Sustainable construction: the key to a greener future
Protecting our environment has never been more urgent. As a result, climate-friendly approaches such as sustainable construction are becoming increasingly important. But what exactly does ‘sustainable construction’ mean? Let us explain.
Fundamentally, sustainable construction is about planning, building and operating buildings that respect and protect both the environment and the health of the people who live and work in these buildings.
In this article, we present some core aspects of sustainable construction and explain why it’s so important to design our built environment in a way that is compatible with our natural environment.
How eco-friendly construction can protect our planet
Construction consumes an enormous amount of energy and materials. It is widely recognised that almost 45 % of global energy consumption is due to the construction and operation of buildings, while the consumption of materials is also approaching an astonishing 40 %. Against this backdrop, it becomes clear why sustainable construction is so relevant.
The impact of such high consumption on our environment and climate is considerable. The constant production and use of building materials leads to substantial greenhouse gas emissions and massive consumption of resources.
The use of energy-efficient technologies and resource-saving materials can significantly reduce the consumption of energy and resources in the construction industry. This is good for the environment and can also lead to cost savings, as buildings that consume less energy tend to have lower operating costs.
But what are the criteria used to assess eco-friendly construction?
The cornerstones of sustainable construction
The cornerstones of sustainable construction incorporate a number of aspects that work together to make buildings more efficient, environmentally friendly and comfortable to be in. Here are some of the most important issues we need to consider when building sustainably:
- Location: Location is critical when planning a sustainable building. A great location will be well connected to public transport, make use of existing infrastructure and minimise the need for motor traffic. In addition, the site should maximise the use of natural resources, for example with optimal sunlight for natural lighting and solar energy.
- Ergonomics: Sustainable buildings are not only environmentally friendly, they are also comfortable and healthy for their users. In other words, they have high indoor air quality, plenty of daylight and good acoustics. They are also designed to be accessible and take into account the needs of all user groups.
- Building materials: Sustainable building materials are those that have a low environmental impact, be it through efficient production, long service life or recyclability. They should also be non-toxic, to avoid harming the health of users or the environment.
- Construction: Sustainable construction aims to maximise the energy efficiency and durability of a building. This can be achieved by using approaches such as passive house construction and renewable energies or integrating energy efficiency measures into building planning.
Standards and labels for sustainable construction
Standards and labels are a great guide when it comes to sustainable construction, as they make the sustainability of buildings measurable and comparable. There are many examples of this in Switzerland. The best known is the Minergie quality seal. Minergie is synonymous with high standards of living and low energy consumption.
There are three different Minergie standards:
Minergie: This standard stipulates an efficient building shell and the continuous renewal of air. Energy consumption is significantly lower than in conventional buildings.
Minergie-P: This standard is stricter than the Minergie standard, which means that a building must be as energy efficient as possible. The P in the name stands for ‘passive house’, as these buildings are designed to have virtually no need for an active heating system.
Minergie-A: This is the strictest standard. Buildings built or renovated to this standard produce as much or even more energy than they consume – resulting in a positive energy footprint. This is usually achieved with renewable sources such as solar energy. The A stands for ‘autarchic’, i.e. ‘self-sufficient’.
To be awarded Minergie certification, builders and architects must meet a range of technical requirements and have their compliance checked by independent professionals. The exact requirements differ, depending on the standard and the type of building.
Sustainability and environmental protection: embodied energy and recycling in construction
The term ‘embodied energy’ plays a central role in conversations around sustainable construction. It refers to the energy used to produce, transport, process and, ultimately, dispose of building materials. To make a building truly sustainable, this embodied energy must be reduced.
Embodied energy is measured in megajoules or kilowatt hours per square metre and year. This value is a key criterion in various quality seals for new energy-efficient buildings.
The consumption of embodied energy can be reduced, for example by using building materials that are made of renewable raw materials or that can be recycled. Recycled concrete is a good example of this: it reduces the need for new resources and minimises the energy required to produce and process new concrete.
Another option is to choose building materials that are locally available. This means less energy is needed to transport them. It also makes sense to use durable and low-maintenance building materials. Any future repairs to the building will then need less energy and fewer resources.
Sustainable construction is much more than just a fad. Reducing the consumption of energy and resources in construction is an important step towards a more sustainable and environmentally friendly future.
A growing awareness of the importance of sustainable construction has resulted in technologies and materials also constantly evolving. Labels such as Minergie help to measure and promote progress in this area.
The Swiss Sustainable Construction Network (NNBS) is a key point of contact in this, and offers a range of resources and tools.