Global Challenges to Building a Sustainable Future
In a special report, Houzz editors outline the hurdles their countries face in promoting sustainable building practices
In order to get a snapshot of some of the obstacles to ‘greener’ building around the globe, Houzz editors consulted local experts and investigated their own country’s progress on the issue. Understanding these challenges is key to establishing a roadmap of where we must go from here.
The next story in this series will look at the progress countries have made to deal with these challenges, as well as some thought-provoking solutions.
Many countries’ difficulties in developing a sustainable building framework come down to the hand that nature has dealt them. For instance, Australia’s 7.692 million square kilometre continent has eight climate zones, from tropical in the north to temperate in the south; it suffers extreme heat and severe water shortages.
The scale of these differences, and the need for specific responses to local conditions, has made it difficult to develop a national housing policy to improve sustainability.
Comparable obstacles exist in Italy, a diverse country with a complex geographical landscape that ranges from the Alps to the Mediterranean Sea, from landslide emergencies to wood fires.
A complicated bureaucracy also slows down renovations and the innovative thinking necessary to address sustainability issues. “Local administrations, which are responsible for building permissions, stick quite often to a ‘Make it as they were doing it in the past’ rule, so basically there is not much space for improvement,” architect Sara Pizzo says.
Italy has a delicate historical heritage to protect. Together, these issues – a tricky geography, red tape and historical buildings – make the work of developing sustainable builds particularly difficult.
This challenge – of ‘greening’ or modifying large amounts of historical or existing housing stock – is also common to the UK, France and Spain.
“The UK has some of the oldest housing stock in Europe, and 80% of buildings that exist today will still exist in 2050,” says the executive director of professional services at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), Adrian Dobson. “This means that retrofitting buildings to make them more energy-efficient is a key challenge.
“UK homes are among the least energy-efficient in Europe and account for 14% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions,” Dobson says.
France faces a similar issue. Insee, the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies, says 55% of the current real estate stock was built before 1975 – that is, before the introduction of the first regulations.
According to the Ministry for Ecological and Inclusive Transition, the construction sector represents 45% of the energy consumption and 27% of greenhouse gas emissions.
According to data from Spain’s Ministry of Mobility, Transport and Urban Agenda, in 2018, the country had almost 26 million homes. The majority of these were built between the mid-1970s and the late 1990s, before the 2006 Technical Building Code (CTE) came into force.
What this means is that a significant number of these houses were built without addressing issues relating to their energy efficiency. Adapting these houses to the demanding standards related to sustainability is not easy.
While there are many definitions of sustainable building design, it’s commonly accepted that ‘green buildings’ are the outcome of a design philosophy that focuses on increasing the efficiency of resource use – energy, water, and materials – while reducing a building’s impact on human health and the environment through better siting, design and construction. However, there are other dimensions as well.
Eva Chacón, co-director of Bonsai Arquitectos, says in order to be truly sustainable, Spain – like many countries – needs more intergenerational and multi-purpose architecture. “In urban planning and social policies, we should be capable of contemplating the complete life path of people, with their changing needs over time, and find synergies between schedules and needs.”
In the US, the American Institute of Architects says nearly 40% of greenhouse gases can be attributed to carbon produced by buildings during construction, as well as everyday heating, cooling and lighting.
Like many of the countries canvassed, the US’s challenge is that about 95% of buildings are more than a decade old, with many built before modern building energy codes were put in place. The AIA makes it clear that designing and constructing buildings that diminish greenhouse gases are architectural imperatives.
Conversely, Japan faces the opposite issue; the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism puts the average lifespan of a Japanese house at only about 30 years before it’s demolished. This ‘scrap and build’ culture has been common since the end of World War ll.
Osamu Nagashima, a home inspector and real estate consultant at Sakura Jimusho, says that the Japanese government encouraged citizens to build new homes to make up for a housing shortage. Although Japan had reached the necessary level of housing stock by 1968, culturally, Japan has not shifted its focus to improving existing homes.
“The number of newly built homes has been the indicator for economic growth until this day,” Nagashima says.
