The issue of sustainable construction has become fundamental in a context where the economical value of real estate must be aligned with efforts to mitigate their environmental impact.
Looking at some figures reveals why achieving sustainable buildings and communities remains crucial: today, construction accounts for about 50% of all extracted material; it’s responsible for more than 35% of waste generation in the EU; and its emissions can be traced to be between 5 and 12% of total national emissions.
The urgency for advancing towards sustainable construction becomes even more intense when considering how 68% of the world’s population is estimated to be part of urban centers by 2050 according to the UN.
Through eco buildings and communities, the aim is to minimize the negative environmental impact of buildings and infrastructure, addressing complex and interconnected issues such as resource depletion, habitat destruction, pollution, and climate change by reducing energy consumption, using eco-friendly materials and minimizing waste.
As sustainable construction remains closely linked to urban planning and the development of eco-friendly cities and communities, initiatives such as district heating are growing. Successful stories include Conpenhagen’s District Heating System taking over 98% of the city’s heat demand and producing heat for over 1 million people while, at the same time, integrating renewable and waste heat sources.
Keep reading for a closer look at all the aspects that constitute sustainable construction and the role of district heating in this development.
What is sustainable construction
Sustainable construction refers to all processes in designing and building structures that have as a main goal to minimize their environmental impact. It’s important to acknowledge this as a multi-faceted, complex issue.
In fact, sustainable buildings and communities need to consider how the following elements may intersect to create truly sustainable construction:
- Energy efficiency: sustainable construction focuses on reducing energy consumption through the use of energy-efficient building materials and systems, including the design of district energy initiatives and the integration of renewable energy sources.
- Resource efficiency: with the aim to reduce resource consumption, sustainable construction uses recycled or reclaimed materials and guarantees efforts are made to minimize waste during construction and demolition.
- Water efficiency: a number of water-efficient features must be incorporated to help reduce water consumption in sustainable buildings.
- Location: careful site selection can minimize the environmental impact of constructions, by preserving natural landscapes, minimizing soil disturbance, and incorporating landscaping that promotes biodiversity.
- Sustainable materials: choosing environmentally friendly building materials and low-impact production materials is crucial as part of sustainable construction initiatives. This also includes the use of materials that are locally sourced.
- Transportation and accessibility: sustainable construction projects must consider reducing the need for long commutes and promoting public transportation and cycling.
- Life cycle assessment: Evaluating the environmental impact of a building over its entire life cycle, from construction to operation and eventual demolition, helps identify areas for improvement.
- Community and social benefits: sustainable construction should also address the impact of these buildings on the community and the well-being of occupants. This includes factors like access to green spaces, social equity, and affordable housing.
On top of these points of reference, many sustainable construction initiatives are certified through programs like LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), which have determined specific sustainability criteria.
Additionally, it’s fundamental to clarify that sustainable construction must also be economically viable for it to be realized. That means it should not only reduce operating costs over the building's life to the benefit of occupants, but also provide a reasonable return on investment.
How district energy is enabling sustainable construction and communities
When considering the topic of sustainable construction, the issue of developing environmentally-friendly heating and cooling must necessarily come up. In such a context, the option of district heating has become a key choice being pushed by both private operators and private and public organizations.
Briefly described, district energy represents a centralized system that provides heating and/or cooling to multiple buildings (or a whole district) from a central heat source. This approach to heating and cooling means that, instead of each building having its own individual system, a network delivers heating and cooling to each building through underground pipes starting from a central location.
District energy is now known for its energy efficiency and environmental benefits, enabling sustainable construction and communities through a series of sustainable practices:
- Energy efficiency: the district energy approach puts efficiency at the center by employing various sources of energy, including combined heat and power (CHP) plants or waste heat from industrial processes. The result is a reduction in energy consumption.
- Reduced carbon emissions: by utilizing clean energy sources or low-carbon technologies, district energy systems can significantly reduce carbon emissions associated with heating. For instance, large heat pump systems will play a key role in decarbonizing heating and cooling. They enable high levels of energy efficiency, renewable energy shares and sector coupling.
- Integration of renewable energy sources: district energy systems are able to integrate with renewable energy sources. In case of using heat pumps, energy sources could be surface water, ground water, ambient air or even industrial heat dissipation or heat recovery – thus enhancing their sustainability.
- Resource conservation: district energy systems can make use of waste heat (be it from industrial processes or other sources) that would otherwise go to waste. This maximizes resource utilization and minimizes waste, contributing to sustainability. This is expanded by the installation of Thermal Storage technologies such as TES Tanks, which act as accumulators that store excess energy and allow it to be used during periods of high thermal energy needs.
But the potential of district energy for sustainable construction goes beyond the mere technical. By serving multiple buildings and offering a decentralized approach, as well as employing locally-available energy sources, they have the potential of generating two important assets.
On the one hand, they create economies of scale, meaning that the cost per unit of heat generated is lower than with individual heating systems. This makes district energy meet requirements for sustainable buildings to also remain an economically viable choice.
On the other hand, they represent a basis for building circular economy models, as they promote the use of locally-available energy sources (through industrial heat pumps able to integrate low-grade sources), as well as employing energy that would otherwise go to waste.
The district energy model has already been tested and implemented throughout numerous successful projects in which sustainable urban development and sustainable construction have been prioritized.
This is particularly true in projects where the whole life cycle design of a district energy system has been considered (Ristimäki et al.).
These successful projects unveil the potential of district energy as the source of sustainable construction in terms of heating and cooling. However, emphasis must be placed on the custom design and implementation of each project, so that they are developed in an integrative way that acknowledges both their technical and economic point of view.
As such, we are in charge of developing project-specific designs and their implementations, taking into account all players involved - from investors, to owners, operators, end consumers and municipalities.
Get in touch with us and speak directly with our team to discover our leading projects for district energy.