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Putting a price on green
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Published March 2, 2009

The most environmentally friendly product in the building materials store could soon be the cheapest too.

   Mads Mysen and Kristin Holthe, SINTEF Building 
   and Infrastructure, believe GLITNE  will encourage 
   industry to adopt environmental measures.
    Photo: Ståle Andersen

 

Many people have thought of it before. Now it is coming to pass: a system that will reward decision-makers and building owners who adopt environmental measures in their buildings.

A tool that will document hazardous emissions produced by construction elements, such as the window or door you might be thinking of buying.

The Snøhetta architects partnership, the Bellona environmental pressure group, SINTEF and 14 construction companies are working towards this end.

They want the environment to be taken seriously by the building industry, and they intend to make environmentally efficient buildings more competitive.


Negative image

The building industry has a negative image where the environment is concerned, and it is responsible for no less than 40 percent of Norway’s environmental footprint.

The roots of this lie as early as in the planning and design of buildings, and continue with the manufacture and transport of construction materials. And while paper, battery and glass manufacturers are accepting responsibility for treating and recycling their waste, there are no equivalent schemes in place for when buildings are renovated or demolished.

“We want future building owners to be more conscious of the situation, and to make choices that will have the least possible impact on the environment,” say Kristin Holthe and Mads Mysen of SINTEF Building Research. The two have set up a research group that is leading a project called GLITNE.

They believe that the solution is to set out requirements for adequate information all along the value chain, so that environmental impacts can be documented.


Information in a consistent format

The partners in GLITNE have taken on a major piece of work. First, they will have to develop a methodology, and then adopt a user-friendly tool that will be capable of putting a price on individual environmental impacts.

Such a tool will have to make clear the environmental advantages for buildings and construction materials. Only in this way will it be possible to compare different measures and make environmentally correct choices.

Obtaining documented information at different levels, in a consistent format, will be a challenge, according to Mysen, who says that construction materials with documented effects on the environment do already exist.

“Why can we not just use this information, then?”

“Well, it’s not so simple. If we take the system known as Europroduc ?? , for example, it ranks the environmental impact in areas such as greenhouse gas emissions, indoor climate, and the use of substances that are hazardous to health or the environment. For example, a window may be able to document that few emissions hazardous to health were produced in the course of manufacture, while another product may be labelled to the effect that it produces few environmentally hazardous emissions.

“So?”

“The problem is that these systems don’t tell the purchaser which of the windows will be most environmentally friendly overall. Nor are we told anything about the environmental economics consequences for society if the purchaser chooses one window rather than the other. This is what GLITNE needs to answer as well as possible, on the basis of such knowledge as is available.”


Click to bring up data

“How on earth are we to manage all that?”

“We will have to set limits and identify the environmental impacts that we can put a price on. To do so, we need information from all manufacturers regarding greenhouse gas emissions, the use of chemicals and the amount of waste generated.

For example, a manufacturer will have to calculate and report on the percentage of recyclable materials in his insulation panels or roofing membranes. This will enable us to estimate the degree of environmental loading that will be generated by waste in the future.

It is the researchers who will have to design the structure that will ensure that all this information will be consistent and available to everyone.

Once it is in place, it will be possible to call up the drawings of a building under planning, click on product level and download information such as: What proportion will end up as waste? How much energy was used in the production phase? What would a normal environmental loading be for a building like this? What is my potential for making improvements and lowering the environmental costs of my building?


Bellona had the idea

Today, being environmentally aware involves costs. It is difficult to motivate companies to adopt measures that will  burn holes in their pockets, but the group of investigators behind GLITNE wants to change all that.

They are evaluating a system suggested by Bellona, whereby the environmental costs are baked into the price of construction materials or of a complete building. Where the impact is least, the price will be lowest.

Bellona’s Olaf Brastad emphasises that the aim is to identify the potential and create a system that will make manufacturer responsibility possible, and in which potential pollution is estimated and paid for in advance.

“If we are going to be consistent where manufacturer responsibility is concerned, the construction sector will have to be involved and will have to accept much greater obligations and responsibility than current schemes involve,” says Brastad.

“The nice thing about GLITNE is that building owners and construction materials suppliers have been part of all stages of the project so far, as important reference groups. This should help to simplify the following phases.”

The costs of environmental loads can be assigned to the building materials or their producers, to the whole building or building owner, or be linked to the use of the building or its users.

But if the construction industry as a whole is to avoid a net increase in taxation, the costs could be paid into a fund and paid out again to whoever can document good waste-treatment  processes.

“This would encourage industry to adopt environmental measures much more rapidly than we have seen until now,” believes Kristin Holthe.


Already under way

An environmental imprimatur is beginning to be a must in today’s society. Major public-sector building owners like Statsbygg wish to present an environmentally friendly profile, as do hotel chains such as Thon Hotels. For that, they must have documentation that can tell the world that they have made choices that will benefit the environment.

Ole Gustavsen in Snøhetta also believes that consumers today will demand more of the construction industry where environmentally friendly and energy-efficient solutions are concerned.

“The climate crisis is not going to disappear overnight, and a sharper focus on sustainability in this sector will become more and more important. GLITNE can offer the construction sector the possibility of keeping ahead of the demands that are sure to come,” he says.

The aim is to launch a complete package by the end of 2009, and the SINTEF Building Research scientists feel that the process is already well under way.

Mads Mysen believes that public-sector owners wish to have concrete figures for their building estates that can document their environmental performance and preferably demonstrate annual improvements. The same is true of Norway Ltd: we need an indicator of goals reached in order to make both  performance and annual improvements visible.

“Here too, the answer could be GLITNE,” says Holthe.

“But how are you going to get this set of tools adopted?”

“The members of this project do not have a mandate to decide that all this should be launched. We must have either agreement within the sector itself to adopt the system or the authorities will have to require the industry to do so, by issuing general requirement set out by the Ministry of the Environment or the Ministry of Local Government and Labour. Everything depends on which model is chosen,” concludes Kristin Holthe.


Practical trials

In Trondheim, Teknobygg Entreprenør AS is building a combined commercial, housing and office block at Nedre Elvehavn. This is one of three current construction projects in Norway that will contribute data input to the GLITNE system.

“We are entering data on all the materials we use,” says Tore Kalland of Teknobygg Entreprenør, “whether it is paint, concrete or timber.” Kalland mentions that the company is using a computer program developed by Norconsult Information Systems to calculate the costs of construction projects. The software has been extended to allow environmental parameters such as CO2 emissions and life-cycle costs to be entered.

“By entering real values, we can see which parameters should be guiding us and what it would mean to place an environmental tax on certain products.”


Fact-box:

• GLITNE is an R & D project that is owned by Snøhetta, led by SINTEF Building Research and financed by The Research Council of Norway.  It will run from 2006 until 2009, and has a budget of NOK 10 million.
• The project will lay the foundations of a good methodology for putting a price on environmental impacts, by systematising existing knowledge.
• The project will develop a software system that assigns a price to the environmental effects of construction projects by means of “building-smart” technology.
• The project will gather knowledge about the opinions of participants in the construction industry regarding extended product responsibility.


Text: Åse Dragland

 

Kristin Holthe, SINTEF Building Research
Tel: +47 990 03 689
Email: kristin.holthe@sintef.no