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| Building sustainability into Europe’s construction industry

Introducing sustainable development into Europe’s construction industry is a considerable challenge, but success could bring quality-of-life dividends to those who live in towns and cities. Many issues have to be taken into account, from the use of ecologically sound building materials to assessing the environmental impact of urban development strategies. To encourage the take-up of sustainable practices in the construction industry, the CRISP project has devised a database of sustainability indicators that can be used by planners, building firms and developers.
An example of the building scale: Léonard de Vinci High School, a ‘green building’, Calais, France(Architects : Isabelle Colas and Jean-Claude LouisLandscape Engineer : Empreinte)
An example of the building scale: Léonard de Vinci High School, a ‘green building’, Calais, France
(Architects: Isabelle Colas and Jean-Claude Louis - Landscape Engineer: Empreinte)
The majority of Europeans live in an urban environment and billions of euros are spent every year on building projects in the EU’s towns and cities. Harnessing the principles of sustainability in the construction industry will help Europe create and manage a more healthy built-environment. It should mean resources are used more efficiently, and that decisions can be made based on ecological principles. Introducing sustainability into the workings of the construction industry must take account of a variety of factors, not just how ‘bricks-and-mortar’ products are made and used. Wider environmental, quality of life, economic, institutional and social issues also have to be addressed.

But how do those involved in the construction business define criteria for sustainability and how do they measure their performance in this area? What planners, builders, developers and others need is a set of sustainability indicators which they can refer to when seeking to improve current practices. As part of the Energy, Environment and Sustainable Development Programme in the EU’s Fifth Framework Programme, the CRISP project – A European Thematic Network on Construction and City Related Sustainability Indicators – was established to address this knowledge gap. It set out to gather indicators that could precisely define and measure the performance of the construction industry and give decision-makers the assessment tools they need to produce more sustainable building and urban development projects.

Combined effort

CRISP, which ran from June 2000 to August 2003, had a truly pan-European feel to it: 24 teams from 16 countries worked together on the project. The CRISP network was led by CSTB(1) (project coordinator) the French building research institute, and VTT, the Technical Research Centre of Finland.

To begin with the network had to define a framework and methodology for the indicators before they could be collected and compiled in a database. Working groups were divided into clusters to examine different types of indicators that are relevant to the construction industry and the urban environment at different levels, or scales, of operation. The indicators are therefore categorised at the neighbourhood/urban scale; the individual building scale; and the product scale. One cluster also examined processes and strategies relevant to project management in the construction industry.

CRISP now has more than 500 indicators on its database, along with 40 ‘systems of indicators’ which are sets of indicators put together because of their relevance to each other.

A final project conference – held in June 2003 – helped spread the news about CRISP’s activities. Here the database was presented to potential users and the CRISP team worked through the many uses of their sustainability indicators.

The database is now available on a public website, where more than 600 end-users are already using the information gathered by CRISP.

Wealth of information

The website, with its flexible search function, can help users tackle a myriad of issues related to sustainable construction, from finding out about good practice in waste management to the efficient use of renewable energy in offices. In fact, the indicators cover a vast range of subjects including the preservation of natural resources, air quality, noise levels, health and safety, economic competitiveness and employment.

A good example of a system of indicators is the information held by the database on the Green Building Challenge initiative. Developed by 20 countries, it can be used by building owners and developers at the design stage to assess the environmental impact of their plans. Users can, for example, compare the relative environmental merits of heating or ventilation systems and examine how their construction plans impact on neighbouring buildings.

By working closely with end-users, CRISP has been able to develop a broad consensus for the indicators and the criteria for employing them. It means planners, developers, local authorities and material producers can now benefit from an authoritative and agreed source of information. The indicators should therefore help these professionals produce performance targets, tools and standards to improve levels of sustainability for the built environment. And because the indicators have been recognised and embraced by so many people in the sector, bodies that deal with standardisation issues in the construction business can also use them in their work.

Useful indications

The indicators can be used to help determine if a product is more or less sustainable than another. Municipal and local authority decision-makers can harness indicators to help them weigh up the environmental impact of a particular development strategy – for example, whether to demolish buildings or undertake refurbishment. Indicators will also be valuable to organisations that want to assess their own performance in terms of their sustainable practices.

CRISP’s results are now being used to inform other European Union-supported research projects. For example, the project’s urban-scale indicators are being used as input data for the TISSUE project which is developing trends and indicators to inform the Union’s strategy to develop the urban environment in a sustainable way. The database is also being used by the Performance-Based Building (PeBBu) thematic network which is creating a tool kit to monitor and test the performance of buildings’ technical systems.

It is also important to note the positive impact CRISP has had in the field of international standardisation. To some extent, CRISP can be considered as pre-standardisation work, with some project members and end-users now acting as experts on standardisation committees – both national and international ones.
CSTB, VTT and several other CRISP members are involved in ISO (International Organisation for Standardisation) working groups looking into standardisation relating to sustainability and building construction. In particular, VTT is the convenor of a standardisation project called “Sustainability Indicators”, which is based on the methodological work undertaken by CRISP.

(1) Centre Scientifique et Technique du Bâtiment


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