Sustainable construction In Germany, DGNB shows the way

Dr. Christine Lemaitre. CEO -German Sustainable Building Council. DGNB or the German Sustainable Building Council is a non-profit organization in Germany, has been promoting a holistic concept to construction by more than simple, sustainable practices.

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Similar to sustainability, the definition of green building varies widely around the world. For the DGNB or the German Sustainable Building Council, sustainable building means much more than creating a green façade or incorporating energy efficiency into the design.

With around 1,200 members, this non-profit organization is Europe’s largest network for sustainable construction and it has, through its academy, trained new experts in sustainable building practices in roughly 40 countries worldwide. As of now, more than 3500 people from over 40 countries have received official qualifications as experts in sustainable building through the DGNB Academy.

Since its foundation in 2007, it has insisted on a more holistic understanding of sustainability that affects not just the environment or the people but the economy as well. It is with this in mind that the DGNB has developed a certification system for buildings, interiors and districts which promotes climate protection and the responsible use of resources.

The sustainability pillars

Central to DGNB’s holistic approach is a triad that includes the environmental aspect, the economic aspect and the sociocultural or functional aspects. This means, in addition to some of the most common ecological concerns like reducing carbon footprint and avoiding the use of toxic substances that cause pollution, responsible practices even in resource extraction are taken into consideration.

While achieving environmental sustainability, care is also taken to ensure that cost of the products used in the construction, calculated over its entire life cycle, are kept to a minimum. All these factors are kept in mind along with careful consideration of the well-being of the people using the building or living in it. Sustainability can only be spoken of when all of these qualities come together in all the stages, including the planning phase, during construction and when the building is in use.

Unlike other rating systems for green buildings, the DGNB’s concept is modelled along these lines and, since 2009, it has been using certification to optimize the performance of a building. The manner in which sustainability goals are to be achieved is left to the building owners and planners, encouraging innovations and new thinking. In this sense, there is no direct product recommendation in the DGNB certification. The sustainability of a product will always depend on the context in which it is used. Following universal checklists is restrictive to inventive ways of thinking.

A building’s life cycle

Another cornerstone of the DGNB’s understanding of sustainability is the life cycle concept, which implies that a building should not only be conceived in the planning and construction phase but rather over its entire life cycle. It starts with the manufacturing of the products used in the construction, and their ecological footprint. This is where the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) method, as part of the DGNB certification, comes into play.

Product declarations such as Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) ensure there is a transparent comparison of the environmental impact of each individual building material. It continues with the maintenance of the building and includes the expenses for cleaning, maintenance and modernization that the building will undergo over time. Many of these costs can be calculated in advance and kept low with the appropriate techniques during the construction. It goes even further to the dismantling stage of the building, so that only materials that can be recycled are used. This aspect is also addressed in the DGNB system.

It is very clear that sustainability in buildings does not end with construction and commissioning. Rather, to be able to actually exploit the sustainability potential created in any new building, practical assistance and consistent monitoring of the actual consumption values ​​are required. For this reason, the DGNB has developed its own unique system for buildings in operation, which helps those involved in the operation or function of the building including owners, portfolio owners and building managers to achieve end-to-end sustainability.

Climate Protection and Circular Economy

Scientific evidence has long warned that carbon dioxide emissions must be reduced as quickly as possible and natural resources conserved. These issues have increasingly found its way into political decisions. However, what is essential are climate protection strategies and measures that can result in a circular economy.

An important aspect of DGNB is that it has recognized the critical role of the construction industry in climate protection. For instance, the construction and operation of buildings is responsible for up to 40% of the total greenhouse gas emissions worldwide and the sector consumes one third of global resources. Therefore, ingrained in the DGNB are systems to tackle climate protection and the circular economy.

The basic premise is that fewer the carbon dioxide emissions throughout the life cycle, including in the making of the building materials  used, during construction, transportation as well as in the deconstruction of the structure, the better the end result. Circular economy refers to minimizing losses within the building and material cycles so that they are available for future generations, without much loss in function or value. By this, we are hoping that no more natural resources will be needed or at the least our dependence on natural resources can be kept to a minimum.

In addition to environment protection building norms, DGNB works intensely on the premise that carbon dioxide emissions can be saved, particularly in the operation of buildings through the import and on-site production of renewable energy as well as by using various optimisation techniques on the building substance and by using sophisticated system technology. For instance, buildings that make use of previously used materials or projects that need no or less building materials are awarded a circular economy bonus.

As part of an operational optimisation, a climate protection roadmap has been drawn up by the DGNB with the goal of achieving ‘carbon-neutrality by 2050’, if not earlier.  It defines specific optimisation measures over time that will ensure that buildings produce zero carbon emissions by the turn of the century.

In 2019, the DGNB started recognising buildings as ‘climate-positive’ for their carbon-neutral operation. This means that these buildings have saved more carbon dioxide emissions than they had consumed. It must be understood that even though the construction industry consumes one third of global resources, there are also plenty of cost effective ways to reduce emissions through energy efficiency or the use of renewable energy.

The DGNB systems for buildings, interiors and districts also provide information on the extent to which the principle of the circular economy has been put into practice. On the one hand, it is about minimising the resources used, or selecting them based on their origin and composition with the least environmental impact. On the other hand, a more structured and unmixed method is encouraged even in their demolition.

With the increasing demand for building materials, products that are locally available, building techniques that uses sustainable means and products that are recyclable are encouraged. Even those who use sustainable means to manufacture construction materials are promoted.

In essence, there is no need for anybody anywhere to suffer when resources are being extracted. This means resource extraction should never involve child labour or forced labour. Materials should not be illegally mined, or should not end up being a hazard to groundwater, for example. The more developers use responsibly sourced raw materials or replace them with secondary materials, the higher the score they will receive.

Building as part of sustainable development

The DGNB’s holistic understanding of sustainability in the construction and real estate industry has had an impact far beyond its headquarters in Germany. In the context of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) defined by the United Nations, the DGNB takes a clear position by comparing the SDGs with the DGNB system. The comparison has shown that that sustainable building makes a significant contribution to sustainable development. Secondly, in line with the 17th goal, it has founded the G17 initiative with partners from Europe.

The concept of sustainability is already well understood in the construction industry and many organizations, initiatives and instruments have been put in place. However, the challenge today and in the days to come will be to address how to holistically integrate these principles into mainstream construction and into the existing projects so that they become impactful. The only way to attempt this is by linking people and projects, through dialogues and discussions, and by sharing knowledge and work experiences across borders. The global challenges make it clear to us that sustainable development can only be mastered together.