Constructing a better future – A sector that holds all the cards

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Por Clare Naden
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We often think of planes and cars as the biggest polluters, but did you know the construction industry, which designs the buildings we live and work in, is one of the most polluting in the world? It therefore offers enormous potential to make our environment more sustainable. Progress is being made – but more can be done.

Contributing a whopping 39 % of carbon emissions in 2018, the building and construction sector has some work to do when it comes to sustainable development. However, this is no easy task. Global population growth means the consequent demand for energy is also rising, having climbed 1 % from 2017 and 7 % from 2010 [1].

The Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction (GlobalABC), an international United Nations initiative working towards a world with zero-carbon buildings, reveals that the floor area of buildings globally is expected to double by 2050. If nothing is done about it, energy demand in buildings could take a 50 % hike at the same time [1].

The problem, of course, is that much of the energy being consumed is of the greenhouse-gas-emitting kind. But getting these emissions down is essential to reaching many of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which aim for a lasting and liveable planet, and curbing the rising earth temperatures that cause so much destruction.

Pillar of society

Yet emissions are only part of the story. The building industry is a key sector in national economies, with a strong potential for poverty reduction through the services and spaces it provides, not to mention the employment it offers. With the considerable resources it represents, the sector has a direct impact on the economic and social conditions of communities, affecting many aspects of people’s lives, including their health, safety, mental well-being and more. It is a key pillar of a sustainable society.

Given the sector’s socioeconomic importance, a number of efforts have been initiated towards more sustainable construction. However, improving sustainability in the built environment is challenging, because renovating existing constructs takes time and money, as does building new ones. Meanwhile, we all need somewhere to live, work, shop and receive all the necessary services in order to exist.

Sustainable building is supported at the global level by International Standard ISO 15392, Sustainability in buildings and civil engineering works – General principles, which was developed to address this issue. Recently updated to reflect the changes in the industry, it sets out internationally agreed and recognized principles for achieving sustainability in building and construction. Providing a common language for all stakeholders in the industry, from designers and manufacturers to regulators and consumers, it can serve as a basis for communication and the development of evaluation criteria.

Low-angle shot of a vertical garden on a building's façade.

A holistic approach

Achieving sustainability in buildings is a global concern. At the United Nations Secretary-General’s Climate Summit in September 2019, a commitment was made to achieve a zero-carbon building sector and contribute USD 1 trillion in building investments in developing countries by 2030. At the same time, the Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance was created, an international group of institutional investors, which together represent nearly USD 4 trillion in managed assets and have committed to transitioning their investment portfolios to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

While the many initiatives, commitments and incentive schemes are essential, practical tools are needed to enable everyone to turn this will into a way. This, said Emma Risén, Manager of ISO/TC 163, ISO’s technical committee for measuring energy use in buildings, is where standards play a vital role. “In order to make positive change, we need to know what base we are starting from and what progress we are making. Internationally agreed standards for measuring the various criteria of a building that is working towards reduced carbon emissions are the means to do that.”

The ISO 52000 series is a good example. It was developed to help organizations contribute to the zero-carbon goal by helping them assess the energy performance of buildings in a holistic way. These documents contain a comprehensive method for calculating primary energy used for heating, cooling, lighting, ventilation and domestic hot water of buildings. They can help further the cause of energy efficiency in building by allowing the performance measurement of new materials, technology and approaches to building design, construction and management.

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Net-zero ambitions

There are also many international organizations dedicated to the cause. One of these is the World Green Building Council (WorldGBC), a global network of building councils working to reduce carbon emissions in the building and construction industry by 2050. Their Advancing Net Zero project aims to accelerate that goal through the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment, which calls upon businesses, governments and non-governmental organizations around the world to take action towards decarbonizing the built environment. As members of the WorldGBC, the Green Building Councils are delivering change on the national level with a number of activities such as certification schemes, education programmes and other initiatives to help industry work towards net-zero-carbon buildings.

Also working to accelerate the transition to a sustainable world is the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), a global CEO-led organization aimed at sustainable business. Its Energy Efficiency in Buildings initiative was devised around the claim that “projected energy use in buildings in 2030 can be reduced by 50 % using today’s best practices and technologies, through actions that offer favourable economic returns”. The project involves a methodology that connects the private sector with local governments to ensure policies and activities are in place to further that goal.

