Once a year, the German Taxpayers Federation (BdSt) publishes its ‘Schwarzbuch’ containing examples of what it considers to be wasteful uses of tax revenues by government departments. The current edition names the DGNB certification system as one such example, under the heading of ‘Expensive Image Cultivation’. This leads us to question whether the selection and research methods used by the authors were as thorough as they should be. In this case at least, it shows that judgement was handed down without understanding the subject in the necessary depth. So here in the blog – with the necessary brevity of the format – we present the most important reasons why certification is actually worth it.
First some background information: the article in question deals with the new town hall in Elmshorn. A decision was made to apply for DGNB certification in gold even before the detailed planning had begun. Specifically, the criticism levelled by the authors was that: “The criteria for sustainable building are well known. They can also be fulfilled without certification. Instead of paying auditors, the money would be better invested in ecological fittings.”
The following five points show why this opinion is short-sighted.
Fact 1: Sustainable building is more than just a collection of criteria
A sustainable building is more than just the sum of its individual parts. The aim of the DGNB is to optimise the performance of a property, adding value in equal measure for people, the environment and economic viability. This only works if you define clear goals and use them as a basis for results-oriented planning and effective decision-making for the project. In essence, the certification criteria provide pointers as quality assurance factors. However, it is the way they impact on each other, the way the conflicting ecological, economic and socio-cultural objectives are handled, that pose the greatest challenge. Whether additional costs are necessary for ‘ecological fittings’ (whatever those are supposed to be), as called for by the BdSt, is therefore far from given. Quite the opposite, in fact: sustainable building is not more expensive, but different. The somewhat higher planning demands usually pay off quickly through fewer subsequent changes, higher quality and better performance by the building.
Fact 2: Sustainable building requires experienced experts
Precisely for the reasons mentioned, at the end of the day specialist expertise is required to plan and implement sustainable building methods. You need people who understand how the individual criteria are interrelated in the context of the complicated construct of ‘building’; experts who keep an eye on all phases of planning and construction in order to maintain high standards from start to finish. In other words, you need qualified auditors or consultants who understand where adjustments and fine-tuning are needed to make a building better as a whole.
Fact 3: The later mistakes are discovered, the more expensive things become
The ‘from the very start’ aspect mentioned under Fact 2 above is also of paramount importance for another reason. The earlier you think about the many aspects of sustainability in your project and make decisions that are compatible with your individual requirements (for example, by costing out different options), the more you can avoid having to pay for subsequent corrections, conversions or retrofits. As such, certification can therefore serve as a planning and optimisation tool for thorough and integrated quality assurance.
Fact 4: Objective assessments create transparency and trust
Especially for projects paid from public money, it is important to provide an additional window of transparency. Who is supposed to check and make sure a construction project really was executed sustainably down to the last detail if there is no independent review of the results? In an era of diesel scandals and the like, simply ‘declaring’ oneself sustainable is surely not the ideal solution. One key problem, especially in construction, is that there is no neutral quality assurance – instead we are presented with abstract statistics such as potential energy consumption.
The public will certainly not object to being allowed to compare the standards met by a building with others. The whole idea of comprehensive documentation is to create transparency and build trust in communication, and everything is accessible to everyone because the DGNB certification criteria are available to the public free of charge. Furthermore, this documentation provides a foundation for operating buildings sustainably and is therefore indispensable. The fact that operating costs may come from a different budget should never mean that corners are cut here. All the more so as awareness grows of this responsibility: buildings can make a fundamental contribution to climate protection, not only during construction, but especially during the many years in which they are used.
Fact 5: Certification is good for your image – but why is that bad?
A DGNB certificate is not just something you do on the side. Certification only follows a comprehensive examination of the structural sustainability requirements of a project. And the fact that certificate recipients are proud of this accomplishment and communicate it publicly is not objectionable, but a reward for close collaboration between multiple players. More and more potential renters and investors are now proactively asking about certified buildings and make this a condition for moving into or investing in a property. It is not wasteful, but far-sighted, for a town like Elmshorn to keep pace with market demands in this respect, while at the same time adding value for the local population. It also signals that the community takes climate protection and sustainability seriously.
Whoever publishes bears responsibility
In conclusion, we’d like to highlight that the purpose of this post is not to present the BdSt in a negative light. Even if it is somewhat disconcerting if, to mark the publication of the ‘Schwarzbuch’, the president of the BdSt writes a letter to the DGNB thanking us for our ‘good partnership based on mutual trust’ and wishes us ‘continued success’.
Our aim is to dismantle continual objections to sustainable building and the associated certification. Furthermore, in an era of social media and fake news, anyone who publishes information should be aware of their responsibility – not every reader has the wherewithal to critically assess presented facts. In this spirit, going forward we also look forward to a good partnership based on mutual trust.