‘transgressive ‘ projects ! 2/3

A building is usually assessed sec, as a building. Or as a complex of buildings, within the project development boundary, both energetically and financially. See previous contribution. But that is often at the expense of effects outside the project boundary. A few examples can clarify this.

Some years ago I stumbled upon a project developer who claimed to have developed a great office park, all new but so called ‘cradle to cradle’, and built in such a way that it can all be reused in x years, because ‘materials become very valuable moneywise’, And his way he has a solid profit model. The project even contained some food growing within the site boundaries, and its own water purification. So most m2’s were optimally used. And almost everyone was praising the project and enthusiastic. But it is exemplary of how limited we look at things, and fool ourselves. .

Within the confines of that mini system, he had done well. That is, within the current view of ‘good’ office building. He has (ostensibly) taken responsibility for later reuse of his deployed materials, but thus not for the impact created by the first use of those new materials. Moreover, that impact was not created on his site but elsewhere, with neighbors and on other continents. In other words, he has shifted the responsibility for (part of the impact of) materials to his neighbors on the one hand and to the future on the other.

The developer is proud to have accomplished this in poor construction years. All his offices have been leased and he has a waiting list for tenants for the properties yet to be built. And, again, within the common perception, he has done well.

But there is more to it. For where do these tenants come from? More than 10% of offices in the Netherlands are vacant, and probably much more. (another 6% that is rented but not used). In other words, he on the one hand creates new environmental impact for new offices (as that is inherent) , and on the other hand, because of the properties abandoned by his tenants, causes the degradation of previously invested capital in properties that are now vacant. Ensures that the impact of previously invested materials remains high because they are thus not depreciated over a long life. Buildings will not be reused as buildings, when demolished. (perhaps that is changing somewhat now, due to the housing shortage, more are being converted, but he leaves that to others, its the problem of ‘the market’, excludes that from his evaluation).

It is fooling each other, while seemingly thinking we are doing the right thing. And trying to straighten things out with business models in an outdated economic model. By definition, you can’t. You can only make money from created scarcity: Take materials: why is he going to make money from his building materials to be reused in x years? Because they have become scarce, as the developer himself wrote on his website: We are building a materials bank for the future. And we will make money from that later. But that doesn’t make the materials any less scarce. In fact, he is actually contributing to the scarcity of materials by using new materials himself and thus depleting the stocks today. As a result, the only alternative will soon be to reuse materials…!

It just doesn’t work. Anyone who uses the current economic model to realize or sell sustainability is selling nonsense. System boundaries are wrong. And outside his own small development area, old buildings are now empty. And no, they are not modern, and no, they are not contemporary, up to ‘modern standards’. But what is modern and what is modern? Our view of time and modern is based on exactly that old faulty growth model, in which everything that is broken must be replaced in its entirety with new stuff, and if it is not broken, its replaced subject to fashion. That is just a feeling, which we have talked ourselves into. We can and do this, if there would be environmental space for it. But if there is not, fashion, and trends, and feeling, are just misguided beliefs, refrained form reality.. Before those new buildings, that environmental space was basically already no longer there. Or at least that environmental space was not created to be able to afford new buildings.

And that developer does want us to reuse his materials from his new buildings in future, but then why doesn’t he reuse materials, or even preferably reuse the old buildings of his new tenants already today? Exactly, because it is out of fashion, and not modern, and does not fit his business model. But the new buildings will soon be “out of fashion” too, and so his claim is completely nonsense. It is a noncommittal appeal to our children to use our old stuff while we ourselves do not.

Nature knows no fashion, and has plenty of time. Why replace an entire roof when one tile is broken? In itself some buildings are pretty well designed, but only isolated viewed, as an action in itself. But a so-called sustainable new construction project has taken no responsibility for where the materials came from ( and in fact where they will go in a few decades, that is wishful thinking for now) and has taken no responsibility for the vacancy left behind. So that is left out of consideration.

So you have to increase the system boundaries to arrive at an just assessment and make sure that the materials supply, the old buildings and occupancy aspects are all within the assessed system.

