Re:build the future! Focus less on demolition and more on future-proof renovation!
Munich, 29 March 2023 | The challenges facing the construction sector are immense. To meet the Paris Agreement targets, the sector will have to reduce its emissions to zero by 2045. The single-most effective tool in the fight against climate change is the revitalisation of Germany’s existing building stock. Architecture and consulting firm CSMM has built a reputation over the past two decades for its visionary office architecture and workplace designs in Germany and abroad, and now its Founder and Managing Partner Timo Brehme is calling on policymakers to provide a clearly-defined and realistic strategy for the upcoming energy transition. “Rather than defining goals in buzzwords, we need to provide stakeholders at every relevant level a set of concrete benchmarks and guidelines for future developments.”
In autumn 2022, CSMM was one of the first signatories to join 170 stakeholders from the construction and real estate sector in an open letter to the Federal Minister for Housing, Urban Development and Building Klara Geywitz (SPD) calling for a temporary halt to the demolition of existing buildings. One of the demands in the so-called “demolition moratorium” is the mandatory assessment of any demolition project that takes social as well as environmental impacts into account. Anyone looking to tear down a building would first have to provide evidence that the building is no longer salvageable. “The most important thing for us in this initiative,” Timo Brehme explains, “is that avoiding demolition is a binding provision of the ESG guidelines set out in the EU Taxonomy regulations.” When it comes to the standardised assessment of a commercial venture’s environmental impact, these regulations are a vital tool. And the mandates for sustainable financial investments also have a direct impact on the construction sector. According to Brehme, “Developers must provide evidence of a project’s environmental, social and governance (ESG) impact to make it taxonomy-compliant. But achieving our overall objectives is more complex. Climate action can only truly succeed if we limit a building’s environmental impact in its construction as well as its operation. Using natural building materials simply isn’t enough. After all, studies show that it is almost impossible to achieve meaningful results without optimising the building’s overall energy balance.”
No demolition without a lifecycle assessment
To make these assessments more comprehensive, they must factor in the entire lifecycle and identify the best ways to address the environmental, economic and social impacts. Architects for Future (A4F) and Environmental Action Germany (Deutsche Umwelthilfe e.V., or DUH) expressed their support for the demolition moratorium in a December 2022 policy paper: "Any demolition project must be subject to approval on the basis of a full lifecycle assessment.” At least 14,000 buildings are currently being demolished every year – usually without evaluating whether there is any potential to reuse the building as a whole or its components. “In every new development, we should, on principle, determine whether the existing structures are worth preserving,” Timo Brehme believes. “Rehabilitation, redevelopment and energy-saving retrofitting are still the most effective means of combatting the energy and climate crisis.” In new builds, the structural shell alone accounts for about 40 percent of the total construction costs but up to 80 percent of the energy used during construction. CSMM believes authorities and developers should be placing more emphasis on conserving grey energy. “It really is worth our while to give existing buildings a new lease of life,” explains Brehme, with a nod to the 1970s-era, downtown Munich office building known as “Fritz”, which the firm renovated and relaunched in 2022. This widely acclaimed project has set the bar high for future revitalisation and sustainable development based on existing building stock.
No demolition without a circular economy approach
Even if the lifecycle assessment determines that an old building cannot be saved and revitalised in an environmentally and economically sensible way, there are still some elements of the building worth saving. The grey energy stored in building materials and components can be reused in an eco-friendly way instead of just disposing of them. “We should think of the existing building stock as a warehouse for future building materials,” the CSMM Managing Partner stresses. “Scrap material recovered during disassembly should be earmarked for use elsewhere, perhaps in a new build. Separating the materials as cleanly as possible and storing them for future use will play an important role in reducing demand for energy-intensive and climate-damaging building materials such as concrete and steel.” Mineral-based construction materials such as concrete or bricks, for example, can be virtually 100% recycled and repurposed. “In the design process for any new build, our state-of-the-art BIM systems can provide reliable estimates on avoiding waste, recycling materials and optimising the lifecycle assessment,” he continues. “But we will not have a truly circular construction economy unless we design with an open mind and consider the entire lifecycle of the building, its location and its use when choosing building materials and techniques.” Statistics show that this could reduce CO2 emissions by up to 25 percent during construction and in the energy use once the building is in operation. According to Brehme, “The incentives for new environmentally-friendly construction methods and the regulations governing the real estate investments of institutions and property owners are changing our industry. That promises to substantially increase the demand for taxonomy-compliant properties in the future.”
In addition to protecting our environment and its valuable resources, the EU Taxonomy regulation also requires developers to consider the social dimension of future projects. “Evidence of the social impact is a major factor in demolition decisions,” Brehme contends. “After all, one hallmark of an enlightened society is the ability to preserve our cultural and architectural heritage.” CSMM believes that everyone involved is responsible for making the best use of existing properties, which will allow a sense of place to develop over generations and give citizens added architectural and cultural value.
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