024-25, in Sweden it already has. In addition to pressure from legal regulation, the environmental issues have started to gain genuine competitive significance in the real estate market. This increases the need for awareness and clear communication when it comes to the environmental impact of design solutions, even before the legal reforms take into effect.
3) The lacking tools
While the efforts to improve the current situation are great, the tools for the implementation are lacking. The field of communicating environmental values is a very fast-changing world, where information is still confusing, practices change quickly, and keeping up with changes is difficult. All this takes up time designers very rarely have. Material manufacturers and suppliers are putting a lot of effort into improving their products and processes, and are constantly producing more valuable data to back this up, but their means of bringing this information forth are scarce. Greenwash is a real challenge, and the fear of it makes this field very tricky. It is quite impossible for a designer to know which information can be trusted, what facts are to be considered or prioritized, or how to compare any products with each other. There’s a lot of good data out there, but it exists in a form that is the furthest thing from understandable or easy to use, mainly EPDs (Environmental Product Declaration). Certificates are simpler, but their criteria isn’t usually publicly available and they don’t really enable comparison. Also, there are just too many of them - over 200 environmental certificates only in the EU alone! As the design work is usually done under the pressure of both tight deadlines and budgets, the environmental info of design choices needs to be easy to find and understand, reliable, comparable and easy to use, in a way that fits into the flow of the design process. Moreover, it is paramount to be aware of the environmental effects right from the draft stage of the project, because it is then that the guiding value of that info is the greatest.
4) The shifting focus
Up until now, the efforts to reduce emissions in buildings have been focused mainly on the energy consumption of buildings during their use; heating, cooling, ventilation and other building services. This work has been effective. As the energy efficiency of buildings and related technology improves, the search for new emission reduction solutions turns increasingly to embodied emissions. This includes e.g. materials used in buildings and emissions related to their life cycle. These embodied emissions now make up almost half of the total emissions of typical new buildings. In Finland, a national emission database was announced in 2021, which collects average value information on the carbon emissions of various building materials. Average data helps in evaluating the building's carbon emissions when the actual products for some reason are not, or cannot, be specified. However, average value information does not serve in the finding of innovative or better-than-normal products, and thus does not promote their development or introduction on the market.
5) Too narrow a consideration of environmental impacts
In order to find out the actual GWP (Global Warming Potential, Co2 eq.) of a material or a product, emissions must be taken into account during its entire life cycle. In many cases, it is only part of this that is considered - for example emissions from only the manufacturing phase. Naturally, this only tells a part of the story. The actual GWP is also affected by the length of the product's service life and, for example, material efficiency. Furthermore, carbon isn’t the only factor causing environmental challenges. Several substances related to the production, use and demolition of materials and buildings are causing harm to the environment in other ways, and aggravating biodiversity loss and the deterioration of various ecosystems. These effects, e.g. eutrophication and acidification of waters, depletion of various raw materials or loss of ozone, should also be taken into account, in addition to the atmospheric warming effect. Currently, this is not the case, even though more data about this, too, is constantly being produced, and for example the EU is strongly aligning its practices into this direction.
6) The inevitability of the Circular Economy
In order to halt the damage we’re currently causing, it’s not enough to reach carbon neutrality, but we should actually be striving for carbon negativity. In addition, it is necessary to minimise all other types of emissions, as well as the waste generated. The only possible way to harmonise these development directions is to move to a Circular Economy. An essential part in this process is played by the longevity and recyclability of products. Transitioning to a functioning Circular Economy requires large investments in this field, as well as research on the possibilities of reusing materials, innovative applications, and top-level guidance, e.g. the help of legislation and financial guidance. The biggest transformation, however, is required at the level of culture and attitudes. Post-use materials need to be seen as resources with value, instead of waste. In fact, there should be no such word at all. Products and structures should therefore be designed for modularity, repairability and easy dismantling from the outset, so that their reuse would be as effortless as possible. Since products’ and materials’ suitability for Circular Economy is a sum of many factors, designers should have all possible help to find this information easily, compare products based on it and utilise it easily.
7) The need for transparency and better connection
Real change is not possible without genuine and smooth cooperation. This should extend from authorities and researchers to individual practitioners and property owners, and also from the customer to designers, material manufacturers and suppliers, consultants, contractors, subcontractors, and the end user of the building. The lack of sufficient communication and transparency creates bottlenecks in the development of a new, better construction culture. One such bottleneck is the transmission of fact-based information from material suppliers to designers, builders, and customers in an easily usable form. Transparency of information related to materials, their raw material acquisition, manufacturing, disposal and recycling possibilities should be a primary factor to ensure future-proof choices. Only an open flow of this information enables truly conscious decision-making, instead of that based on habits or beliefs.
We figured that if we can be of any help in moving forward from the status quo, we really should!
There’s no such thing as a perfect product or a space - yet - but we really need to find ways to get there.
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