Steven Borncamp: How to accelerate green building in Europe

Steven Borncamp: How to accelerate green building in Europe

Editor’s note: Steven Borncamp will be speaking June 26-27 at Convergence Paris.

Steven Borncamp is passionate about expanding green building in every corner of Europe. The green building advocate wears many hats: co-director of the Construction21 international network, managing director of the Living Future Europe campaign, chairperson of the Europe Green Building Council Network’s Education Taskforce and founding president of the Romania Green Building Council.

An early proponent of sustainable development, Borncamp in 1993 joined one of the world’s first socially and environmentally responsible investment firms. After founding a consultancy that supported environmentally responsible businesses, he helped to develop seven green building councils throughout Europe. He also created several green building policies and programs to accelerate the green building marketplace in regions where it remained behind.

I recently spoke with Borncamp about his green building efforts.

Elaine Hsieh: In the context of the convergence of technologies such as energy, buildings and transportation, what are you working on that might be of particular interest to businesses and cities trying to enable radical efficiencies across their systems?

Steven Borncamp: One of the things I see that ties everything together in a multi-industry, multi-sector way and really combines technology and sustainability is exemplified in the property tax legislation initiative that we recently got passed in Romania in a fairly influential city. It rewards the greenest buildings and provides a significant property tax benefit for projects that obtain a green building certificate that's recognized by the World Green Building Council. Recognized certifications include LEED, BREEAM and the German DGNB, as well as other standards, including HQE for those in Paris. This has created a lot of interest in the city, in the building community and in investors that are seeking certification for their buildings and resulted in a lot of requests for new services, new technologies and new products that may exist elsewhere but are not present in that market.

In addition, the legislation has created new services and is starting to create pressure for new technologies that don't yet exist because it asks questions that drive energy performance, introduces green energy, etc. Green building certifications typically address very specific areas such as energy performance or how green the materials are for that specific building, but there are also more systemic requirements or criteria, such as trying to reduce the amount of traffic and possible fuel use associated with the building by encouraging public transit use, rewarding buildings that site themselves near other transportation, or providing incentives for alternative or low-emission or zero-emission vehicles.

Image: Romania Green Building Council, via Flickr

Hsieh: How does your work with the Romania Green Building Council compare what you're doing involving green building across other parts of Europe?

Borncamp: We [at the Romania Green Building Council] have been very collaborative, and we know that whatever we do in one country will not be a success for sustainable development unless we reach many countries since everybody is pushing for the same goal. So, we have been very collaborative with Europe but, rather than just talking and exploring ideas, we are focusing on providing some good answers and activities that can be replicated. Some of those activities include creating what we call a “Green Building Professional,” which is a 60-hour, multidisciplinary training course on topics that we think are essential for being a professional in sustainable construction. It is multidisciplinary in that the classroom includes everyone — bankers, investors, architects, engineers, real estate consultants, government officials, academics, etc. — in this very broad value chain of contributors to the construction and property markets. By creating this initiative in such a way that it could be replicated for green building councils in other markets, it was a very useful activity and has been very successful.

Until recently, Romania lacked a lot of government support for green building activity, so the Romania Green Building Council has been creating incentives to help build the business case for green buildings. For example, we created a “green mortgage” that uses a required energy performance certificate as a proxy for a more expensive green certification for single-family homes. This rewards homeowners and property developers who create greener buildings because the bank will loan them more money and provide better terms, which is something that's entirely within the realm of the private sector. We're now working to include the Central Bank of Romania, encouraging them to consider scientifically proven energy savings as equivalent to income. So, when your mortgage is calculated and your allowance for a mortgage is calculated, you can receive better terms because they consider the energy savings equal to a better credit risk and a better ability to pay. This will be monumental not only in Romania but across Europe if the Central Bank can be seen making this conservative modification to their policies that reduces energy price volatility. This is another sort of activity that is being applied in Romania but can also inspire and help other markets as well.

Hsieh: And how are people responding to the “green mortgage” thus far?

Borncamp: Well, we've actually had extremely positive responses in a very challenging market. What we've seen is that buyers are getting incredibly picky, as you can imagine. They have a lot of projects to choose from. Also, we found that the project developers are quite eager – to put it mildly – to differentiate their projects.

So, everyone is starting to promote on their projects things that weren't promoted before, such as the proximity to public transit as well as the energy performance of the building. Project developers have been very happy to qualify for this program and to be associated. The bank is very happy as well. They understand that builders that have been thinking about energy efficiency and about green building tend to be more strategic thinking, more professional and deliver a better product, so they're very happy also to be associated. For homeowners, it’s very simple – they basically get a better building and they never pay. In fact, not only do they not pay, they actually get money in their pocket. We've proven, under very conservative assumptions, that an energy efficient building is going to put money in their pocket provided they get the appropriate financing. So, in a sense, everybody wins in the equation.

I would also add that Romania, much like all of Europe, is required and has been required to implement these energy audits. That being said, not every country is compliant and a lot of gaps remain, so this initiative has actually supported government policy and has turned what could have been a headache, and one more additional requirement to check the box, into an opportunity. It also creates a lot of jobs for energy auditors who are now seen as helping to not only “check the box” but also provide additional value, like helping the bank determine cost-intensive assets that must be held for many years. So it's really positive across all of these different stakeholders.

