Sustainable buildings

Territorial Development Service

Buildings consume as much energy as transport. It is high time we integrated them firmly into any sustainable development equation. 

Le Corbusier, the great (though controversial) European urban planner and architect, argued that buildings were machines, to perform a task and to be disposed of when no longer up-to-date. He once famously quipped: why should we leave our buildings to our heirs, since we do not bequeath them our bodies?

But we do inherit buildings, and what we build we pass on to our heirs. “Sustainable building” refers to the economic, social and environmental impact of buildings and building activities. Over half of the world’s population lives in urban areas. Houses, factories and offices in cities, towns and villages have to be heated, lit, cleaned, managed, maintained, renovated, rebuilt or conserved. Buildings consume. They use energy, whether for office equipment, televisions or electric lighting, and so burn fuel, from wood to mined fuel. This contributes to greenhouse gases, while refrigeration adds to ozone production.

The operation of buildings accounts for 25-40% of final energy consumption in the OECD area. This is comparable with transport. And this does not even count the energy consumed for manufacturing building materials, etc. Construction of buildings and infrastructure could be responsible for up to half of all material used in some OECD countries. And then there is the waste that has to be managed and minimised. Safety is another building concern, as disasters like earthquakes in Japan, Turkey and elsewhere cruelly remind us. This means setting standards and responsibilities that apply throughout the buildings’ lifetimes.

Air quality is another building concern and a health one too. Most people spend as much as 90% of their time indoors. From birth, through school, work, rest and play, indoor space and air quality is influenced by buildings and affect our health. This is another good reason why public policy should seek to influence building norms and objectives, not to mention reducing the environmental burden.

One problem is that the building sector is unique. Indeed, it is many things together: water supply, heavy materials, excavation. And houses have different demands than hospitals, schools or offices. Buildings are expected to satisfy a wide variety of demands, such as protection from weather; thermal and noise comfort; safety from fire and other hazards; supply of quality water, etc. But these demands sometimes contradict each other. For instance, insulation work to improve heating efficiency in offices during the oil crisis in the 1970s also led to worsening air quality and a rise in related health problems from formaldehyde, a chemical found in pressed wood and insulation foam that causes irritation and dizziness.

Moreover, buildings are fixed capital: the French call them immobile capital, as distinct from mobile types, like money and equity. They are a form of investment, vehicles of value and products of exchange, though fixed in physical space during their entire lifetimes. They are a key part of the urban engine of capitalism. One problem is that while buildings can inject value into land, they can also fall apart from negligence, reducing their own value and that of those around them. Buildings require maintenance, upgrading or demolition. They can, in short, be a planning headache.

Clearly, environmental policy instruments that have been successful in other sectors cannot always be applied to buildings. Take-back programmes of the type used for beverage containers would probably not work, for instance. It would be unrealistic to oblige designers or contractors to take any responsibility for, say, demolition decades ahead. Can we really know how long a building will last? The Eiffel tower was built a century ago as a temporary structure for a world fair but still stands robust. The Great Pyramids have lasted an eternity, but will Pei’s glass pyramids in the Louvre?

Policymakers are starting to pay attention. In 2000, the first international conference on sustainable building (called SB2000) was held in Maastricht. A second conference (SB2002) will be held in Oslo, Norway, this September. European housing ministers from east and west held a “sustainable housing” meeting in Brussels in July.

The OECD is in fact one of the few international organisations that attempts to look at sustainable building from a policy point of view, for instance, at how energy efficiency might be improved to reduce cost and CO2 emissions, or how to reduce material pressure on gravels, sands and forests, etc. Will this new interest lead anywhere? And will sustainable development hinder or help the industry? After all, traditionally government policies aimed to stimulate building as a source of jobs and growth.

Yet, in some ways, the building lobby appears to be leading the way, in renewable energy installations, for instance. But while many large-scale contractors are investing in environmental technologies for a growing market, not so the smaller builders that in fact make up most of the building trade. These are very slow to adopt new technology and simply insisting through regulation would either put them out of business or drive them into the underground economy. That would mean substandard, even dangerous, buildings, particularly in lower income countries or towns. Therein lies a major public question: how to spread the technology and know-how that is available and actually apply it.

Several governments have tried and these conferences will hopefully help. As ever, there is the question of expense. Apartment blocks have been built with energy-efficient design, complete with solar panels and smart technology to control appliances. But their initial cost has often put them out of reach of all but a well-off few. This may change as technology costs fall. Already in California, prices of solar-powered houses are falling fast.

Some concrete examples

Architects can show us the possibilities, but policymakers can do a lot to promote the adoption of available technologies in as many building types as possible.

Take environmental labelling for instance. This may seem like a curious idea for buildings, yet the UK’s Building Research Establishment has put such schemes in place for new buildings (mainly offices). It evaluates a wide range of environmental characteristics of buildings. The scheme is now in use in a quarter of all new office buildings in the UK. Data is still preliminary, though it suggests that the average energy efficiency of buildings using it is higher than other buildings.

In 2001 Japan introduced a new voluntary labelling scheme too, this time for housing. Now, potential buyers can easily understand which building has which level of energy efficiency. Given Japan’s earthquake risks, robustness and durability are assessed too. The new scheme has already been used for more than 70,000 housing units.

Energy auditing is another measure. The Dutch Energy Performance Advice scheme is a good example of this, aiming to reduce energy use in existing buildings by some 3 Mt of carbon by 2008-2012. Under the scheme, technical experts check dwellings and make concrete proposals on upgrading energy efficiency.

Denmark is perhaps the most advanced country in this area, with their obligatory Energy Labelling. When someone wishes to sell a house in Denmark, they must have the efficiency of the house checked and provide a report to buyers as a condition of sale.

Water-saving initiatives exist too. In the US, several cities, including New York, introduced new 1.6 gallon per flush toilets in the 1990s to replace the old 3-5 gallon per flush models. Public authorities led the drive and some 25 million new units were installed in homes and offices by the end of the decade. The result has been a sharp drop in water consumption.

A more common initiative is the landfill tax, the aim this time to encourage better recycling of building materials. Again, Denmark and the Netherlands are leaders in this area: their recycling rate of construction and demolition waste has already reached 90%, thanks in part to the landfill tax. These low-grade recycled materials are not used in building construction, though, but in road foundations and for landscaping golf courses, etc. For building construction, technological improvements would be needed to increase the high- grade recycling such as the use of recycled aggregates in concrete, and to improve the flow of these goods throughout the sector.

Perhaps that is the next step: knocking down buildings, recycling them and resurrecting them. What would Le Corbusier say about that?


• OECD (2002), Design of Sustainable Building Policies, OECD, Paris.

See, under “documentation, other”.

©OECD Observer No. 233, August 2002

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