The energy requirements for buildings are becoming increasingly strict. By 2050, every building must carry an A energy label, which is a great challenge for home owners and property developers alike. Sustainable construction - how do we go about it? We asked Kristof Vanfleteren, CEO of ION, Jeroen Rabaey, co-founder of NOVEN, a Ghent-based expert in sustainable energy, and Tinne Van der Straeten, federal Minister for Energy.
Kristof: "When people think of sustainable construction, they usually think of technical measures, but we have defined three sustainability pillars for our organisation: impact building, that is building based on the needs of the environment, the total cost of living and be yourself, communicate as one. These pillars are part of the DNA of our company and are supported by all our employees. This DNA is reflected in the sustainability we strive for in new projects. We also follow the ‘Duurzaamheidsmeter Wijken’, a tool developed by the Flemish government that allows us to measure to what extent we score better than the legal framework, in comparison with other companies. On the one hand, we certainly have to focus on technical measures linked to heating, and on the other, we have to continuously consider how to implement sustainability in every new construction project."
Jeroen, are you already witnessing a shift from conventional to more sustainable energy in practice?
Jeroen: “In newbuild projects, we are seeing a shift from gas and fuel oil to either residual heat or geothermal energy, which extracts energy from the ground. We convert that energy into cold air using a heat pump. It is a sustainable and environmentally-friendly solution to prevent overheating in well-insulated buildings or at higher temperatures. This technique is becoming increasingly common and we are witnessing a clear evolution from a nice-to-have to a must-have solution."
Sustainability and environmentally-friendly solutions obviously come with great challenges. Tinne, what do you expect from the construction sector and property developers?
Tinne: “A lot of passion and expertise. There are many old buildings in Belgium and to ensure they meet the European climate objectives, we would need eleven home renovations per hour. A current trend in new projects is for neighbourhoods to join forces and provide smart energy solutions together. It is therefore a huge challenge for the government to ensure that the framework and rules are clear. After all, these buildings are an integral part of the European objective to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. It is a goal we must achieve by joining forces with the private sector.”
These two worlds must indeed join forces. Kristof, what do the construction sector and experts in sustainable construction need from the government?
Kristof: “We are working on numerous initiatives involving privatised energy installations and buildings. There is currently no legal framework for this and that sometimes frightens people, because, unlike Electrabel and the like, private companies can close their doors and then the question arises what will happen with the consumers’ household energy needs… That is of course a legitimate concern, because heating is a basic need.”
Sustainable living and construction clearly also have an impact on our heating technology. Jeroen, can this evolution be absorbed by the existing structures and systems?
Jeroen: “That’s a good question. The electricity grid is indeed coming under increasing pressure. So it is very important to choose the right technologies. If we opt for a heat pump, we must be aware that it will use the electricity grid, which is also increasingly burdened by charging stations, among other things. We are convinced that everything must be centrally connected and managed. We believe that Energy Service Companies have an important role to play here, as they are responsible for the efficiency and proper functioning of these installations.”
Tinne: “We have witnessed an evolution from very large electricity producers to a decentralised market. At the same time, households are generating more and more energy through solar panels. It is important to manage this energy intelligently and we must indeed regulate this at a higher level. Our people are already working on making grid management smarter and more flexible. I hope to be able to finalise a number of amendments to the Electricity Act this year and present them to parliament. For example, changing ‘electricity and gas’ to ‘heating’, because currently the preferential social rate only applies to electricity or gas. There also needs to be a broader debate on a tax reform that promotes renewable energy and imposes higher taxes on polluting energy.”
Jeroen: “So far, our debate has been about the cost to the user, but there are also the installation costs. If we want to offer affordable and sustainable heating for social housing today, we, as a private company, have to subsidise it. That is not a long-term solution, so the government needs to come up with tools to bridge that gap. There are still a number of quick wins: why not give priority to more sustainable projects in permit procedures? Or lower construction taxes for projects that focus on sustainable energy generation and affordability?”
Tinne: “If we want the energy transition to be successful, we must indeed join forces more efficiently. The possibilities you’ve listed fit perfectly into the Renovation Wave of Europe’s Green Deal. We have already introduced a VAT reduction to 6 percent for home renovation to give it a boost and to create jobs. Renovating improves the quality of life, and we also want to continue working towards more circularity and the reuse of materials.”
You are clearly very much on the same page. What are the biggest challenges today in making sustainable construction feasible?
Kristof: “Our buyers are prepared to make additional investments to build sustainably, but we’ve noticed that it is important to keep the cost within certain limits.”
Tinne: “I absolutely agree. We have a great shortage of social housing, so people with limited financial capacity often end up with houses of very poor quality. Together with the Public Centres for Social Welfare, the Flemish ministers are looking into giving priority to these people. Living in poverty is not an easy thing to do, and one does not immediately focus on changing supplier, for example. So in these cases, by joining forces, we can make great strides.”
Jeroen: “That is true. We focus on two segments, namely newbuilds and renovation. In newbuild projects, people are keen on sustainable energy, but we come up against the cheap price of gas and the fact that we still have to purchase electricity. We see the same phenomenon on the renovation market. These projects require a tax reform. At the moment, you cannot recoup the cost of a heat pump, because the investment needed exceeds that and the consumption cost does not decrease much, if at all.”
So the best sales pitch to get everyone on board the sustainability train revolves entirely around the benefits for future generations.
Tinne: “It nicely illustrates how entrepreneurs and the government sometimes drive the communication on certain issues. If heat pumps are controlled intelligently, they generate electricity that can be marketed and for which you can receive compensation. There is also a digital revolution going on and we realise that it is our responsibility to create clear frameworks for this. That will allow you, as entrepreneurs, to put your inventiveness to work.”
Tinne: “The Electricity Act will be amended this year to include digitalisation and the social rate. We are also looking at how we can achieve the targets of Fit for 55, the European Commission’s initiative that aims to reduce CO2 emissions by 55% in all sectors by 2030. Today, buildings account for 40% of the total energy consumption. The energy switch is happening; we are working on it every day.”
Kristof: “We are certainly playing our part in this, and in a number of concrete projects we are already much further ahead than people think. For example, we extract heat from wastewater and recover that heat in buildings. We also feel it is our role as entrepreneurs to keep investigating how we can make a difference. Within our company, we have two people who focus exclusively on coming up with innovative ideas.”