Lowering building impact

How are we going to ensure that buildings will be sustainable, that is to say, with the least impact on the environment, concerning raw materials depletion, loss of biodiversity and, above all, CO2 emissions as the most urgent effect of our construction and consumption drive?

Earlier I wrote that the generic tools used to evaluate buildings will not lead to CO2 reduction. [1] Most of them have dozens of categories that are also added up with subjective weighting factors. In order to then , in some cases, subsequently be converted into money: an unreliable, variable and non-scientific indicator. What is needed is a more physical approach.

There are a number of other instruments that clearly go beyond these point system style group of tools, and also set (partially) real limits, aimed at closing cycles (eg building and buildings). Among the most important are the Living Building Challenge, The Natural Step, and Oneplanet principles. A short analysis to put them in perspective, before drawing some conclusions. All three they provide handles and guidelines how to arrive at a sustainable building. And all three use criteria which in principle all must be met, without addition or weighting or the like.

Living Building Challenge -LBC
Inspired by: Limits to growth, the famous publication from the early seventies. The limits still apply, [2] but we have progressed, and know now that it is ‘limits in carrying capacity’: and those limits must be set. This happens in LBC, albeit only partly. [3]
In LBC good criteria are mixed with sub-criteria and details of consequences, instead of fighting the causes. A somewhat out of balance collection of issues. Here, too, the closing of water and energy cycles is reasonably covered, but the material (cycle) is, in the base , not well covered. Even though there is a ‘Red List’: materials that absolutely can not be used (moreover, these are mostly health related bans). In this respect, its the only approach that dares to put this down so hard.

On the other side, it is also mixed with subjective welfare criteria: such as a category “beauty and spirit”. Nothing against that, but that is quite subjective, and moreover, in my experience, if you really go into “deep sustainability” , beauty is a consequence. ( I think…) .
LBC also works with offset’s , the compensation of impact with planting elsewhere, which of course remains a tricky business, especially on a global scale. Nearly all these schemes don’t work [4]. And lastly: the approach is function oriented, and not resource cycles oriented, which can lead to a sub-optimal approach. (The function, a building can be well developed, but globally we can probably not afford billions of such buildings. [5] There is a global system boundary.

The Natural Step -TNS
At first glance this basically starts from combating adverse effects of our behavior: such as “it is not the intention to increase concentrations of all kinds of substances in the earth and / or atmosphere”. Yes, but that is starting from consequences, and not from causes. Although TNS , to be honest, is the closest to a physically fundamental approach that takes the carrying capacity as the starting point. [6]

But on closer inspection, it seems nevertheless more corrective than fundamental, and even slightly cautiously formulated, that could have been somewhat clearer and challenging.
Here again an effect approach: how quickly can nature break off substances, as a measure for our consumption potential. Not incorrect, of course, but that’s the backside of it. It is better to adhere to what is possible at the front side, what nature can produce on a regular basis (that what can be withdrawn from nature per unit of time without depleting stocks), in order to properly arrange it at the front. Not like , for example, soften the impact by aluminum with the potential for recycling in some far future, but to appoint and value original extraction. Which in most cases is so high that the credo applies: do not use, it if not necessary [7]. (if an alternative is available)

The TNS principle of “resources need to be used equitably and efficiently”, is too cautious formulated , it sets no limits. But TNS in my view really is wrong when it states that “Nothing disappears matter and energy are constants” Its too short and too optimistic: “Matter” remains indeed constant on earth, but diluted and becomes “unusable”, which then takes more and more energy to win, collect and process. And energy in general is not lost, but that is in the universe as a whole,, but it is in fact from within the earth system. (fossil energy, the stock within system, is used and becomes exhausted, lost as heat to universe).
All in all a good attempt to give physical principles hands and feet for daily practice. Whoever uses it is in any case heading in the right direction.

one planet principles
This is basically a clear and good list, [8] with absolute boundaries formulated (zero waste, zero carbon) but in fact in the wrong order….: it starts with health and happiness, and social desires, while the resource side should be leading : That puts things upside down, if we start with needs and desires, we will never manage within the carrying capacity of resources .
In addition: the 0-boundaries for waste and energy (carbon) are excellent, but if all energy is renewable, the entire problem has shifted to materials (eg to generate renewable energy) and that is precisely on which no limit is placed upon. In short, not wrong, but requires some ‘repair work’. The oneplanet principles are not physical analyses, but nevertheless they are to the point targets and goals.

Each one of these three approaches is already better than the more commercial instruments that are used worldwide, and which will make you end up in the right direction. However, in principle they are all still based on the fact that there has to be built, and how to do that with the least (physical) load. But nevertheless, still assuming building and therefor system load. (each building by definition increases the environmental impact)
Some of these approaches, both in the first and second group, use LCA’s as the basis for the determination in various categories. LCA is also used separately. Although it is in principle a physically oriented approach, this also contains various categories, mixing causes and effects and using weighing factors, even in some cases with a translation to money. It gives a lot of insight, but will not help us, to prevent further system degradation. It also assumes a product or building that has to be realized, regardless of whether this is still justified at system level.

The only way to overcome this general problem in all approaches, is to start from the the maximum system potential right in the beginning, the exergetic potential, and stay within that budget with all the activities in the system. See the Trias eXergetica which I distracted and formulated. (and the MAXergy method, with embodied land as the indicator, to make it computable.) [9]

However, it seems too ambitious to ask the practice to use a physical approach in everything, let alone an exergetic one. But the current instruments are not going to help us either, at the most they delay the growth of the impact somewhat. Which brings me back to CO2, currently our biggest problem, and yes, a side effect, not a cause, but by coincidence our biggest and acknowledged problem currently and crowbar to change things. And if we focus on CO2, reduction or even entirely avoiding it, 0-emissions, then most other processes also go in the right direction: you end up with solutions that not only generate renewable energy, but also require less energy, with fewer raw materials exhausted (and use of biobased raw materials), and which would make biodiversity increase again, think of closed loop agriculture [10] But then there is one condition: We have to explicitly steer on CO2emissions, , not package it in all kinds of ‘derivatives’. With CO2 not just about energy, but in our use of materials as well. And moreover: it is not about lowering CO2 emissions, but about reducing them. To 0.

end of part 1 of 2

[1] http://ronaldrovers.nl/met-huidige-gebouwinstrumenten-heeft-co2-reductie-geen-kans/

[2] ‘2052 – A Global Forecast for the next 40 years‘, Jorgen Randers http://www.2052.info/

[3] Living Building Challenge https://living-future.org/lbc/

[4] studie naar carbon offsets, ofwel CDM Clean development mechanism https://ec.europa.eu/clima/sites/clima/files/ets/docs/clean_dev_mechanism_en.pdf

[5] http://www.ronaldrovers.com/a-product-cycle-is-not-a-resource-cycle-a-double-agenda/

[6] the Natural Step www.naturalstep.org / https://thenaturalstep.nl/

[7] http://ronaldrovers.nl/bouwwereld-en-co2-vermijd-aluminium/


[8] one planet living https://www.bioregional.com/oneplanetliving/

[9] http://ronaldrovers.nl/de-trias-exergetica-22/

and www.maxergy.org

[10] research agriculture (dutch) : http://www.maxergy.org/land-labor-energy-dutch-agriculture/