Climate Action

This expert shares how to make sustainable buildings

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We can feign helplessness, or prioritise greed and profit over world-health, but any gain is short-term and we will all lose out in the end. Image: Unsplash/Randy Fath

Coen van Oostrom
Founder and Chief Executive Officer, EDGE
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Industry colleagues,

I am writing this open letter to spur everyone on to action now that the EU Green Deal has been outlined. It is time for the industry to do their part and take responsibility to make this deal work for the world as it should. We have known for a long time that around 40% of carbon emissions come from the built environment—our industry. And that these have been rising by 1% per year since 2010, despite measures taken—which is massively significant. If we can show the way from a European standpoint, taking a stand where we can, the world has a lead to follow with no more excuses or procrastination.

After the Paris Agreement in 2015, I was surprised at how little had happened in the months and years that followed. It seemed as if humanity was finally taking a step in the right direction and then everything ground to a halt while we wondered what it would actually mean for us. The Paris Agreement has always been a general goal to limit the increase of the post-industrial world temperature and it was left up to individual countries and politicians to make their policies and changes. The message was that they should come up with their own solutions. But where to start when the ‘how’ was not defined? The Green Deal is the call to finally do better for ourselves as an industry, and build better buildings for the world. Our common goal? Cutting carbon emissions for global carbon neutrality by 2050.

Have you read?

While 2050 may seem a long way off to us now, it will be here before we know it. EDGE has already made a good start in our commitment to redevelopments, circular processes and sustainability—you can look at our innovative EDGE Suedkreuz Berlin and award-winning Triodos Netherlands buildings as examples. In these particular hybrid buildings, wood was used in construction alongside concrete, reducing CO2 emissions immensely. At our EDGE Olympic headquarters in Amsterdam this was also an aim and so we redeveloped an existing building and added a wooden top-up. In addition, some materials from the old building that could no longer be used were given a new purpose; The old natural stone facade, for instance, now serves as flooring on the ground floor. This is an important factor, as the Green Deal mainly addresses C02 emissions produced during construction processes, transport of materials, and the importance of a circular economy.

Conversely, the renovation/redevelopment rates of existing buildings stand at only 1%, with most big development companies still choosing to knock down existing buildings and construct new ones - without using circular principles. If those same companies could find ways to redevelop, or at least harvest the materials that come from those buildings and use them in a circular way, it would already cut carbon emissions from the construction process. As an industry, we need to address the immense improvements that can be achieved through rethinking and innovating processes, beyond those outlined by the Green Deal.

It is not only about redevelopment, but also about building optimisation. Up to 40% of EU carbon emissions currently come from the energy use of buildings. If existing offices and residential buildings can have real-time insight into their energy usage, change outdated gas-powered heating systems into cutting-edge cooling and underground heat storage, they could also find ways of generating carbon-neutral energy to give back to the grid. Our buildings already do this via solar energy, and it makes a huge difference to be energy neutral or even positive. Additional to this, there are millions of m2 in current office buildings across the world with no regard for energy efficiency at all; floors being heated/cooled even though they aren’t in use during the weekend, inefficient air filtering systems pumping air 24/7 in un-booked meeting room, and spaces being cleaned without anyone having occupied them. Optimising even a small percentage of these elements going forward, and focusing on a higher percentage in the future, would have a massive global impact with very tangible results towards carbon neutrality.

We can all feel overwhelmed with our individual businesses, wonder what role we can play in order to kick-start things, or get caught up in time-wasting political arguments, finger pointing and blame. We can feign helplessness, or prioritise greed and profit over world-health, but any gain is short-term and we will all lose out in the end. While von der Leyen and Timmermans have done a great job up to now, we cannot look to others to set the example when in fact we should be doing it ourselves. Governments in individual countries all have their parts to play in setting legislation and helping us reach goals, but in the end self-regulation is most effective. The automotive industry has long been in the spotlight, and look at what car companies like Tesla have achieved. Real estate directly affects people, so it’s relatively easy for us to make these changes and innovate beyond them. There is no time to waste: the time to act is here.

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