This article is part of our special report Sustainable construction.
SPECIAL REPORT / Construction will be an essential part of the transition to a circular economy, and can also drive growth, the European Union’s Environment Commissioner has said.
Karmenu Vella is European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.
What do you understand by sustainable construction? Is it just an environmental issue?
Sustainability consists of three pillars, and they all need to go hand in hand. At the moment, we are focusing on the environmental performance of buildings, while keeping the social and economic aspects in mind.
Last year, the European Commission adopted a Communication on Resource Efficiency Opportunities in the Building Sector. It sets out a number of actions aiming at a better functioning market for recycled construction materials to boost its true sustainability.
One year on, several key initiatives are under way. One example is a study to develop specific tools that can assess construction and demolition waste streams before demolition or renovation begins. In fact these “pre-demolition audits” are already being used in some parts of Europe. The audits allow better waste management, because as well as identifying the fractions suitable for recycling, they also make it easier to separate hazardous materials, so they can be disposed of safely.
Another major action coming as a result of the communication is developing a common European approach to assess the environmental performance of buildings. Taking a holistic approach to “green buildings” will help the sector take all aspects of resource use into account, throughout the life cycle of a building. The idea is to create a common language and open up the business case for green buildings.
How can construction fit into the circular economy?
Construction and all the businesses it involves will be essential in the transition to a circular economy.
The idea goes far beyond making buildings more energy-efficient when we heat and cool them. It is also about aspects like the materials we use for construction in the first place, and how we deal with them when we renovate or demolish the buildings, the energy and other resources we use to produce the construction materials, water consumption and so on.
Every year in the EU, nearly 15 tonnes of materials are used per person. Part of this comes from extractive industries, and construction materials account for a large proportion of those. The waste stream from the construction sector is one of the largest, and makes up about one third of the waste generated in the EU. So the advantages of moving to a more circular model here are legion.
Construction is seen as a bellweather for economic health. What role can it play in getting Europe back to growth?
Construction has great potential as a motor for growth – it already contributes 9% to EU GDP. Renovation, which is labour-intensive and often requires special skills, is a particularly important sector. And let’s not forget that recycling construction and demolition waste, which comes with local work for sorting and collection, adds jobs that can not be moved elsewhere. Several interesting industry-lead initiatives are on-going, targeting circular economy in different ways. There we have a common objective, and this sector can certainly be the engine of recovery. We will make our best to support the sector and add incentives where we can.
Is the Commission aware of the energy efficiency benefits of concrete buildings? Some believe the industry is penalised for the high emissions of creating it without the benefits being taken into account.
We are aware of the pros and cons of a whole range of construction materials, concrete included. It’s important to remember that choosing a building material isn’t simply an economic decision, and that many factors, such as culture, aesthetic impression and individual choice all have a vital role to play. Different policies can come into play for different materials, but we do not consider that any specific sector is being penalised.