Build4People – a comment

The European Commission is inviting a discussion on the establishment of a “Built4People” partnership. Described as a research & innovation partnership on ‘people-centric sustainable built environment’ under the Horizon Europe programme (2021-2027).

The aim of this is to “provide a cross-cluster structure, bringing together public and private sectors to create research and innovation pathways based on a holistic view of the built environment for sustainability and better living.”

If you want to have a say, there is an on-line survey open until 15/01/2020.

The built environment* is core to the transition towards a sustainable and climate-neutral economy, and is also critical to people’s health and wellbeing. Here in Europe people spend most of their time inside buildings so the indoor environment is also very important.

(* here they mean buildings and infrastructure …although I would say that forests can also be considered part of that – certainly here in the UK)

We are all stakeholders in this. “Built4People” aims at direct EU financing on about €700 million – meaning it will be the major source of EU financing for construction-related research and innovation in the years to come. It is therefore definitely worth asking the questions – does this have the right scope and aims? and will this achieve what it aims to achieve?

This originates from the already existing Energy-Efficient Buildings public private partnership, but although the energy efficiency of buildings per se is very important, it is also crucial to consider the energy embodied in the building – throughout the life cycle from construction to de-construction and beyond. When considering effect on the environment and people this also requires proper consideration of the material chain – and when this material is wood this is, of course, originating in forests which are, themselves, extremely important for the environment and people’s wellbeing and culture. For all materials the impact of materials transportation should also be considered in the scope, since this impacts both the environment and people’s quality of life to a high degree, not just around construction sites, but around the raw material production too (e.g. noise, pollution, and the impact on roads). Build4People aims for a truly “truly integrated and holistic, people-centric approach to the design, construction and operation of the built environment”…”for sustainability and better living” and to do that they must cover this (with natural, renewable, materials forefront combined with understanding that the landscape that provides this is also part of our cultural and social heritage) …but does it look like they will?

Firstly, we need to be careful to understand how they use certain phrases because they might not mean what we hope they mean.

Where they speak of the “whole value chain” they add “from planning and design to procurement, construction, operation and occupation of sustainable, safe and healthy buildings, and including political and economic as well as technology-related actors”. This does not mention the material value chain (although see below) and they do mention material manufacturers in the list of expected partners.

Where they speak of “holistic approaches” they mean “to built environment design, construction and integration, allowing for cross-challenge (e.g. energy efficiency, circularity, carbon footprint, safety, indoor air quality) and cross-phase (across the life cycle) thinking based on a common language, integrated tools, and standards.” So good to see circularity and carbon footprint there.

Where they speak of “people-centric approaches to building design” they add “e.g. co-design involving citizens and future users, to ensure an effective consideration of decisive factors for wellbeing in buildings (e.g. safety, indoor air quality) and beyond (e.g. urban biodiversity). Good to see urban biodiversity mentioned there.

They do include “Advancing the consideration of resource, materials and construction products’ efficiency, safety, and circularity in design and construction, also reducing environmental and negative health impacts, and linking to city and mobility planning.” but this seems like it doesn’t consider the material chain before it gets to the building. Aside from the environmental and social impacts of the materials value chain there is also the growing issue of material availability that the future building and construction sector will undoubtedly have to deal with. Circularity is one response to that, but it is not the only one necessary (because circularity cannot make materials last forever). I did see mention that construction consumes 50% of all extracted materials, but not any reference to anything like the VERAM roadmap (and anyone planning to make a new roadmap should surely consult the existing ones) or the European Bioeconomy Strategy (which surely must be considered for a sector that consumes so much materials).

So, on to some of the survey questions:
(note, if you do the survey you have to answer “Yes” or “No” to get a comment box – depending on the question)

1: Are there any areas of intervention that should be considered in addition to those already presented?
As mentioned above lack of reference to the European Bioeconomy Strategy (and what it includes) is a large oversight. The complex matter of carbon storage in materials needs holistic research with the genuine aim of improving sustainability and better living (rather than material sector rivalry).

2: Do you consider the proposed objectives, intervention logic and activities of the partnership sufficient to address the identified challenges
While “people-centric” sustainability, and mention of quality of life, wellbeing and culture, is laudable there is a lingering doubt that this might be thought of as people being more important than environmental sustainability. This could be solved with more specific descriptions of the aimed for benefits in regard to climate neutrality and sustainability. But also, considering people and their actual concerns – as above, the matter of materials transport and production are also rather key to quality of life. These days construction is more sympathetic to the disturbance it causes on the site, but there is much less regard to the disturbance it causes to people living along the supply chains.

3: Would the proposed structure succeed in delivering technological and non-technological innovation across Europe, to substantially improve its built environment for people and planet?
What is described is already complex and challenging, even before adding in the materials chain aspects I advocate here. Clearly vested commercial interests are going to play a factor (no matter how good and pure everyone’s intentions are) so transparency is going to be critical. The proposed governance structure needs more detail to properly answer this question, but an advisory board of just “15-20 selected representatives of external stakeholders” seems inadequate for an initiative of this size and scope, and one wonders how the “people” get included in this “people-centric” partnership.

4: Do you have knowledge about any existing relevant clusters at national/regional level, and ideas of how they could interact with the partnership?
The Forest-based Sector Technology Platform (FTP), is an existing cluster covering the whole bio-based value-chain of construction. Together with the European Technology Platform on Sustainable Mineral Resources (ETP SMR) they produced the VERAM Roadmap for European Raw Materials in 2050. The FTP also has its own Vision 2040 and Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda 2030. If Build4People is serious about addressing the fragmented value chain there must be integration. (“Fragmented value chain: the lack of integration of the built environment value chain is recognised as a significant barrier4. This has two main negative consequences for the EU and its businesses: the lack of an integrated vision and of collective action on R&I for the built environment and a limited uptake of innovation in the sector.”)

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