Hsieh: How well is this program scaling across Europe?

Borncamp: In the rest of Europe, you already have a lot of programs that provide renovations for existing buildings or programs to put solar on existing homes, but you don't have programs, to my knowledge, that reward new construction being built green. So, the response in other markets has been very positive. People are very eager to see what we're doing, but we're really just in the beginning stages of sharing this with others and we think that they will like it. Hopefully, other countries will add to it, improve it and implement it, and we keep sharing knowledge to continue the initiative together.

Hsieh: It’s encouraging to hear how these green building initiatives have been received in Romania and how much promise there is for Europe. On a related note, you’re the co-director of something called Construction21. Tell me more about what that is and its impact on the construction industry in Europe thus far.

Borncamp: Construction21 is a knowledge-sharing platform for a multidisciplinary group of building practitioners. Just like the Green Building Councils pulled together, this network pulls together all of the necessary stakeholders in the building industry digitally. It was developed with five Green Building Councils and other expert organizations for energy efficiency in green buildings across Europe, and it was piloted and developed in six countries and is now entering the international phase. That said, we're looking to expand this further in Europe and to the rest of the world.

The platform includes a very advanced case study structure that has been designed specifically to highlight energy and environmental performance abilities for buildings. This allows some degree of comparability and to view what's going on in other countries. This is the knowledge-sharing backbone of Construction21. In Romania, we have over 70 case studies, which doesn't sound like a lot but Romania is just getting started with green buildings and really promoting energy efficiency. There are over 400 [case studies] for the other partners so far.

Another important part of Construction21 is that, in order to list your product and technology in this knowledge-sharing platform, you have to associate it with a finished building. So it requires that we're actually talking about in-use products and examining their real-life impact. We think these are unique features.

As far as impact, we’re reaching close to 7,000 building practitioners across a wide spectrum of different roles in the process, so we've definitely reached a lot of people.

By the way the platform is structured, I also feel that we can access a lot of hard-to-reach places. For example, I was in Belarus just a few months ago, and they were very eager to get involved with Construction21 whereas you might imagine a Green Building Council may be a little bit more difficult to establish as a non-profit organization. They were very eager to know about energy efficiency and about green buildings, but this is one more way we can reach them.

Hsieh: What are some of the other big challenges that you're seeing for green building in Europe?

Borncamp: Europe, to its credit, passed a number of very ambitious targets. They call it Europe 2020. Even beyond energy, it includes a construction waste development legislation that requires up to 70 percent of construction waste to be diverted from the landfill. There are a number of very ambitious European targets that are just now becoming enforced or will be in the near future. The fear is that they may get watered down, just like a lot of legislation, as deadlines come closer. The industry, or others, may react and look for delays or for lower standards. I think this is one of the challenges that we need to address by showing economic, technical and aesthetic building examples well in advance of this 2020 date. By 2016 or 2017, we need to have these across-the-board successes so that people are encouraged, and we can be in a position to say that a good part of industry is ready and wants these higher standards, and they can do very well with these higher standards. This is, I think, a big challenge but also an opportunity to push ourselves to keep all of this on track.

Another area that our organization [Romania Green Building Council] – and really, many organizations – could do much more is to help address the vocational trades. We hear a lot of interest, for example, in architecture and engineering to do green buildings but also some concerns that, “If I ask for this [green building design], will people know how to implement this and will we really get the performance we need in the final product?” This is really an area that we need to explore and certainly, we need to partner with others who are taking on the challenge to really educate a much wider group in the whole value chain of delivering buildings.

Hsieh: You were recently appointed Managing Director of the Living Future Europe campaign. Tell me about what Living Future Europe is doing. Is the mission the same as the International Living Future Institute based in the U.S.?

Borncamp: The Living Future Europe campaign will highlight the excellent work that's already been started by the International Living Future Institute. In this institute are the authors and administrators of the Living Building Challenge, which is the most ambitious green building standard in the world. Part of the Living Future campaign — a big part of it — will be around how to simply get more “living buildings” across more typologies into more places in Europe.

These very high-performance buildings will encourage industry to accept higher standards. Just to give some perspective, a Living Building Challenge qualified building must have at least one year of demonstrated performance as a positive-energy building, so it's not about just hiring a construction, it's absolutely about performance. It actually has to perform. It also has a list of over 30 chemicals that are common to the construction industry but are not allowed [for Living Building Challenge projects] due to their inherently dangerous levels of toxicity that have been proven over time. Also, the building has to be built on brownfield sites, so it can't take new land away from very scarce land in Europe. In addition, there are other very high-level achievement benchmarks that have to be made.

My role will be to help get people trained and to get businesses, government, and academics aware of what “living buildings” are. And then, as quickly as possible, begin ensuring that we have these not just as a nature center, university or research center as you might expect, but we need living building hospitals, living building shopping malls, and living building offices in all sorts of building typologies. As I see the campaign, we want to put this directly in front of people and let them personally experience these buildings and see that not only is this the right thing to do from a planetary point of view, but that this is an enjoyable, beautiful, economically successful thing to do for anyone. That's my role in the next couple of years, and we don't have any time to waste.