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Cross-Country Collaboration Could Revolutionise How We Approach Sustainability

Quartier Heidestraße

In all stages of its life, real estate consumes materials: during design, during construction, during operation. Bricks are forged from clay, and electricity runs along copper wires, taking raw materials from the Earth. But instead of being a burden on the planet, using up finite resources, what if a building could be part of a solution?

This enormous question is the subject of an initiative established by Drees & Sommer, British Embassy Berlin and Imperial College London. Following its first event held last November, the group’s second digital event, German-British Embassy Talks 2.0 on Smart and Sustainable Cities, will provide industry leaders with collaborative and tangible opportunities to support the UK and Germany in achieving their zero-emission goals.

“The global challenges of the future can only be solved together, by joining forces,” said Olaf Kranz, the British Embassy UK Science & Innovation Network Head of Science & Innovation Germany, Switzerland and Austria. “By linking the most knowledgeable people together from different countries — researchers, innovators and industry — we can stimulate discussion. The whole area of future cities is very broad; energy, mobility, material sciences, architect and design, smart cities, AI, recycling, waste management — the list goes on. For this event we’re focused on two hot topics: the circular economy and smart cities.”

The Circular Economy

Real estate management consultancy Drees & Sommer has been championing the circular economy in the UK since it opened an office in the country in 2017. The company merged with EPEA, which co-developed the Cradle To Cradle design principle, a framework that focuses on the idea that all materials, once not needed anymore, are recycled or reused.

“The key philosophy is not to optimise bit by bit the way we’re building now to make them more efficient, because optimising just means reducing the problem, the carbon footprint,” Drees & Sommer Head of Engineering UK Marco Abdallah said. “Instead we want to solve the problem. The way we want companies to approach it is to rethink the design of the building from the start — from where raw materials are extracted from the ground in another continent, until the end of life for the product and beyond.” 

According to Defra, 63% of waste in the UK in 2016 was attributed to construction, demolition and excavation, totalling 120 million tonnes. Abdallah described how a building façade designed in the normal way sends 40% to 50% of materials to landfill. A facade designed using the Cradle To Cradle concept will send 0% to landfill.

Abdallah acknowledged that it takes effort and know-how, however. While some developers are looking to design buildings that can be disassembled, each element separated to be put to new use once the building’s life is over, the process requires engagement with multiple layers of the supply chain.

“To turn that into reality in projects, a defined process is necessary where material performance is assessed by material experts who understand the chemistry behind the products and monitor and document the project result in a 'Building Circularity Passport,'” Abdallah said. “There is a big benefit to the industry, however. Previously, sustainability was considered an effort, something that has to be done. Now it can be considered an opportunity. For example, if a supplier can recover raw material from waste, aluminium from an old window frame, the energy and cost intensive primary raw material mining process can be skipped to the benefit of the supplier. There starts to be a business case.”

Smart Cities, Not Just Buildings

A second route to achieving a new way of designing buildings lies in digitisation. Creating a smart building doesn’t just include deploying technology to monitor energy use and consumption, but technology such as 3D modelling or laser scanning to create internal maps of a building to facilitate space planning.

Drees & Sommer has turned its new office in Stuttgart, built using Cradle To Cradle, into a test bed for a wide variety of technologies and sustainable elements. As well as being a smart building it will be net-energy plus, generating more energy than it needs and feeding the surplus to the public grid. Through the building’s mobile app occupiers will be able to assign access credentials, book conference rooms and parking places, and configure heating, ventilation and light for every user. Since sensors can recognise when people are in a room, smart technology can help to ensure that hygiene and distance measures are being observed at all times.

However, monitoring heating, energy efficiency, building use and so on is just part of the whole story of smart technology, Kranz said. One building is very important but to be truly efficient and sustainable, urban planners and developers need to think bigger.

Drees & Sommer's Stuttgart office

“We’re interested in the way we make a whole city smart, not just a building,” he said. “How people can share information using smart technology about how to get from A to B, for example — perhaps taking a train, then a bus, then walking. There’s a lot of research on connecting different modes of transport more effectively. Also, how a smart government can reach citizens and share information more effectively.”

Drees & Sommer's Quartier Heidestrasse project in Berlin is championing the smart urban district of the future. As well as a focus on sustainability and the inclusion of a wide range of technology, it is designed to be flexible to support different lifestyles and ways of getting around. 

Kranz highlighted how smart cities are an area that could particularly benefit from cross-border collaboration. Cities across the world are approaching smart cities differently, so testing ideas and learning will be far more effective if information is shared.

Accelerating Conversations

The concepts of a circular economy and smart cities are hot topics, as Kranz said. The UK government’s Resources and Waste Strategy aims to ‘eliminate waste of all kinds by 2050’ in England. Its Circular Economy Package policy, published in July 2020, takes its commitment to keep using resources for as long as possible further. However, Abdallah believes that the UK is late to the subject.

“The topic of carbon reduction has been at the forefront of conversations in the UK, whereas on the subject of the circular economy, the UK is rather late compared to countries such as the Netherlands or Belgium,” he said. “Whether you recycle or reuse materials, you reduce the carbon footprint automatically. Since carbon reduction is pushed in the UK, this means the Cradle To Cradle concept should also accelerate.”

Companies need to think beyond the goals set by governments and accreditations and push themselves further, Drees & Sommer UK Managing Director Phil Ratcliffe said. This is the whole aim of the event; to allow industry leaders from different countries to share best practices and together exceed targets. 

“Buildings are slow to build and change; we need to get stuck in now,” Ratcliffe said. “The buildings we design today are what will be using in 10 years’ time. Companies need to think beyond the targets set by accreditations and work with architects and engineers to find new ways of building. Only then can we create buildings, cities, that are sustainable.”

This article was produced in collaboration between Drees & Sommer, British Embassy Berlin and Studio B. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.

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