Study sets out basis of life-cycle sustainability assessment for buildings

Study sets out basis of life-cycle sustainability assessment for buildings

Buildings have a huge environmental footprint. Their construction and use consumes about half of the extracted materials and energy used in the European Union, and is responsible for about a third of EU water consumption. Construction and demolition of buildings also generates about a third of the EU's waste by volume.

Consequently there are many bottom-up initiatives that aim to improve the sustainability of buildings. New materials are experimented with, buildings are designed to incorporate features such as green roofs and other environmental infrastructure, building energy efficiency standards are tightened up and environmental certification schemes are being developed.

Building sustainability

However, much remains to be done, and there are huge opportunities for greater sustainability in buildings. The European Commission has argued, in a 2014 communication on resource-efficiency opportunities in the building sector[1], that an overall life-cycle approach for construction is still lacking. The private construction sector, for example, certifies the environmental performance of less than 1% of EU buildings, according to the communication.

In the communication, the Commission therefore advocated an EU approach to develop common indicators to evaluate the life-cycle environmental impact of buildings. Common indicators would be in line with the EU Single Market, and the communication suggests that they would cover issues such as use of energy, materials and water.

The Commission's Joint Research Centre Institute for Prospective Technological Studies (JRC-IPTS), based in Seville, Spain, was tasked with providing technical input into the development of indicators. The objective is for the Commission to deliver final conclusions in 2017.

In December 2015, the JRC-IPTS published the findings from the initial part of the process towards the development of indicators. This concerns the identification of sustainability “macro-objectives”, or overall goals, for the construction sector. By identifying these key issues, the study will provide an orientation for subsequent work to develop the indicators.

A life-cycle framework

According to the published initial findings, the basic aims of a framework with core indicators for the assessment of the environmental performance of buildings in the EU should be six-fold:

  1. Minimise greenhouse gas emissions during the entire building life cycle.
  2. Optimise building design, engineering and form in order to support lean and circular flows, extend long-term material utility and reduce significant environmental impacts.
  3. Make efficient use of water resources, particularly in water-stressed areas.
  4. Design, construct and renovate buildings to minimise risks to human health.
  5. Future-proof building thermal performance to make them resilient against climate change.
  6. Optimise the life-cycle cost and value of buildings, including in terms of their acquisition, use, maintenance and disposal

These basic aims are seen as a starting point; the study notes that further work could consider broader land-use planning issues such as green infrastructure at neighbourhood level and sustainable mobility.

For further information:

The study, Identifying macro-objectives for the life-cycle environmental performance and resource efficiency of EU buildings, is available at http://susproc.jrc.ec.europa.eu/Efficient_Buildings/docs/151222%20Resource%20Efficient%20Buildings_Macro%20objectives%20WP_Final%20version.pdf

The website of the resource efficient buildings project is available at http://susproc.jrc.ec.europa.eu/Efficient_Buildings/

European Commission website on the Circular Economy: