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Sustainable buildings are about more than ESG

Dr. Christine Lemaitre

Ever since the European Union declared sustainability a competitive advantage, the property industry has been in turmoil. Everyone is talking about ESG – or environmental, social and governance. Of course a property being sustainable – because it demonstrably takes environmental, social and governance factors into account during construction, renovations or operation – is nothing new. But it does make you wonder why everything suddenly feels so different and exciting … because a three-letter acronym is doing the rounds. The DGNB has been pointing the way forward in sustainable building for more than 15 years.

ESG owes its beginnings to the United Nations, which, in the early 2000s, laid down principles for responsible investment in an effort to introduce sustainability as a central element of capital markets. Things really took off in the United States in the wake of the Paris Agreement in 2015. In Europe the boom started with the launch of the EU’s European Green Deal, which builds on the Paris Agreement and aims to make the European continent carbon-neutral by 2050 (at the latest). Central to the EU’s package of measures is the establishment of a sustainable financial system and as such, the property industry plays a key role in this regard. The reason for this is that buildings account for high volumes of emissions, raw material consumption and waste generation. At the same time, the property sector throughout Europe continues to grapple with the need for low-cost housing.

Promoting sustainability through greater transparency

The aim of the EU Commission is to create transparency in all sectors of industry, which of course also affects the property industry regarding the environmental, social and economic standards of properties. What’s needed is the willingness among investors – but also firms that own, run, buy and sell property – to disclose all pertinent information. The traditional representatives of the building sector, such as planners, engineers and architects, are subsequently called upon to construct buildings that are ESG-compliant, i.e. sustainable and future-proof. By proffering its own classification system, with specific technical sustainability criteria for properties, the intention of the EU is to ensure buildings are looked at in a uniform manner. This so-called EU taxonomy, which was published in 2020 and is voluntary as a classification system, has as a first step turned the spotlight on environmental targets, which also cover climate protection and climate adaptation measures. In the meantime, there are also criteria relating to circular building, plus an extension that is currently being worked on to address other areas.

Talking the same language rather than fighting for personal interests

Establishing sustainability issues in the financial market, in such a way that they become a competitive advantage, is a necessary step for the EU. Despite this, with all the hype surrounding ESG at real estate trade fairs and property events, it would be wrong if that created the impression that sustainability is something completely new to the property industry – or that it’s only just been invented. Yet few market stakeholders seem interested in gaining clarity or uniformity in this area, let alone in building on what’s already in place or has been shown to work. Within in a very short space of time, this has spawned a slew of ESG initiatives running in parallel, with rating agencies and consultancies now operating in the market and claiming to be fully on top of the topic – just that they do things slightly differently from others.

Going it alone and pointing out differences is exactly the opposite of the intentions of the EU, however, which were about establishing a common European understanding of sustainability, one that also works internationally! After all, the very point of all this is that we need to achieve global goals – as captured by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), on an overarching level – and we need to be doing this together. What’s urgently needed, therefore, are clear standards that gain buy-in from both policymakers and market players – standards that rise above individual self-interest. We need ESG reporting requirements to be uniform for all companies and we need information gathering to improve in the short term. This must go hand in hand with independent quality audits to ensure people actually deliver on their promises. All in all, this would reduce the currently observed incidence of ESG-washing. From the outside in, ESG has all the semblance of holistic sustainability, but dig deeper and often it’s one small part of the broader picture.

Nothing new: sustainable building for over 15 years

Until such time as these standards are established in regulatory terms, the industry cannot and must not wait for something to happen. For more than 15 years, the German Sustainable Building Council has been working to make sustainable building something that can be planned and measured in construction. This holistic understanding goes far beyond aspects covered by the various ESG rating systems – and far beyond aspects covered by the EU taxonomy in its current status. The sustainability criteria used for the DGNB certification system have been tried and tested on projects for many years. They were also being continuously revisited and updated by groups of industry experts long before a certain three-letter acronym went up in neon lights in the property market.

One thing they have latched onto in Brussels is that sustainability or ESG factors are not a fixed entity but a process. Developments in the rules are shifting more and more towards a holistic understanding. The rules are also gradually becoming more ambitious. Anyone who is currently serious about sustainability and has a genuine interest in the work of the DGNB will know that sustainability is not something you implement because there are rules in place. You pursue sustainability to create a positive environment in which we feel comfortable and safe. Properties that are built and used in keeping with this aim and aspiration are also sustainable and economical – i.e. compatible with EU taxonomy, ESG, SDG and the Paris Agreement.

Just get on with it!

Despite the intellectual discussion surrounding ESG, one thing that’s overlooked with the S part is that we all live and work in buildings, and all spend time in towns or cities. That includes the decision-makers of the property industry. We thus all bear a responsibility, although we are also being presented with an opportunity to create a built environment that is well planned and designed. This is something we should simply get on with – straight away and in tangible terms.


Filed under: Sustainable Building


Dr. Christine Lemaitre was born in Gießen, Germany in 1975 and studied structural engineering at the University of Stuttgart from 1995 to 2000. After working in the USA for two years as structural engineer, she started in 2003 working at the Institute of Lightweight Structures Design and Construction at the University of Stuttgart as a research and teaching assistant. In 2007, she started as a project manager for R&D at Bilfinger Berger AG in the area of resource efficient buildings. She completed her phd thesis on adaptive lightweight structures in 2008. In January 2009 she took on the role as director certification system of the German Sustainable Building Council. Since February 2010 Dr. Christine Lemaitre is the CEO of the German Sustainable Building Council. Since 2013 she is member of the board of directors of the Sustainable Building Alliance. From 2015 until June 2019 she was Chair of the European Regional Network (ERN) of the World Green Building Council. Since 2016 she is board member of the World Green Building Council (WGBC).

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