With current building evaluation tools, CO2 reduction is out of sight

The Netherlands, as one of the first countries in the world, will have a mandatory material performance requirement for new buildings. Which is unique, after 25 years of pushing and trying. There will be a set ambition, though very low to start with, as is expected for 2018. [1] Anything complies, but it could be used to enforce performance to a higher level in future. Unfortunately, its a performance with 11 categories, which are sometimes cause and sometimes effect, and are weighted using economic value. The two most important causes of future problems: materials depletion (scarcity) and CO2 emissions ( climate change) , are therefor hidden. The first is valued with 16 cts/kg and the other with 5 cts a kg. In other words, being not “ circular” can be redeemed for a few cents. Its not only not enough to recycle the material, let alone to compensate CO2 or depletion, but its also a subjective measure: any value can be changed tomorrow, depending the mood by governments and banks.

But even more important: The economics are  just an indicator, nobody will really pay for depletion or CO2, its just a calculation. But even if someone would pay, that is still not the solution, since the problems wont be solved if we can continue polluting, just by paying for it. The target is an absolute 0. No more CO2 emissions, and complete stopping of material depletion ( that is: living within restoring capacity of the system)

Its a start of course. Most countries not even have a materials evaluation. At the most its part of a broader , generic and voluntary tool. Also in the Netherlands, the MPG is part of a broader practice oriented voluntary tool, like GPR or BREEAM. In in such a tool these 2 most important items, CO2 and depletion, are consequently part of the 11 money weighed categories in the resource section, which again is part of 4 to 8 main categories ( think of Water, or Management, or even ‘future value’), each with its own weighing factor, which is more or less subjective chosen. ( often in a multicriteria – multistakeholder process) . The real issue of today, limiting CO2 emissions is hidden and non relevant in the total score. An CO2 is not only about operational energy, also about embodied energy by materials.  Aluminium impact for instance, a material with the highest CO2 emissions per unit of function, is completely hidden, so that alternatives with much lower impact will not turn up in the calculations. In this way it can happen that a office retrofit with aluminium facade cladding can be awarded the Dutch national BREEAM excellent award. Many facade alternatives have a much lower CO2 impact, especially  biobased, which also score better in many other categories (like materials depletion, since they are re-generated) .

But these don’t automatically pop up, in these tools for building practice. Besides, most data used for these calculations are not even publicly accessible.

These assessment tools in general, all over the world, value mainly investments, measures and products/technologies to create sustainability. None of these tools value doing less, or doing nothing : creating less m2, or reducing comfort ( and as a consequence CO2). They all start from a certain comfort level ( which is pretty high in industrialized countries) , and most of the time value comfort improvements beyond that level. Which can be understood, but does that belong in a tool that was originally intentioned to lower environmental impact? In other words, if we want to reduce environmental impact, the current tools are not helpful: Which in fact is a major achievement of market working: make tools broad enough so that everything becomes marginal. Most of the non environmental issues are or should already be covered in national housing/building legislation, its not relevant to put these again in a environmental tool. It should be about doing the same with less, not doing more with the same ( impact).

A further confusing issue, is that most tools distinguish between building types. Why should an office be different eventuated as a house? Do I suffer when I work at home for some days where ventilation is differently ? There is no need to make a difference in a m2 floor where people have to live or work. Its the same as what happened with cars: you could drive a petrol guzzling SUV, but in its class it could be the best with a A++ performance . If you are rich you are allowed to use more resources, and still be A+++ . This is fooling ourselves. Or at least, letting us get fooled by ’the market’.

Internationally its the same: all prevailing assessment tools for practice are based on a weighed scoring system of many categories. In some cases there are scientific figures at the fundamental level, but then again regrouped and weighed in many categories. There is one tool that at least makes a distinction in environmental issues and other issues, which is the Japanese CASBEE. The clue is a division in environmental Quality: ( indoor environment, comfort, services etc) and environmental Load:( energy, resources, etc) : Q/L at least its apparent that if ‘comfort’ rises, resource impact should improve to have the same overall result. Not that comfort rise even adds to the performance!  Its strange that this simple adaptation has not been copied by others. [2]

One of the worst in its kind is LEED, which is constructed from inimitable values and points. This way of approach has led to a complete cult of consultancy, education, auditing etc. The discussion most of the times  is about the increase in real estate (money) value of buildings with a LEED label, , in stead of on lower environmental impacts, which is even often doubted [3]. In fact its a real estate selling instrument. It will not lead us towards reduction of materials impact or CO2 reduction, even the operational energy reductions are doubtful. [4]

Aggressive lobbying of LEED related organizations persuaded many countries to adopt a similar approach. It will take years to change that again , when its dawning that the focus should be at reduction of environmental impact only  or CO2 reduction .

On top of that , all these instruments apply a method of stacking measures, while a integral approach is required. Which, as we know since the nineties, can only be achieved with some basic performance indicators for key issues and values. Without adding up, weighing, or packing with secondary needs and wants. As well as avoiding splitting up in isolated projects, with a lot of lobbying in the background.

If you want to reduce material depletion, you should measure material depletion. And to reduce CO2, CO2 should be measured and evaluated. Not comfort, or health, or management or economy.

Its time we forget about these broad practice oriented assessment tools, and start defining some set targets for a few indicators, and measure how far we have to go to reach that target. On key issues. And leave the rest to normal building legislation and regulation. Doing the same with less. Otherwise the building sector will create “ better buildings”, maybe, but surely contribute nothing to for instance CO2 reduction.[5]


[1] http://www.rvo.nl/onderwerpen/duurzaam-ondernemen/gebouwen/wetten-en-regels-gebouwen/milieuprestatie-gebouwen

[2] casbee: http://www.ibec.or.jp/CASBEE/english/index.htm

[3] see discussions :




https://www.duurzaamgebouwd.nl/onderzoek/20080814-zin-en-onzin-over-leed (Dutch)

[4] http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/leed-certification-fails-to-increase-energy-efficiency-says-environmental-policy-alliance-247899251.html

[5] http://www.buildingscarbonbudget.org

Author: ronald rovers