Architecture, DGNB, Sustainable Building
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Sustainable construction in Europe – a chance to compare notes

Sustainable Building in Europe

Sustainable construction is booming in Germany. So how are things going for our neighbours? How is sustainable building faring in other European countries and where does Germany stand in comparison? DGNB CEO Dr Christine Lemaitre seized the opportunity offered by our 2022 annual congress to exchange notes with our friends and partners working for the Green Building Council in other European countries.

It’s amazing what new ideas pop up when you look at things from a different angle and challenge your own perceptions. It’s easy to gain the impression that you’re the only one grappling with some of the trials and tribulations of daily business. So it was precisely this different angle that Dr Christine Lemaitre ventured to adopt on 23 February with Mette Qvist, CEO of Green Building Council Denmark, Bruno Sauer, CEO of Green Building Council España and Dr Vlasta Zanki, President of the Board of Directors at Green Building Council Croatia.

A common understanding of sustainability

A special online meet-up was organised during the 2022 congress to examine the topic of Sustainable Building in Europe, with delegates invited to discuss how sustainable building is doing at the moment in individual countries. One thing all of our DGNB System Partners have in common is that the DGNB System concept, which was developed as a holistic tool for certifying sustainable buildings, is adapted for use in each country. We also have official System Partners in Austria and Switzerland.

The decision taken when our partnership kicked off in Denmark in 2011 was to rely solely on the certification system developed by the DGNB. This contrasts to Spain, which also uses the domestic VERDE scheme, which had already been developed before embarking on our partnership in 2019. Our most recent partner, the Croatia Green Building Council, which has already been operating for over ten years, has been adapting the DGNB System to domestic requirements in the Eastern European country since 2021.

Things are certainly going in the right direction

Even if some countries have made more progress than others, especially in terms of acceptance and development, one thing all parties have observed over the last two years is a sharp rise in the perception that sustainability can be a bit contentious. Also, everyone has now come to the realisation that the building sector plays a crucial role in achieving the EU Green Deal goals laid down in 2019. This is serving to accelerate market trends.

That said, as Mette Qvist pointed out, things are still not moving forward quickly enough, although at least they’re going in the right direction. Qvist is particularly pleased that doggedly pursuing her goals, despite opposition, has started to pay off. Initially, one of the best ways to win over investors was to point to the superior standards of buildings based on sustainable construction methods. These days, the conscience of all parties involved in property is shaped by topics such as cutting carbon emissions, biodiversity and the circular economy.

Sustainable finance – injecting important impetus

Will EU taxonomy (the system for classifying sustainable activities) and Environment Social Governance (ESG criteria) prove useful in driving sustainable construction? The unequivocal answer from everyone involved in the session was “yes”. In Denmark, for example, not only are the financial markets finally beginning to see the benefits of sustainable investments, pension funds and social housing associations are also starting to join us on the journey.

It’s a similar picture in Spain. As Bruno Sauer explained, the DGNB System is a perfect fit with the discussion currently going on in the financial market and this could inject even more momentum. The reason for this is that the system is a useful tool for calculating the various impacts of building methods, which also makes the financial benefits of sustainable activities tangible. What really matters for banks and investors is the value of a building and this is precisely where the EU taxonomy comes into play.

Our partners in Croatia leverage the networks of the European Green Building Council in combination with local experience to work out which approach makes best sense. The topic of sustainability is only gradually entering the consciousness of different stakeholders and the general public. The DGNB System does now appear to be the right tool for the job, however. Having observed the projects that have been registered until now, Vlasta Zanki feels the primary motivation is of a financial nature – whether this is to attract funding, to minimise the cost of running buildings or to make it easier to sell buildings. EU taxonomy will definitely be important in the future.

In partnership with members of the Climate Positive Europe Alliance (CPEA), the DGNB has developed an ESG verification system for the EU Taxonomy, which can be used by the property industry. The verification system makes it easier to assess whether properties conform with criteria laid down under the EU Taxonomy.

To certify or not to certify – also a moral issue

During the chat session, one member of the online audience directed a question directly at Mette Qvist. Pointing to the example of Lynetteholm, an artificial island planned off the coast of Copenhagen, the topic of certification was raised within the context of projects with controversial benefits when it comes to sustainability. The aim of the huge development project, which is currently the subject of much debate, is to shield the Danish capital from the impacts of climate change and provide a home for 35,000 people.

Christine Lemaitre added that the DGNB System acts as a tool for measuring the sustainable features of buildings and urban districts. DGNB certification does not grant absolution, nor does it ascertain whether it can be deemed that an individual project makes sense. As such, it does not absolve anyone from their responsibilities. Rather, the system can serve to define the right course of action, especially at an early stage. The onus of each decision, and the consequences of those decisions, must be borne by each individual.

So what next?

To conclude the session, Christine Lemaitre said it would be nice to look to the future. What are the topics that everyone involved in construction should be focusing on to stay on the ball when it comes to sustainability, especially in the long term?

Bruno Sauer pointed to The Nine Planetary Boundaries, a recent study by the Swedish resilience researcher, Johan Rockström, which underscores why one of the biggest problems we currently face on this planet is biodiversity loss. The building sector holds a major responsibility in this respect. In Sauer’s opinion, the bar needs to be raised in cities; it’s not just buildings that need urgent renovation work. The spotlight should be turned on the cities themselves to compensate for the impacts of climate change.

Mette Qvist emphasised how rewarding it is to compare notes with colleagues from other parts of Europe and receive mutual support. In her eyes, too, biodiversity is one of the most important issues at the moment and we urgently need to find a solution. Other topics include the circular economy and existing buildings. In the latter area, things are already moving in the right direction in Denmark: instead of erecting new buildings, as has been the case in the past, companies are refurbishing buildings out of conviction and adapting them to changing requirements.

In addition to constructing earthquake-proof buildings, in her country Vlasta Zanki sees existing buildings as the major challenge. Whereas there are already strict regulations in place for new buildings, and these are updated continuously, an approach needs to be found for dealing with existing buildings. Zanki also appealed for more involvement of the transportation and energy sectors, both of which have an impact on the building industry. This is ignoring digital transformation and its role in decarbonising different processes.

After the rational part of the proceedings, Christine Lemaitre closed the online meet-up with a request to her fellow participants, to help her pronounce DGNB in Spanish, Danish and Croatian. To see and hear how that went, it’s worth watching the video recording of the meet-up.

Sustainable Building Europe

Filed under: Architecture, DGNB, Sustainable Building

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Christine Schröder is responsible for DGNB initiatives and networking, with an emphasis on sustainability and knowledge sharing. After studying architecture and working in Stuttgart , Berlin and London, she first developed an affection for writing during a traineeship at the publishing house Alexander Koch. For over ten years, Christine was a member of the editorial team working on the architecture journal AIT. Eventually, her passion for sustainable building led her to the DGNB.

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