We can solve the puzzle of a carbon-neutral building together

Blog post
Pekka Tuominen

Imagine a conversation in a bar after a hard day at a construction conference: a builder starts complaining about the lack of both carbon-neutral materials and demand for carbon-neutral buildings. A building owner says that no builder is able to offer to build carbon-neutral buildings, so there is little point in asking. A material manufacturer finishes by stating that they cannot develop carbon-neutral materials as there is too little demand for them. 

What we have here is a total “chicken or egg” paradox that hinders the progress of carbon-neutral building!

It is time to pay attention to the carbon dioxide emissions of construction and construction materials, and this cannot be done by the buyer, planner or builder alone. The whole sector should come together to find the path forward. 

We need a unified vision of what kind of pieces we need to complete the puzzle of an affordable and sustainable carbon-neutral building and – perhaps more importantly – what each party needs to do in order to solve the puzzle together, step by step.

To achieve Finland’s goal to be carbon neutral by 2035, it is necessary, among other things, that new buildings will be largely carbon neutral. At present, buildings still account for 40% of global CO2 emissions when construction, building materials and the energy use in buildings are summed up. Such a major share of emissions means that we need to reduce the carbon footprint of buildings fast, because 40% of total emissions simply cannot be offset by other means.

If we take a closer look at emissions from buildings, the consumption of electricity, and heating and cooling energy have long been the biggest emitters over buildings’ lifespans. This is why energy efficiency has long been in the focus of sustainable building development. This has been successful to such an extent that, in most EU countries, emissions from the operation of new buildings have already been reduced in a major way. However, emissions from construction and building materials have remained more or less unchanged. In the next few years, materials will already account for about half of the emissions from a typical new building.

To help find the path to carbon-neutrality, VTT and the University of Tampere launched the Build4Clima project last March, funded by Business Finland. Over the course of a year, we will establish a carbon-neutral construction ecosystem in the form of a cooperative network. Together we will define the sector’s vision and a roadmap for achieving the aim of carbon-neutral buildings. We have already gathered together construction companies, architects’ offices, construction planning firms, the manufacturers of construction materials and components, and other actors in order to realise the goal of a carbon-neutral building.

It is already clear that solutions are available, but we have to be able to choose the ones that have the best overall effect. Our goal is to be able to build carbon-neutral and healthy buildings. 

In the best-case scenario, over the course of its lifetime, a building may even be able to trap more carbon than it emits. The built environment could become a storage of carbon, a part of the solution to climate change rather than part of the problem. This is something to look forward to and work for together.