Let me cite another example of this. At the time I was involved in a “sustainable” development around a station area, in a green and forested area. The railway station had to be renewed, and promoting Public transport, so the project also included some traffic measures etc. I then presented the considered area within the project group as imaginary boundary, and stated that whatever we do, at the end of the project the environmental impact within the set project area boundary should be lower than at the beginning of the project. Otherwise, we are doing the wrong things. Everyone agreed on that.

Then all sorts of plans came across the table, until there was a plan to include building an office tower at the station in question. In response to my comment that this would increase the environmental impact within the area (impact of construction and materials, and of increased traffic, and of operational energy), the response was that that was not a bad thing, because the most logical place for an office was at a station. Then people could come by train. It was better to build the office here, rather than in a neighboring community next to the highway.

That sounds reasonable at first. But it is forgotten that this implies you then have to put a ban on that location along the highway to ever build an office there again. Otherwise, it’s both: and and. First an office is built next to the railroad, and then next year the mayor of the neighboring municipality along the highway decides that the site should be developed anyway.

In other words, you must then include both areas in your systems boundaries, not just part of them. A lot of decisions are made on these kinds of non-committal, plausible sounding considerations. And so we just keep building, within our limited line of sight. Result of fragmented responsibilities and measurement with money. But those arguments or decisions are noncommittal, and incorrect, and thus come in handy to justify everything.

And again, we haven’t even looked at where this new tenant came from and what he left behind. Perhaps he was already in a station location….

It is truly unbelievable how much non-commitment there is in all decisions in society, and even in sustainable projects. Buildings are judged on 100 aspects, but not on whether they should have been built at all within the wider p[erspective. That would just spoil the game. But that is the essence in sustainability: Any new construction , whatever design, still increases the environmental impact, no matter how well done within the prevailing requirements and assessment tools. Which are therefore limited and show only one small piece of the whole.

Those instruments are nothing more than handy negotiation tools: a little more of this, a little more of that, then we will score again. But we are going to build.

At a conference in Asia, an American spoke who was full of boasts about the sales they had made from so-called sustainable projects. The projects all had good LEED ratings. (A simple multi-criteria point system at the time, with no substantiation). He could not answer the question of how much energy had been saved or how much lower the environmental impact compared to a reference had been realized: But the buildings did well in the market, much better than without the LEED certificate. That was his justification. What this shows is not that sustainable buildings have been built, or not even that they sell better. What this shows is that a label helps to sell buildings. When I brought this up, he replied only in the vein of contemporary opportunism:’That’s your opinion, I have a different opinion.’ Everything seems to be able to be an opinion, facts and measurements don’t seem to matter anymore. At least his office was doing well. That much was certain.

I later discussed this again with a local colleague, a professor of sustainable real estate economics. He too used that kind of certificates based on such evaluation tools, in research to see how “sustainable” real estate performed in the market. Problem is that as economists, he/she has nothing else to rely on: they are not experts in energy or environmental assessments, and assume that the colleagues from other sector, the energy and environmental sector is doing a good job. So when such certification systems are on the market, he assumes in good faith that that is all right. Not so. But it is understandable that this way error piles on error and one discipline draws the wrong conclusions based on incompetence or opportunism in the other discipline.

So yes, this is directed against ourselves, we who devise and develop building assessments. We don’t do our jobs well because we help the trade, there’s got to be buildings built. Right? And thus, by using to narrow system boundaries, encourage “transgressive behavior” in construction projects.

We really need to move to a different assessment framework, in a bigger picture, and at least keep money out of it, or bring money values in line with physical foundations. *



see also:

evaluation of buildings: http://www.ronaldrovers.com/building-evaluation-should-change/

CO2 reduction no chance: http://www.ronaldrovers.com/with-current-building-evaluation-tools-co2-reduction-is-out-of-sight/

EoL does not make sense: http://www.ronaldrovers.com/there-is-no-end-of-life-of-a-building/

Author: ronald rovers