The GlobalABC is also dedicated to a zero-emissions building sector, its key ambitions being to encourage the retrofitting of existing buildings and getting all actors in the sector, from design to demolition, public or private, to play their part. It provides a platform for governments and industry to increase their activities with zero-emission goals in mind, focusing on areas such as public policy, finance and education.

Getting governments on board

Governments are essential to the sustainable buildings’ cause. While more can certainly be done, some are already making efforts to decarbonize the building sector. Building codes, for example, are being revised or created to cover the energy performance of buildings, and certification schemes for low- or zero-carbon buildings have the potential to change the course of the entire sector. 

In 2015, as part of the Paris Agreement, 184 countries agreed to announce their national climate commitments, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat rising global temperatures. Amongst the NDCs submitted, some mention specific actions related to improving building performance. On the whole, though, global energy efficiency improvements are not taking place at a pace sufficient to offset the overall growth in demand. Designing sustainability into the building process is traditionally driven by costs, such as those related to construction, transformation and resources. More investment is needed in energy efficiency for the building sector, yet in 2018 the level of investment flattened out. So what else can be done?

Little girl running freely in a city park.

Designing with the end in mind

Turning to ISO 21931 is a good start. The two-part series, which offers a general framework for improving the comparability of methods for assessing the contribution of civil engineering works to sustainable development, helps organizations assess where they stand with their impact on the environment, and thus measure their progress. It is a useful tool for the assessment of a building or infrastructure project using a common method for expressing environmental product declarations.

These declarations portray the impact that the project has on the environment, covering everything from the production of the raw materials used through to their end-of-life decommissioning. Being internationally agreed, this series allows for fair and accurate evaluation and comparisons, and thus uniformity and consistency in the way environmental product declarations are made for construction products and services.

It’s not just measuring that’s required, however, but planning and forward thinking, says Karine Dari, Manager of ISO’s subcommittee SC 17, which focuses on sustainable civil engineering practices under the stewardship of technical committee ISO/TC 59, Buildings and civil engineering works. Dari, who is also a member of the GlobalABC, believes standards can help. “ISO 20887, Sustainability in buildings and civil engineering works – Design for disassembly and adaptability – Principles, requirements and guidance, takes this long-term planning approach, helping owners, architects, engineers and any other party involved in the life cycle of a building to improve its sustainability, saving time and resources along the way.”

The standard assists users in two ways, by extending the building’s life through effective adaptability that makes it suitable for another use, and by optimizing its resources at the end of life through effective disassembly, reuse, recycling and disposal of its various materials. The result is reduced carbon emissions through optimal use of the building, lower costs through longer lifespan and better use of resources, and less waste going into landfill.

Tourist checks tram schedule on his smartphone as a red tram pulls up.

The accessibility pillar

While energy performance and eco-friendly materials are important, the experience of people in the built environment is also essential to sustainability. Accessibility, for example, should be taken into account at every step of the building’s life cycle, says Eduardo Álvarez, former Chair of ISO’s subcommittee SC 16, Accessibility and usability of the built environment, that operates under ISO/TC 59. 

“A well-designed building will consider accessibility in the early stages of building design. In this way, the costs of providing accessibility and usability measures are minimal and improve its sustainability substantially,” he explains. Universality is the key, he adds, because any design that facilitates accessibility to one person in a public space cannot constitute a barrier to another.

What’s more, he suggests that there is a direct relationship between accessibility and safety. “If it is not safe, it is not accessible. For example, if a curb is cut so that it facilitates the circulation of a wheelchair user, how will it impact a person with impaired vision? And if an acoustic signal at that pedestrian crossing is installed to compensate, how will that affect those living in a dwelling beside it?”

Standards like ISO 21542, Building construction – Accessibility and usability of the built environment, can help to answer those questions as they specify a range of requirements and recommendations for many of the elements of construction that relate to access to buildings, including accessibility management.

Over a billion people in the world are affected by accessibility issues, according to the World Health Organization, either because they suffer from reduced mobility themselves or because a member in their family does. A built environment that is safe, healthy and contributes to a sustainable world, that reduces rather than adds to carbon emissions, allowing everyone to breathe easier, is a blessing to us all. Whether this will be achieved by 2030 to hit the targets of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is yet unclear, but there are distinct signs of progress and International Standards can help to pave the way.

  1. International Energy Agency and United Nations Environment Programme, 2019 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction
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Elizabeth Gasiorowski-Denis
Editor-in-Chief of ISOfocus