Sustainable building policy in Europe is evolving and it looks like future regulations will go way beyond energy performance

Julie Hirigoyen

Over the past decade, we have witnessed a significant global rise in government policy and industry standards targeting energy efficiency and/or carbon emissions of buildings in use. In Europe this started in earnest with the EU Energy Performance of Buildings Directive in 2002; in Australia the government made it mandatory to achieve a NABERS rating of 4.5 for all their leased premises and since 2010, NABERS ratings have to be disclosed for all market transactions; and in the US despite the launch of Energy Star in 1992 and USGBC in 1993, it has come down to individual states to champion energy efficiency standards within their jurisdiction.

But what will be the next big topic of concern in the sustainable buildings agenda? Interestingly enough, the European Commission (EC) launched a public consultation to explore exactly this question back in July. What should future sustainable buildings policy across Europe look like and how should it evolve (see The main points that the EC seems to be seeking opinions on include the proposal to extend regulations beyond energy performance to other environmental issues, and beyond the “in use” phase to various stages across the whole life-cycle of buildings.

It seems likely that we will need to take a broader interpretation of what constitutes a sustainable building - with greater emphasis on the selection of materials that have low embodied carbon and can be recycled, and components that can be disassembled. Some of the social dimensions such as occupier productivity, health and wellbeing, and flexibility will no doubt also rise up the agenda.

What will drive the building industry towards a truly regenerative or restorative standard, rather than continuing to focus on being “less bad”?

This emerging evolution of sustainable building policy based on creating a more”‘circular economy” is not new. In fact concepts such as “cradle to cradle’ design and life cycle assessment tools have been around since the nineties. However, a zero waste, zero carbon building still does not exist in practice. So what is changing now that will drive the building industry towards a truly regenerative or restorative standard, rather than continuing to focus on being “less bad”?

As it turns out, we might have no choice but to concentrate on being lean with resources (creating more value with less resource inputs). As the global population increases, so does our demand for natural resources. Yet demand is now far outstripping the planet’s long-term supply of such resources, which in turn will mean our reliance on them has to decrease. This clearly restricts our ability to continue with business as usual.

So to ensure our longer-term viability we will be forced to find more creative and innovative means of reducing resource demand and operating within the supply constraints of our natural limits. Businesses across all industries are currently gearing up to tackle this challenge – as illustrated by the number of large firms that are members of the Ellen Macarthur Foundation working to accelerate a transition to a circular economy and by the launch only last week of the Guardian Sustainable Business Circular Economy Hub. This move away from a throw-away economic model has significant repurcussions for the way in which we might seek to design, construct and reuse buildings and their material components.

Perhaps the property industry and its supply chain ought to take a leaf out of Nature’s book itself – where every output by an organism is also an input that replenishes and nourishes the whole system. If we truly wish to achieve zero waste and zero carbon, we will need to pay far more attention to modularity, material opportunity and adaptability in building design, and move on from a singular focus on energy efficiency and carbon emissions of buildings in use.

Julie Hirigoyen is UK head of sustainability at Jones Lang LaSalle