In Singapore, a small island nation of 719 sq km that’s home to 5.8 million people, progress on sustainability is entirely out of homeowners’ hands. More than 90% of residents live in a combination of private condominiums and public housing apartments built by the Housing and Development Board.
This means that the majority of Singapore residents have little control over whether they can build or renovate a sustainable home in the sense that sustainable homes can generate their own energy, harvest rainwater and grow their own food.
Sustainable solutions are centrally determined through the Building and Construction Authority, although residents can get creative with the sustainability of internal renovations and their day-to-day consumption.
In Russia, cultural attitudes and economic imperatives have made it difficult to develop a sustainable ethos. Since the collapse of the USSR, the government has paid little attention to environmental issues. For example, the active promotion of rubbish sorting is a recent development and is still difficult to implement.
Sustainability is reserved for green enthusiasts. Because the price of energy is so low, people are not economically motivated to modify their behaviour and save energy. This means that, to some extent, sustainability is seen as irrelevant.
By way of contrast, economic viability is the main obstacle to the pursuit of sustainability in India. With 1.3 billion citizens and a growing economy, the country has experienced rapid demand for infrastructure development and construction.
“India is a resource-deficient country; that is the biggest challenge to the promotion of sustainability,” says Vijay Garg, president of Council of Architects, India. “We are in a state of transition, from being a largely rural country to a largely urban one, with the urban population projected to grow from 20% to above 80%. Resources for creating a supporting infrastructure are not being generated internally, but are being borrowed via long-term loans, such as the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in real estate.
“Unless the money required is generated by economic growth (thereby reducing the huge costs of borrowing for the end users),” he says, “adding sustainability in built infrastructure might not get addressed, as it usually ends up increasing overall costs”.
Throughout Scandinavia, which is often considered to be at the forefront of sustainable thinking, there are also calls for more meaningful progress.
In Sweden, where green living is a long tradition and heavily codified in law, commentator and architectural critic Mark Isitt questions what kind of impact its achievements have internationally.
“Swedish authorities sometimes border on hysteria when it comes to rules and regulations around sustainability. It’s easy to wonder what actual difference another wooden house makes in Sweden, when China keeps pumping out pollution, but we often function as examples of good practice internationally. That probably has a greater effect than the house itself,” he says.
Elisabet Elfström, the acting head of Architects Sweden, wants cooperation at a higher level. “The EU needs to raise communal ambitions in general, and specifically when it comes to clearly indexing content in construction materials. The understanding of Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) needs to increase in all business sectors, and architects have an incredibly important part to play in this.”
Within Sweden itself, too, there is room for improvement when it comes to the process of building. “The construction and property sector in Sweden is responsible for approximately 20% of the national release of greenhouse gasses,” Elfström says. “Rules are needed to implement a lifecycle perspective, both in the building process and in our daily environments. We also need more circular economy models and incitements for green investments.”
Denmark is behind other countries in its region, such as the Netherlands and Norway, says Mette Qvist, director of the Green Building Council Denmark organisation.
In the short term, the economy is a key starting point for construction projects, but there’s also a need to focus on some more long-term, sustainable bottom lines, she says. “We need materials that have a long life and are easy to clean and maintain. It may cost more in acquisition, but it can bring great savings in the long-term.”
Germany has likewise incorporated sustainable design into its national building code since 1976, but there are still pressing issues. Foremost is a decreasing amount of land for construction, which is driving land prices up. Meanwhile, there’s a need for more building, especially in large cities, where there’s little affordable living space left.
“We need to once again get by with smaller living spaces,” says Hannover architect Jens-Uwe Seyfarth. “Then energy usage will decrease as well.”
In the past, 15 to 20 sq m of living space per person was enough; today it’s 50 sq m, Seyfarth says. For him, tailored and lasting planning is the be-all and end-all of sustainable construction.
“Before we build, we don’t only define the inhabitants’ current needs. We also have to think about, for example, how a large, detached home might potentially be rebuilt and converted into a retirement residence. I believe that’s the best model for sustainability.”
Read more: The next story in this series looks at the progress countries have made to deal with these challenges, as well as some thought-provoking solutions.
What’s your take on the issues that hamper sustainability in your country? In the Comments, tell us what you look forward to seeing and join the conversation.