Taking buildings to the next level(s), sustainably!

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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Stakeholders gather today to exchange on the future use of Level(s), a European voluntary reporting framework to improve the sustainability of buildings. Level(s) could be the basis for a future European construction-sector policy, where energy regulations could be extended to cover other environmental and social criteria, writes Marc Bosmans.

Marc Bosmans is the Sustainable Construction Manager at the European Insulation Manufacturers Association (Eurima).

Using buildings in Europe to meet EU climate targets is a once in a lifetime opportunity, for the construction industry and for all of society.

It’s essential for buildings to deliver their share of energy savings and greenhouse-gas reductions. A long-term climate strategy, published by the European Commission in November, says the EU should reach net-zero emissions by 2050 at the latest. For this to be possible, 3% of buildings in the EU need to be renovated every year, up from just 1% today.

With such a large amount of construction and renovation taking place, we’d also have a unique opportunity to address other issues relating to the built environment. For instance, buildings in Europe account for 40% of energy consumed, 36% of greenhouse gases emitted, almost half of raw materials consumed, and more than 40% of solid waste produced in the bloc.

Since Europeans spend almost all their time – more than 90% – indoors, health and well-being are also strongly affected by the indoor environments in which we live and work.

In order to make sure that construction and renovation is carried out in a balanced way, taking all aspects of a building into account, we need the appropriate information and assessment policies. Several voluntary certification systems do already exist, with names such as HQE, DGNB, BREEAM and LEED. These labels efficiently cover some of the very best construction projects on the market.

The challenge now is to bring a larger number of buildings on board, to increase the sustainability of the whole building stock.  This is the challenge the European Commission set itself in September 2017, when it launched a reporting programme known as Level(s). Level(s) is a voluntary information system, developed by the Commission’s environment department, that aims to improve the environmental performance of buildings in the EU.

Today, about 140 pilot projects are testing the Level(s) methodology. Many of them will participate today in a high-level workshop, organized in Brussels by the European Commission. Their feedback will be used to develop a new and improved sustainability programme in 2019.

A Europe-wide definition of sustainable buildings should show us the right way to go. It provides a unique opportunity to work together, improving innovation and collaboration across the whole construction chain. This can united the interests of property owners, lenders, architects, contractors and public authorities.

Level(s) could also be the basis for a future European construction-sector policy. Many national initiatives, both voluntary and mandatory, already suggest that buildings’ energy regulations could be extended to cover other environmental and social criteria.

The construction industry in Europe is a diverse industry, incorporating a large number of small and medium sized companies. These smaller businesses often struggle to see the competitive advantage of taking a new, broad approach to sustainability for construction and renovation projects. Regulatory authorities must help by setting clear long-term targets and policies. This vision would create the framework industry needs to support a transition to sustainable buildings.

A growing body of research, from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and the World Green Building Council, points towards the need to take the environmental and health impacts into account for construction projects, as well as assessing the energy consumption of buildings.

The European Commission has a chance to show global leadership by creating a legal framework for the construction industry to make this transition. Companies would thrive internationally on the basis of European knowledge and expertise, while citizens would benefit from healthy, comfortable, and sustainable buildings.

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