To become the first climate-neutral continent by the end of 2050, Europe needs to change its tarnished, old and energy-inefficient look. “The climate project should have its own aesthetics, blending design and sustainability” proclaimed the president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, calling for “a new European Bauhaus movement.”
In this article, my aim is to raise awareness about how the construction sector, in contrast to the energy or transportation field, has not seized the opportunity to benefit from the European investments in renewables and devotion to sustainable efficiency. By doing so, my concern focuses on showing through concrete examples that a revolutionary change is possible and it is timidly flourishing: the European environmental housing commitment is becoming increasingly sensitive about this transition, which, however, should be implemented with coherent actions and an efficient strategy.
The most urgent focus is on buildings, responsible for 40% of total energy consumption in the EU and for 36% of energy-related gas emissions.
Demand from stakeholders, regulations and requirements from lenders and investors is however getting stronger, whether to show the growth of corporate sustainability performance or to actually make a positive impact on society’s welfare and the environment.
Nature provides exceptions for every rule
“The most sustainable square meter is the one you actually don’t build.” is the mantra of the architect Casper Mork-Ulnes, whose design’s inspiration is taken from the Norwegian housing fundamentals of forest cabins, churches and warehouses. In his opinion, the key is economizing space thanks to architectural competency in integration together with a sustainable supply of means and materials.
These stone- or wooden-grounded buildings have stood for hundreds of years, providing insulation in summer and winter from floods and frozen permafrost: in fact, cross-laminated timber and wood are substitutes of steel and concrete. In modern times, the ability of photovoltaic glasses to generate power is leveraged to compensate for the winter lack of sunlight and their shades; besides being enjoyable, photovoltaics are also functional in summer for heating the floor.
Another important aspect of ecological assembly is unearthed by architect Julien De Smedt, who claims that a building generates about half of its carbon footprint during construction: for this reason, the language of its renovation are circular molding techniques applied on existing edifices, together with the employment of recycled and upcycled materials.
His design reaches its peak in the Flora House, a single-family residence in Brussels (core town of several EU institutions!). All the greenhouse’s elements exploit and are tailored to the Belgium weather: wind turbines on the roof and solar panels are responsible for power and energy generation and for maintenance of the garden (whose leaves allow sunlight to heat the building in winter, as they fall), while a water collection system captures moisture and filters it for drinking and irrigation.
A shift from industrial to natural, that’s what we are looking for in the 21st century according to the architect Koichi Takada, who considers steel, glass and concrete dead materials. Blessing the “living architecture”, he designed the Sunflower House in the region of Umbria, Italy, where it will leverage the warm Mediterranean climate.
Convinced of the balancing capacity of nature, Takada outlines his buildings taking inspiration from the leafy Italian flora.
The sunflower has been taken as a role model for this ultimate type of housing, which rotates around a central “stem” up to a roof petaled with solar panels following the sun, thus maximizing sunlight absorption and providing ventilation. Solar radiation is blocked by a second rotating mechanism and energy and rainwater are stored through the connection with batteries.
“It’s not just making it look like nature, but something that really contributes to greening cities.”
Italy is the homeland of another newly built facility, the Vertical forest of Milan in the Porta Nuova area. Designed by Boeri Studio, the residential building calls for metropolitan reforestation and urban biodiversity, which was part of the “BioMilano” idea of the architect Stefano Boeri. Bosco Verticale, in Italian, features two residential towers housing trees in their balconies: these plants absorb carbon emissions and dust microparticles, together with producing oxygen and protecting the building from radiation, noise pollution and humidity. During winter, the plant-based shield allows the sunlight to warm the interiors, but not by reflecting or magnifying the sun’s rays: instead, it filters them creating a welcoming internal microclimate without harmful effects on the environment. “Una casa per gli alberi abitata dagli uomini”, “A tree house inhabited by men”, that’s how the architect defined his own project.
Worth mentioning are also the Dutch housing organisations, which since 2012
are committed to improve the energy efficiency of social dwellings. Aedes, the Dutch housing federation, estimates an increase in the green energy label (“C”)’s houses, partly due to large investments in sustainability: an example is the installation of 11,500 solar panels on the social houses, reducing costs but increasing comfort.
Sweden and France are the other two European countries from which outstanding examples for the transition to sustainable housing come from.
Malmӧ, the third largest Swedish city, exploited the surrounding abandoned former brownfields to create an eco-friendly neighborhood: the “Bo01” project became internationally known at the European Expo and represented the future of housing. 100% powered by renewable energy sources, the focus of the conglomerate was to provide sufficient green spaces for its habitants while leveraging a network of all-electric public transports.
Another strategic eco-neighborhood is located in Grenoble, France, whose low-consumption and solar thermal-powered buildings are a key answer to the unsustainable dense urban areas. For now, these solutions are adopted only for social units such as schools, hospitals and shopping centers, but the town council has already carried out an eco-friendly plan for the longer term.
One touch of nature makes the world kin
Solutions for a sustainable housing future seem possible and consistent: what is and has been the role of Europe related to this concern?
The revision of the Stability and Growth Pact rules and a more sustainable European Semester process is a step forward to enhance the capacity of Member States and of local and regional governments to invest in environmental housing policies. In particular, the Renovation Wave advanced by the European Commission’s First Vice-President Frans Timmermans must become the chief project in addressing inclusiveness and sustainability to our cities and regions.
Furthermore, on 21st April 2021 the Commission adopted a proposal for a Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD), which included EU sustainability reporting standards mandatory for medium and large housing companies, driven by the imminent EU-taxonomy. Good, transparent and robust framework of sustainability reporting depends on the quality of the available environmental and social data, by which a housing provider will gain credibility and enhance the truth of ESG investors in its corporate performance. Housing providers apply environmental key performance indicators (KPI), pursued in their strategy as three challenges:
Defining and prioritizing the relevant material topics
Gathering data with respect to common standards for the development of a sustainability database
Defining adequate benchmarks for each KPI to compare amongst peers in the housing sector
During the COVID-19 pandemic housing emergency has been dramatically emphasized, with people living in overcrowded and unhealthy spaces. This problem goes hand in hand with the environmental crisis and strengthens the necessity of a concrete urban and architectural revolution to regenerate our cities and regions, taking the fragility of our continent into account. Strengthening the emerging discipline of “Ecological engineering”, which raises a series of concerns and threats, as well as opportunities, could lead us to an effective solution: however, human actions and decisions are the only guilty parties.
“The ultimate test of man’s conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard.” -G. Nelson.