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“We need more ambition, creativity and courage”

“Systems that limit planners’ creativity and design freedom are fundamentally wrong and ineffectual,” says Thomas Auer, Professor for Building Technology and Climate Responsive Design at TU Munich and Managing Director of Transsolar Energietechnik. In our blog interview, he discusses the differences between international certification systems for buildings and the special role played by the German Sustainable Building Council (DGNB), also reflecting on the responsibilities architects and engineers will face as a result of necessary changes in the environment we build around ourselves.

Felix Jansen: You held a keynote speech on the environmental transformation of the the built environment at the 2017 World Sustainable Built Environment Conference in Hong Kong. How far have we progressed in this transformation process?

Thomas Auer: Thermal insulation of facades alone will not be enough. Since the German thermal insulation regulations (Wärmeschutzverordnung) came into effect in 1995 – more than 20 years ago now – the government has required buildings to have proper thermal insulation. Over the same time, the carbon footprint of the building sector has remained virtually unchanged. In other words, we’re still getting out of the starting blocks!

FJ: Where should the industry be investing time and effort to do its part in getting us towards global climate goals?

TA: We are slowly starting to understand how profound and radical the transformation will have to be to bring us closer to the goal of ‘decarbonising’ the building sector. But we’re still not even close to having all the answers; we need a lot more ambition, creativity and courage on all sides – starting with public and private owners of buildings, but also including the local authorities, people in the industry (architects, engineers, general contractors, tradespeople, etc) and the research institutions.

Thomas Auer at the 2017 World Sustainable Built Environment Conference in Hong Kong









FJ: While the conference was taking place, an interview with you appeared under the attention-grabbing title of “Are green buildings standards helping to slow climate change?” You discussed the LEED system and the local standards in Hong Kong, saying that although they provide quality assurance, they neither foster innovation nor make a significant contribution to reducing carbon emissions. Why?

TA: Certification systems for buildings and urban districts are always based on the current state of the art – that is, on the current quality of buildings. Their aim is to improve them, or in other words, make them more sustainable. But they don’t question common building methods. Also, systems like LEED in the United States define the solutions, but not the objectives. For example, LEED awards points for the amount of recycled material in concrete – but if you use innovative structures to reduce the overall amount of concrete needed, you don’t get any points. They try to compensate for this shortcoming by awarding points for innovation. But the number of points is limited, which means you usually won’t get points for all innovations, or every building gets points anyway. With the DGNB system, they chose to define the objectives rather than how you get there. There are some steps along the way, which also makes the system more complicated to apply. But the approach is still important and right, and the DGNB system is significantly better and more stringent than LEED.

FJ: The DGNB recently ask for feedback on Version 2017 of the certification system. It features, for example, ‘innovation spaces’ as a new instrument for encouraging new thinking. This is aimed at fostering development-specific approaches – for more diversity in the environment we build around ourselves. How important do you consider such creative freedom for planners?

TA: Systems that limit planners’ creativity and design freedom are fundamentally wrong and ineffectual. We have to acknowledge that a certification system needs to be kept fairly general. It has to be applicable to large or small buildings, whether they’re urban or rural. But all building and district developments also entail highly specific factors or sustainability criteria, and these vary according to the location, the owner of the building, the user, the local climate, etc. Defining such parameters and laying down objectives based on general or specific sustainability criteria is the job of the planners (HOAI service phase 1) – no matter how good your system is, there’s no getting around it. Certification systems should foster innovation, not hamper it. But innovation has to come from the architects, the engineers and the building owners. That was what I was actually saying in the interview I gave in Hong Kong. Architects and engineers have a major responsibility when it comes transforming the environment we build around ourselves, so they can’t withdraw behind certification systems or government regulations – which isn’t about saying certification systems aren’t good; quite the opposite, in fact!

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Felix Jansen is responsible for the PR, communications and marketing activities of the DGNB. A qualified expert in communication and media science, Jansen was previously responsible for communications at several different companies and organisations, including the start-up initiative CODE_n, the GFT Group, the SimTech excellence cluster at Stuttgart University and MFG Baden-Wuerttemberg.

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