Last week, was a week with some Aha moments, and forced to rethink a few issues. Among these a continued discussion in The Netherlands with Jan Willem van de Groep, the passionate protagonist of Nill Onthe Meter retrofits (NOM). Nothing wrong with that, but to establish fast and large CO2 reductions I proposed a hybrid approach. (see

The point is its not about making 1 house perfect, but decrease impact at stock level, in a limited amount of years ( otherwise the non-retrofitted stock will continue emitting) , and with limited work since we lack a large enough workforce.

Related to this I had another interesting discussion, (I seem to like discussions) , with a few EU DG environment representatives, at a Conference in Brussels ( I advocated a focus on embodied energy , and measures by the EU to promote biobased materials. Or in any case measures to stop the increase of metal use in buildings, more specific making aluminium facades. Which is a direct threat to reaching the Climate goals . But that seems impossible: with sectors like the aluminium industry agreements are made on European industry level, and as well steered with ETS ( emission trading scheme). And you can’t tackle them twice on the same subject, according to the EU team. That was a shock. While they are negotiating in Brussels about CO2, they can continue promoting aluminium facades. This way it will never work of course, it works the wrong way, let alone the fact that ETS does not work. But the building sector is out of sight for Brussels. That is, for CO2. Countries of course can pose extra conditions on the building sector, since that sector is not mandated to Brussels by the member countries. So lets regulate this on national level: with a EEPC, a embodied energy performance  standard, as I wrote before.

At the same conference there was an interesting presentation from another department at DG environment, by mr Michel Galatola, responsible for environmental footprinting of products. He started his lecture with stating that “ 95% of all sustainability claims made by industry is false”

Not always knowingly, but also due to bad agreements of system boundaries, calculation methods and such. But nevertheless. That was reason a few years ago to re invent the whole assessment system under EU direction, and develop the Product Environmental Footprints, and the category rules per product category. ( PEF and PEFCR, see ) . During past couple of years there have been pilots for several product sectors, agreements negotiated, system boundaries pinned down, and more. By the way, the industry was at that table, a main reason was to make products in the same category comparable, and data from the industry were needed, as well as agreements with all on the assessment method. In December the process should be finished and results published. Most interesting is however that all data will become free available to the public under Eu guidance, thats is  all inputs related to the footprints.

Galatola also mentioned being in discussion with CEN tc 350 on 15804, about how to apply lca categories. For in/out-siders: The 15804 standard by the technical committee ( on ‘Sustainability of construction works’) has never been adopted by the EU, but its important that both are in line. One of the issues is ‘category D’: about “end of life recylcing” : the demolishing and reuse of a buildings materials. For me that is a hot issue, since the reuse of demolition materials naturally belongs to the start of the new buildings construction . In principle this is the “stock” for the new building, accidentally on a random and odd quarry location. But nevertheless. That makes logic since the first building had already quarrying incorporated in its system boundaries, so why should quarrying for a new building also belong to the first building? ( and distract the profits from later recycling from its initial impact!) ( see also here ) Lets see how this discussion turns out.

That all was in the periphery of the sessions that I came to attend, which was about how bamboo can be put on the European menu of building materials. Bamboo applications and innovations go fast these days, also illustrated by a new book by Pablo van der Lugt: Booming Bamboo. The material has everything to become a game changer in the near future , in a world that has to get rid of CO2 emissions, and is in search for alternatives. One conclusion from the debate was that bamboo should not profile itself as a alternative for wood, which is also needed in a reduced CO2 world, but more as alternative for metal applications. Bamboo ( modified or engineered) is nearing steel in tensile strength ( and is sometimes called the vegetable steel) . Main problem is that for constructive applications a whole new system of classification is needed, comparable with wood ( it can’t be copied, since bamboo officially is grass, not wood). Work is being done, as by Jos Houben as a PhD research at the RWTH Aachen, but is delayed due to lack of funding.. ( if you know some ….) Work as well is now taken up by a task force bamboo construction from INBAR ( the international bamboo and Rattan foundation) , among other in a new ISO committee .

A returning discussion with bamboo is the invasiveness of it: it can grow uncontrolled . I realized that its not that big problem, since human kind is also a species with uncontrolled growth… But that did not help the discussion was my impression…:-)

As mentioned before, a study by academic members of iiSBE, into the CO2 consequences for the building/housing sector , showed clearly that the future has to be biobased, both for transforming life in industrialized countries, as for providing shelter fro 2-3 billion new earth citizens, in the next 30 years. And bamboo plays a major role in that. Many interesting new developments have already started, like the standard housing models in the Baharaque housing project, suitable for earthquakes as well. See :

Most astonishing was a Chinese presentation, showing that they are already testing bullet train compartments made from modified bamboo. Its about a new method called wiring, in which small battens are wired in the desired form and binded as composite by a glue. Its a pity this is still done with phenol formaldehyde as binder, which is to be avoided, but there is still no biobased alternative with the same strength for bamboo. However, according to Jan van Dam expert in this field at Wageningen University in NL, in principle a biobased alternative can be made , but its too expensive. That is , not too expensive, but more expensive. And as long as phenol formaldehyde is not forbidden, industry will not invest in an alternative…

The firm that is testing the bamboo train, also introduced a modular building system from bamboo, that is made in one process run. It might be clear: bamboo is on the move.

Only , Europe is behind all these developments, somehow understandable, since its not a local species, (but most other materials are neither). The discussion revealed nevertheless that the profile of bamboo in relation to climate change should be better utilized. Since in fact it has a double effect: it reduces CO2 emissions , since it replaces materials with much higher emissions for the same function, and on the other side acts even as a sink, since it stores CO2 captured from the atmosphere, and for long: Double reduction. On top of that is also relevant in adaptation, since it can regenerate exhausted soils . Triple advantages.

And then there was also the Dutch Design Week, in Eindhoven NL. A growing event and becoming world standard, with a huge list of events and exhibitions. Eye-catcher for the building sector was a life size mock up of a building by the architect Winy Maas from MVRDV. Future living and with less but optimized space. ( see the picture on the home page) . Interesting exercise, but not all new: in the seventies of last century it was Lucien Kroll who practiced participatory design, with the future inhabitants, and in Louvain la Neuve he created his masterpiece: the student dormitory known as MeMe, with randomly ( so it seems) linked spaces over several floors. But it remains interesting and for Maas its a stepping stone towards even more flexible spaces , able to change in time…

In the exhibitions by start ups there was a lot of designers working with discarded materials, or secondary materials , which we used to know as ‘waste’, and many interesting products were made out of that. Remarkable however was the seemingly unlimited believe in technology and ICT for solutions. I don’t see that, but future will learn. And of course recycling of Sand was also a hot issue, not the least since Denis Delestrac showed in his documentary that sand for concrete is scarce and even illegally traded in parts of the world. He was there to speak on a “Sand night” . Its really serious: as we talked afterwards he told that a few times he was threatened during filming, and there really is a Sand Mafia around these days.

For all these issues you expect solutions by designers. But at the exhibition of nominees for students building design awards, there was big disappointment: I could find only one out of 17 or 18 that seriously addressed materials and energy issues ( adis ababa, from TU Delft) It seems that most architecture students are still learning to design as if we still are unaware of what awaits us….

to be complete: Inbar organises the first International Global Bamboo and Rattan conference in Beijing next year:

( there is also a somewhat older series known as the world bamboo conference: )

Author: ronald rovers