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Vegetarian construction? It could be the future!

With the key theme of transforming Europe’s existing housing stock, this year’s International Refurbishment Symposium is set to tackle the many issues facing the retrofit sector with the help of several high-profile speakers.

Amongst them at the event – part of Eco Connect London on September 15 – will be Professor Ronald Rovers, a leading expert on low- and zero-energy buildings and a pioneer in mass-scale retrofit.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Professor Rovers, who is also Owner Director of SBScentre (Sustainable Building and Urban Sustainability) to gauge his view on the challenges ahead.

I found that his views very much echo my own, in that the most of the challenges faced by the retro-fit sector, as well as the wider construction industry, are centred around protecting the environment, managing resources and building healthier and more sustainable communities.

He believes that one important approach to tackling these issues is by adopting 0-energy building, also known as a zero net energy (ZNE) building. In simple terms, this would see that the total amount of energy used annually by a building being roughly equal the amount of renewable energy created on-site or elsewhere.

At present, the European Union is the main driver for 0-energy, both in the new build and retrofit sectors. It’s set ambitious goals when it comes to sustainability whilst investing significantly in research. At the moment there are around 20 major research programmes focussed on large-scale retrofit.

Unfortunately, like most countries across the globe, it’s still a long way off meeting its own climate change targets.

In attempting to meet targets, governments have turned to legislation and regulation. Prof Rovers believes that, for them to be effective, there must be mandatory performance indicators, for energy, of course (0-energy standards), but also materials.

We both recognise that, in order to avoid opportunistic approaches and rebound effects, mandatory materials performance standards must be agreed and implemented by governments across the world. What’s more, with the Paris Agreement in place, it’s important to have a CO2 impact label introduced to every product and activity.

Here it’s important to note that CO2 concerns are likely to remain the main driver for future global developments in sustainability, since they push developments more or less in the right direction. Also, making the CO2 consequences visible helps to change decisions and developments.

Whilst these ideas have been around for a while, I was also interested to learn more about Prof Rovers’ own approach to retrofit, outlined in his recent paper, New energy retrofit concept: ‘renovation trains’ for mass housing.

It’s centred on the idea that area-based retrofit can be carried out house by house, with a team moving from one property to another after a transformational retrofit.

This method is designed to deliver scale and speed to the retrofit process, like a kind of reverse assembly line, with workers moving in a continuous process along the houses, retrofitting parts in a specific order.

Perhaps most striking of all, however, were the Professor’s views on how we’ll all need to change and adapt our lifestyles in the years ahead.

This change needn’t be for the worse as we try to tackle climate change and preserve dwindling resources whilst building stronger, more sustainable communities.

For real change, he believes we will need to become more locally organised and share more, leading to increasingly intense social structures. In fact, when it comes to our resources, energy, water, materials and food, we’ll transform into a ‘vegetarian society’.

That’s not to say we will all have to give up meat, but it will mean less reliance on meat in our food, renewable/organic energy and even ‘vegetarian building’.

It sounds odd, but basically it means less use of high-impact metals (the ‘meat’ in construction) and a change to mainly renewable materials, or what are now called ‘bio-based materials’.

The issues raised, and many of the solutions put forward by Prof Rovers in our interview were fascinating, and we’re all looking forward to hearing more from him at Eco Connect London next month.

There he’ll be looking at some retrofit initiatives that are already in place across Europe, including examples from The Netherlands.

At the event itself (based at the Institution of Engineering and Technology in Savoy Place) (insert link), it will also be interesting to hear the views of other professionals working in retrofit and the wider housebuilding sector, especially as we face so many uncertainties resulting from Brexit and so much political upheaval in Europe and across the globe.

To make sure you don’t miss out on what promises to be a fascinating insight into the future of the industry, book your place here…

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