The New Decade
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Wanted: innovators offering new building materials!

Green Solution House, Denmark

As public awareness grows for the need to protect the climate and save resources, there is also increasing demand for appropriate building materials. Manufacturers are expected to ‘do their bit’ in raising the standards of the environment we build around ourselves. There are some interesting ideas out there – but companies need to get more proactive.

2020 is not just another year. Entering 2020 means there are only ten years to go before 2030 – the year associated with so many sustainability goals. To mark 2020, six members of the DGNB board look back at the last ten years in the building sector and cast their gaze forwards. One topic – examined from six angles. In the next post on this blog, Martin Haas examines the role played by architects and their importance for sustainable building.


The demand for ‘sustainable’ construction materials has risen in recent years. This is reflected in the growth of branded products, ranging from the FSC label, for timber products sourced from responsibly managed forests, to the CSC scheme, introduced for concrete in 2016. What we now have is a multitude of labelling systems with a bearing on sustainability, all designed to tell us something about the composition, origins or production of materials. These are useful for architects and planners because they provide pointers if they want to build sustainably. In 2018, the DGNB introduced a process for recognising labels during building certification and this helped promote further demand. One of the aims of the measure is to place emphasis on transparency when it comes to environmental risk, more responsible sourcing, and the deconstruction and disassembly of building materials.

The role played by costs and scarce resources

Rising demand is not the only reason why companies are being driven towards sustainable thinking. Other influences include regulatory measures such as carbon pricing, which will probably only intensify, and the German Circular Economy Act passed in 2019. But if anything is more likely to promote alternative thinking and innovation, then it’s the fact that resources are not finite!

In future, it will not just be classic raw materials that companies will have to think more about, but also things like the water that’s used to produce materials. By 2050, global water consumption is forecast to rise 55 per cent compared to the turn of the millennium. By then, 40 per cent of the world’s population will be living in areas affected by major water shortages. Subterranean water is also becoming increasingly polluted and is starting to run out.

One answer: the circular economy

Zirkuläres Modell

The process for creating recyclable products involves systematically reducing the disassembly and disposal of materials. © DGNB

One innovative and highly promising solution has emerged in recent years – a concept that provides important answers to climate change and the current shortage of resources: the circular economy, in which resources are used and reused continually. This radical and new way of looking at things would require everyone to move away from the linear economic system. The key challenge for producers will be to see their products as recyclable materials that are not simply disposed of after use. Instead, they can be returned to the loop thanks to technical or biological processes. The aim is to systematically avoid waste and ensure that as many materials or products as possible can be re-used or re-purposed. For this to happen, we need new business models and products developed with responsible methods, placing focus on future considerations. To ensure products align with this philosophy – and provide proof that they do so – since 2010 materials can be Cradle to Cradle CertifiedTM. This end-to-end sustainability certificate assesses and scores materials based on five factors:

Circular Economy Report Cover

Interested in finding out more? See this report on why the circular economy is a fundamental component of sustainable building.

  1. The use of safe ingredients, so they should not harm health
  2. Material reutilisation
  3. The use and production of renewable energy
  4. The protection and improvement of water quality
  5. The promotion of social fairness and respect for human dignity

The DGNB has also embraced the cradle to cradle philosophy. Version 2018 of the DGNB System introduced so-called circular economy bonuses to make it possible to assess and attach specific numbers to forward-looking solutions during the building certification process.

We need ‘environmental product innovators’

To move forward, we need companies to take resource issues seriously and start thinking along different lines, as described above. We need firms that invest in the environment and their own future viability – firms we can call environmental product innovators!

Unfortunately, the reality at the moment is quite sobering. Only one third of companies in Germany can be called environmental product innovators. This is highlighted by a study of the modernisation of manufacturing conducted by the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research (ISI). A company can be considered an innovator if it achieves significant improvements in at least one area affecting the environment and thus reduces its comparative impact on the environment.

environmental product-innovators chart

Different ways to improve impacts on the environment © Fraunhofer ISI, study “Modernisation of manufacturing”

Do something – now!

Demand is growing. Pressure is intensifying. And the solutions are ready and waiting. If this upward trend is to continue for the next decade – for the good of the environment – we just need plenty of companies to shift into action. Allow me to outline six points that highlight what should be happening:

  1. Sustainability should be central to the business strategy. Sustainability is not just an empty phrase. It should be entrenched in the business strategy. It has to be steered and managed. But to do that, you need to acquire the right know-how. To kick things off, consider your own impact on the environment and evaluate it.
  2. Take responsibility. Feeling responsible for your own products or materials means thinking in terms of entire life cycles when you develop those products. To think in these terms, you need to consider the next generation (and the ones after that).
  3. Look at social sustainability. People form the backbone of every company and will remain their key resource, because it’s people who dictate the success of a business. Keeping them happy and healthy is a long-term undertaking.
  4. Foster innovation. If there are compelling economic reasons for your products to be brought back into circulation, completely new business models can be developed. And this creates competitive advantage.
  5. Look at all areas of the supply chain. The moment you need to add ingredients or materials to the processes that affect your own products, the whole issue moves beyond the four walls of your company. We all depend on other stakeholders in the supply and value chain, but we can influence them: believing in and embodying sustainability should bring others on board.
  6. Make good use of digital technology. Digital solutions add
    report life cycle assessments

    EPDs are a useful source of data for assessing the life cycle of a building.

    transparency and improve the quality of information. Making product information available and distributing it should be standard practice. A good example of this: environmental product declarations (EPDs), which provide extremely accurate information on environmental impacts. Then there’s building information modelling (BIM), an important platform for stakeholders in this area. This is something we should all link our products to, and we should quickly shift connected planning into 6D BIM – the part of planning that takes sustainability into account.

My experience

One thing I can say from personal experience is that it pays to think in terms of sustainability. When you accept this new kind of thinking, start applying closed-loop recycling principles and manage this area professionally, it’s also good in the long term for fellow-workers, the environment and the fortunes of your business. And this brings us to the big message when it comes to sustainability: it’s a triangle – comprising environmental, economic and sociocultural factors. It’s being future-proof – big style. Which is what we all need for the next ten years.

Cover photo: The photo (© Laura Stamer) shows the Green Solution House in Bornholm, Denmark. The hotel and conference centre was designed according to the Cradle to Cradle philosophy and has received DGNB certification for its circular sustainability. More about the project on the website of GXN Architects.

Filed under: The New Decade


Josef Steretzeder was a founding member of the DGNB and currently works for Lindner. From 2012 to 2019, he has chaired the DGNB construction products committee. He was appointed a member of the DGNB board of directors in 2019. An engineer in wood technology by background, he is the official procurement signatory for product and service sustainability at Lindner. His practical experience with the role played by construction materials, combined with experience as an honorary professor at Deggendorf Institute of Technology, makes Steretzeder a valuable contributor to the topics of circular economy, digital transformation and health at the DGNB.

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