Environmental Impact of Construction Materials
Graduated Architect from ISAVH in Brussels, Michael Moradiellos also holds a PHD in sustainable urban planning and has co-founded several companies. He is an expert in Circular Economy and Cradle to Cradle, with a focus on innovative co-creation with stakeholders. His aim is to develop good practices that have a positive impact for humans and the planet, while demonstrating their economic viability.
He joined the Drees & Sommer Group in 2017 to develop Cradle to Cradle in the French-speaking markets that showed a growing demand from private and institutional clients on sustainability and circular economy issues. He has been asked to take the Managing Director position at EPEA Benelux in 2021, to develop the Real Estate market.
1. While Energy Efficiency and operational energy consumption remain key elements to address in the building sector, the environmental impact and embodied energy of the materials used in construction have a significant weight to consider. How have you seen the evolution of this weighting in the market? Are we heading towards a balanced approach?
Attention to operational carbon has allowed the development of technologies and to initiate more sustainable behaviors that have a real impact on daily energy consumption. The improvement has developed in such a good way that the need for performance amelioration for new buildings is steadily decreasing. On the other hand, a big effort for the existing building stock remains to be made.
There is however a contradiction in the fact that we need to drastically improve the energy performance of buildings which are being renovated, dedicating massive investments (MEP, envelope, BMS, etc.) while the value of the (embodied carbon in) existing materials is considered zero, making it too easy to opt for demolition. For new buildings, solutions and technologies to reach nearly zero energy performance are far more affordable, but the impact and embodied carbon of a new construction is higher due to scarcity of raw materials.
We consider that a right balance should be found between operational and embodied carbon, especially when a demolition-reconstruction is compared to a renovation scenario. We have a multi-criteria evaluation system where we also analyze the potential toxicity of existing materials. When we talk about circular economy, it’s an easy decision to make, as toxic materials cannot be recycled and must be eliminated.
2. Circular economy, circular construction, Cradle to Cradle (C2C) design, regenerative design, are intertwined concepts… – do you have a preferred approach?
A few years ago, this topic triggered an endless discussion among experts. C2C, Circular Economy or Blue Economy? Too many different approaches were competing on a small market of early adopters. Today, we all share the same goals of preserving the existing resources and developing new regeneration models for the present and the future. Our own focus lies on circular engineering, but we follow the “Cradle to Cradle” Design Principles to study the materials and their composition. We also provide assessment and guidance for C2C certifications on product level and have developed a label for corporate level “credibility”. We join forces with Madaster in different countries for cooperation and reinforcement of leadership in circular economy.
… and different certifications may apply – Which are the leading practices?
At the building level, we have seen an increasing interest to include materials and circular economy in the Green Building Certifications. “WELL” takes a close look at the quality of the materials in their C2C certifications and develops a strong connection with healthy interiors and well-being of the users.
“DGNB”, a younger building certification, is looking into more diverse aspects of sustainability, and we see in France the development of the “E+C-“ label that includes overall carbon reduction as a target to be achieved in order to reach the COP21 goals.
How Lifecycle Assessment (LCA) for construction and buildings has evolved? / or needs to evolve?
LCA needs to evolve through Module D **, including the “end of life” or end of usage. Circular economy concepts take this aspect into account, and new scenarios based on separability, recyclability, and material health of the products being developed.
In this sense, we can foresee a re-use or upcycling scenario where all indicators are positive. Together with the Life Cycle Cost, even more tools are used to define the right strategy in terms of a multi-criteria approach: Embodied Carbon, Cost, Energy, Materials, Health. If we look at the TCO (Total Cost of Ownership), we can evaluate some decisions that are easy to integrate thanks to a long-term perspective. Including in theses evaluations the “Usage of Building Elements” becomes feasible, and some owners are starting to look into it.
How can good practices in this field scale up?
Public authorities need to adopt a strategical approach in this matter: They could set an example to the market and point into the right direction. Also, certain rules should be imposed to the developers. Brussels is a perfect example: all permit applications need to include a justification proving every demolition as something inevitable. In Flanders, the Flemish Government has started its own certification (GRO), including inventory for demolition and material passport. This is really exciting!
3. Environmental Product Declarations (EPD) are mandatory for materials and elements entering the value chain of construction, yet the potential and relevant use of this information is not of common practice. How can data be more useful? … which indicators to consider?
When we evaluate the circularity potential of a building, we need to verify all materials based on homogeneous data. Recycled content, composition, end of life/usage scenario. For specific products, all this should be indicated in the EPD. If we have this information digitalized on one or several different platforms (as the one we have developed thanks to the H2020 project BAMB, called Building Material Scout), evaluations become possible and humanly acceptable for all parties involved, also in financial terms. In Luxembourg, they have developed the PCDS (Product Circularity Data Sheet), another step in the right direction.
4. The new EU (voluntary) framework for assessing sustainability in buildings Level(s) is explicitly oriented to Life cycle thinking and aiming to promote circularity: what would it take to make it a successful and mainstream tool?
Even if we followed this initiative from its early stages 5 years ago, this framework has not reached our circular projects. I would like to have the chance to use it, as I would then be in a position to share more about it.
We see the framework as a mix of different certifications on the market. This perception may slow down its development as well as the market penetration. I am convinced it’s a great tool, but if its application remains a niche practice, the invested effort would have been in vain.
5. It is yet complex to measure Circularity. What is your approach?
I would not say complex, but you need to have the right experts and be ready to check all the details. This is what we do at EPEA, for materials and for buildings. It seems a huge effort for the owners, but once the market is ready, it should become easy to implement.
In relation to digitalization via the Building Information Modelling (BIM), we connect each object with specific information provided by the manufacturer. Then, we calculate the weight of each product and material, and evaluate each group according to different criteria: source, recovery, separability, dismountability, embodied carbon and material health. The output is a material passport and a data base for the future use of the building. This process aims to be transparent and accessible for the owner, it highlights the key factors and future improvements to be made.
6. How is integrated / what is your experience in integrating the impact assessment of buildings materials into BIM processes?
BIM development has changed everything with data management. We have more than 5.000 different specific products in a building, sourced in various countries and continents. Only a structured data platform connected to a digital model can help us manage such huge quantity of information, with a scientific review at each step.
Could digital material passports (soon) become a generalized practice?
Materials without identity are considered waste. If we no longer want to be in the linear economy, we must identify all materials in a building. This is what a material passport does. Despite the needed effort to collect and treat all this data, the need for a material passport is clear. It is just a matter of how quick we can align experts, developers, and manufacturers on collecting and evaluating the information.
7. Can you illustrate with concrete examples / experiences?
We can mention three eloquent examples:
ZIN in Brussels (developed by Befimmo) is the result of a classic situation: an innovative requirement issued by the public authorities, as it will host the next office of the Flemish Government. After 3 years of work, the owner has defined a circularity roadmap for all their future development and renovation projects. We can say it is a success.
Multi Tower (developed by Whitewood), also in Brussels, is another example of positive side effect of the public authority’s initiative, but it is more related with individual development. Today, the developer, the architects and the contractor need to measure achievements, and thanks to the material passport, they will be able to communicate clear metrics.
The Leaf (Ternat, developed by Redevco) has taken a different journey but is reaching the same goals. The developer is implementing C2C by commitment and, without any external guidance, wanted to learn how it was done, in order to improve the circular method in the future.
All those experiences show that the movement has come to stay, and independently of the way to start this circular ambition, they are all reaching a momentum. The combination will lead to a major change in the Real Estate market!