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Interview: Sustainability in the construction sector

The construction sector is an industry with significant environmental impact. Therefore, it is one of our focus sectors. Zoë Tan, LCA and sustainability expert, shares her vision how sustainability can look in this sector.

The construction sector is an industry with significant environmental impact. Therefore, it is one of our focus sectors. Why is sustainability such an important theme for this sector? And what role can wood and other biobased materials play in this context? And what can your organisation do? Read this interview with Zoë Tan, LCA and sustainability expert, to discover more.

Why is sustainability an important theme for the construction sector?

The construction sector is an industry with a significant environmental impact. The production of building materials such as concrete and steel releases an enormous amount of greenhouse gases. This is partly due to the extraction of the raw materials used in these products, and partly due to the production processes required to make them.

At the same time, the construction sector faces a massive challenge; many more homes need to be built to meet the increasing demand. Housing is a human right, and there should be more homes available.

Additionally, there is the fact that the Netherlands is a small country, and sometimes the interests of humans and nature clash. Consider the nitrogen crisis, which is closely intertwined with the construction sector. Construction projects, and all the transport and machinery involved, release large amounts of nitrogen, which can cause problems when it settles in natural areas.

What are the benefits of more sustainable building & biobased materials?

Building more sustainably, and using wood and other biobased materials, can therefore be of great value to the construction sector. And ultimately, to society as a whole. Wood and other biobased materials are renewable and often have a smaller environmental impact during production, transport, and construction than traditional materials. Biobased materials are much lighter than, for example, concrete, which greatly reduces the impact of transportation.

Moreover, building with timber allows for easy modular and prefabricated construction. This means that structures can be partially assembled in advance, and simply lifted into place and "clicked" together on the construction site. This significantly reduces emissions at the construction location.

Sustainable building also has direct financial implications for developers. By using biobased materials, they can qualify for tax benefits. Investing in environmentally friendlier business assets and techniques can lead to a tax advantage of up to 14% of the investment amount. Read more about this

What do biobased materials mean for your "MPG"?

If you want to apply for an environmental permit for new offices or homes, it's mandatory to determine the Environmental Performance of Buildings (MPG). This is a score that is assigned to the entire building. For this, the environmental performance is calculated per square meter by summing up the environmental cost indicator (ECI) of all materials present in the building.

Currently, the maximum value of the MPG is still quite lenient, so it's not difficult to stay below this with a building. For offices, the threshold value is 1.0 and for homes, it's 0.8. The aim is to tighten these values further and to halve them by 2030 at the latest. This will make the environmental requirements imposed on buildings much stricter, and it will be more challenging for developers to meet these standards.

This could make it more interesting to opt for wood and other biobased building materials. These are renewable building materials made from natural resources. Due to these characteristics, certain materials can have a lower ECI than traditional materials such as steel and concrete. By choosing biobased materials, the MPG of your building can be lower.

What kind of companies does Hedgehog Company help in the construction sector?

Mostly producers of (biobased) building materials who want to know the impact of their products. For example, I have conducted life cycle assessments (LCA) for various biobased insulation materials, but also for structural components, ceiling systems, and sealants

What does an LCA tells an organisation in the construction sector?

A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a method to comprehensively map the environmental impact of a product. This includes everything from the extraction of raw materials, through production, and ultimately processing at the end of its life. It takes into account all inputs such as used energy, transportation, water, and translates these into effects on climate change, as well as impacts on the ozone layer or eutrophication, for instance.

By mapping the entire impact, you can also identify where the greatest environmental impact occurs within your product. This is referred to as the impact hotspot. The location of these hotspots varies for each product. Perhaps your process uses a lot of energy, or you work with materials that have a very high environmental impact. Sometimes, companies are surprised when they learn about the hotspot of their product; it is often something different than what they initially expected.

Knowing these hotspots, you also know where you can effectively take steps to reduce your impact. For example, switching to green energy or choosing an alternative material can significantly reduce your environmental footprint.

Additionally, conducting an LCA allows you to understand your own product in a completely different way. For instance, I once did an LCA for a sealant; it turned out that the dye used significantly contributed to the total environmental impact, although it is not necessary for the product's function. This was not something the producer had anticipated as the major source of impact, but it was easily adjustable.

Besides gaining insights about your own product, an LCA allows you to compare your product with others. How does your product perform in different impact categories compared to another product? Or you can compare different versions of a product among themselves.

For example, I once made a comparison between "regular" aluminum and aluminum produced with electricity generated from hydropower. This turned out to yield a huge saving in the total environmental impact. The producer can then communicate this to allow their customers to make an informed choice.

And what is the use of an EPD?

After the LCA, you can have an EPD, an Environmental Product Declaration, prepared for your product. An LCA sometimes contains business-sensitive information that you may prefer not to share. An EPD is a standardized document where you share the outcomes or summary of the LCA without delving into product-specific information. This EPD can then be included in EPD databases.

These databases are sector-specific and each has its own rules for how the EPDs must be created. The goal of these databases is to make environmental information available to those interested, to increase the visibility of products, and to enable products to be compared with each other based on their environmental impact.

For the construction sector, we have the National Environmental Database, the NMD. Here, anyone can view and compare the environmental scores of products and use this data to calculate the MPG for your building.

For producers, it is advantageous to have their product included in the NMD; this makes their product more attractive to developers and architects because a lot is already known about the environmental impact of the product. If a product is not yet in the NMD, a developer must perform the full calculation to determine the MPG score. For products that are in the NMD, this step can be skipped.

If you do not have an EPD prepared, your LCA serves mainly for internal use. But almost all our clients in the construction sector do take the step to have a verified EPD added to a database.

You can also have your product included in the NMD without an EPD. An LCA report is sufficient, the NMD will then publish the results and the ECI of your product.

Are there other relevant databases for the construction sector?

Yes, in addition to the NMD, there is also the Stichting MRPI. This is a platform for reliable and independently verified environmental data for construction products, published in MRPI®-EPD certificates.

There are also various international EPD databases. For example, EPD International, which is the European database. Additionally, many countries have their own database. The choice of which database a producer uses mainly depends on the market they operate in.

When a client requests an EPD from us, we always work together to determine the best database to include the EPD in.

What would you advise companies in the construction sector?

With all the developments currently happening in the construction sector, I see that sustainability is becoming increasingly important. I would advise companies to embrace this trend and take steps to make their impact transparent. Legislation regarding sustainability, both nationally and internationally, is only becoming stricter. By anticipating this now, you can be at the forefront of these developments. This is better than joining late and then trying to catch up with the market.

Do you want to know more about sustainable construction?
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