Interview, Sustainable Building, Worldwide
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“Sustainable building should be a sport for the masses”

Thomas Kraubitz was a member of the jury of the Green Solutions Awards 2020/21

Replicable solutions for sustainable and climate-friendly construction worldwide – projects that adhere to such principles are honoured by the international Green Solutions Awards. This year’s award ceremony took place on November 10 at the 26th Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. Among the jury members was Thomas Kraubitz, Director and Head of Sustainability in Europe at Buro Happold, and a member of the DGNB board of directors. We spoke to Mr Kraubitz about recent developments in the industry worldwide and current trends in the area of sustainable building.

Many roads lead to sustainability

Levke Kehl, DGNB (LK): Hello Mr Kraubitz. The international winners of the Green Solutions Awards were announced recently, and you were a member of the jury. If you think about your deliberations during the jury meeting and look at current developments in the industry, what are the emerging trends when it comes to sustainable building?

Die Green Solutions Awards sind ein internationaler Wettbewerb für Fachleute aus dem Bereich des nachhaltigen Bauens

The Green Solutions Awards are an international competition for professionals in the field of sustainable construction

Thomas Kraubitz (TK): One really pleasing trend is that we’re seeing better projects when it comes to the actual content, by which I mean that the trend is moving away from sustainability as something that’s simply added on afterwards, or imposed upon people – it’s now more integrated into planning. Projects are being thought through on an overarching level. You can no longer necessarily tell that a project’s sustainable. There are exceptions of course on an international level, where sustainability is still about casting a halo over projects. But with most projects, and that includes the Green Solutions Awards, that’s no longer the case.

It’s also interesting that clients seem to be increasingly understanding the importance of portfolio issues. There were a number of projects in the competition involving developers who were clearly not building for the first time, but they appear to have worked out their portfolios don’t have to be ivory towers or flagship projects. They’d like to establish standards and lead by example. With lots of projects there was clear evidence of a kind of voluntary commitment to sustainability. It’s a nice development to see that sustainability is almost becoming the ‘proper thing to do’ in this respect, or good standard behaviour.

One thing that’s not quite there on an international level, but is noticeable in Germany, is the influence of ESG criteria. There are many aspects of projects where you notice that the measures were based on ESG criteria.

It’s also nice to see how diverse approaches are, especially in Europe. There’s not just one road leading to sustainability, but different ones, and you notice that with the projects. Of course that’s down to cultural factors, but they’re also dictated by budgets and influenced by planning styles. Maybe this is also one area of potential that could be played to more on an international level

Sustainable building – a sport for the masses, not a sport for the elite

LK: So does that mean that the importance of sustainability has been understood everywhere internationally, to an equal degree?

TK: Yes and no. The need to build sustainably has been understood everywhere. I also notice that by the proposals we receive and the projects. This is an issue you encounter everywhere of course. And it heightens with each new hurricane or flood that comes along. But there are still differences when it comes to how you deal with the issue, and the way people actively do something about it.

Sustainability is still an add-on in some areas, in the same way it was for us in Germany 15 years ago. And the whole aspect of life cycle assessments in construction, which are recognised as a standard in Germany, is still a bit of a novelty outside Europe. A certain amount of work still needs to be done in this area. Also, on an international level, there’s still a lot of emphasis on the actual building. Things have moved forward faster for us in Europe and we see districts as somewhere where we can make such a big difference and really establish sustainability as a foundation stone.

LK: Are there differences in the areas people focus on when it comes to sustainability, depending on the region?

TK: Yes, there are. In China, for example, more importance is given to the halo effect of sustainable buildings. But that’s also something to do with architecture training there. Buildings are supposed to appeal to others. In the United States, there’s increased focus at the moment on portfolio issues. It’s been recognised that individual measures are not much use by themselves – there need to be policies. In countries where things are still going through a process of development, there’s more focus on the issue of local materials. That’s partly to do with sustainability, but it’s also linked to costs. But overall, this is a positive development and something that’s reflected in the projects that were submitted for the competition. People have been attempting to work with inexpensive materials sourced locally. The days of flying to Italy, quarrying marble and using it to clad a lift area somewhere in an underground car park are behind us. It’s now about using materials sensibly – the right materials, used in the right way, in the right place.

There are also major differences between ‘best in class’ examples within the different regions, i.e. the ivory tower projects and what are considered to be the building standards. These are the projects that also get earmarked for prizes such as the Green Solutions Awards, the ones at the top of the ranking. In Germany, sustainable construction has now even moved into areas like subsidised housing. But basically we all still need to do more work on this on an international level. Everyone should be in a position to deliver projects sustainably. At the moment, sustainable construction is still a sport for the elite, like the Olympics. But it should become a sport for the masses.

“What we need now are green natives”

LK: The key question is: how does sustainability become a standard requirement? Where do you see potential to do something about this?

TK: For a start, we need to address the issue of sustainability in the classroom. We already have digital natives. What we need now are green natives. That’s what we lack, on a domestic and an international level – people who already come to things with a fundamental understanding of how this issue works, why it’s important and how to go about things. This has to be part of the consciousness and everyday life. But it also means that the people who will be decision-makers in ten or twenty years’ time already need to be equipped with the proper tools of the trade right now. And that also applies to companies in construction. Then sustainability would no longer be something ‘you have to go along with’, but standard practice. And thinking about it realistically, it’ll get to the point where things we’re still presenting awards for now, in competitions, will just become the proper thing to do – a building standard.

But at the same time we have to deal with the projects that are already underway and convert the people who are working on them right now, and we’ll also have to use a bit of persuasion. All our ambitions – whether they’re politically motivated or come from industry itself – need to pick up momentum and click in earlier in the process. It’s the same everywhere internationally, although unfortunately there’s still been no such thing as an international standard.

Injecting impetus – beyond the horizon

LK: To what extent do competitions like the Green Solutions Awards influence this?

TK: Prizes like this are always good, because you need to officially acknowledge people who are making a special effort. Also the name and the format of the Green Solutions Awards sends positive signals because it communicates that you are showing what’s possible. These aren’t blueprints in this area, but different ways to solve problems. So competitions like this allow you to open people’s eyes to different approaches and methods used in other parts of the world. For example, the project submissions for the Green Solutions Awards are a reflection of solutions people imagine happening in different regions of the world. And these can provide ideas and inspiration for other projects.

The 2020/21 Green Solutions Awards: find out who was honoured

The Mehr.WERT.Pavillon was the winner of the Sustainable Infrastructure Grand Prize

The Green Solution Awards were set up by Construction21, a social media platform for industry experts. A founding member of the platform, the DGNB organised the domestic preliminaries of the competition in Germany. To find out more about the winners of this year’s awards in the buildings, urban districts and infrastructure categories, click here. A German project was also among the winners: the Mehr.WERT.Pavillon. Another project received an honourable mention: the “Eisbärhaus Bauteil C”.

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