FRANCIS will set new standards

As the managing director of Austrian Sustainable Building Council, ÖGNI for short, Peter Engert is convinced: the most sustainable properties are those which do not have to be built completely anew. In our interview he explains the role played by grey energy in his certification work and why he too is dependent on the pioneering achievements of developers.

Mr Engert, for a long time the focus has been on new buildings with certification systems such as those of ÖGNI and its counterpart in Germany, the German Sustainable Building Council (DGNB). Is this now gradually shifting towards the refurbishment of existing buildings?

Yes, this is definitely the case. Although in Austria and in particular Vienna there is still not enough refurbishment and revitalisation of existing buildings, it can be seen that the taxonomy regulation and the green deal of the EU will lead to a great number of changes. The effects will soon become visible on the market and pose challenges for the industry as refurbishments are much more complex than a new greenfield construction. It will be interesting to see which market players take up this challenge.

How do you certify these refurbishments of existing buildings?

As ÖGNI we inspect buildings throughout all of Austria with respect to how they fulfil the criteria laid down in the taxonomy regulation. With about eight out of every ten properties it becomes apparent that these are not capable of becoming taxonomy-compliant. Nevertheless, we do not wish to leave our clients out in the rain with this diagnosis, and so we have developed the certification system “Building in operation”. With this we show which low-level steps and measures have to be initiated so as to ensure that taxonomy compliance can be achieved in three to five years’ time. This certificate of ours is currently very much in demand. Pilot projects such as “FRANCIS” in the “Althan Quartier”, which is fully compliant, serve as a point of reference for us in this respect.

What role is played by the topic of grey energy in your certifications?

Buildings have to be planned and implemented so that the respective construction materials with a high CO2 volume – steel and concrete for example – are able to remain standing for centuries where possible. The demolition of these buildings has a particularly negative impact on the environmental and climate audit, even if the building materials can in part be recycled. In contrast, building elements such as the façade, which require refurbishment every 20 or 30 years, have to be made of materials which scarcely emit any CO2 when they are manufactured and used in building work. Accordingly, it should be easy to replace or renew these. This distinction is a new and important aspect for new buildings, yet also for large-scale refurbishments. It can only be achieved if our planning and construction work is far-sighted, however. Far-sighted also means: the greatest-possible flexibility with regard to a CO2-compatible change of user or changing needs. This is why I am of the opinion that there can no longer be concepts for buildings geared to just one user or type of usage. Where this can lead may be seen with what was once a less attractive office building with only one form of usage – this is now being revitalised to create “FRANCIS”, a positive example which would otherwise have been a candidate for the wrecking ball. 

What is the significance of projects such as “FRANCIS” for the refurbishment offensive that you have mentioned?

In my opinion “FRANCIS” is a lighthouse project for all of Austria. It will undoubtedly become the standard for future revitalisations, and primarily for three reasons. Firstly, no additional space is being used, and the land was sealed long ago. Secondly, all the construction elements which emitted a lot of CO2 40 years ago are being retained. Thirdly, the city district approach may be seen quite clearly with “FRANCIS” and the neighbouring “Althan Quartier”. This is an important aspect for me personally because it would be short-sighted nowadays to develop a building and not give consideration to the environs. 6B47 Real Estate Investors AG has succeeded in uniting these three elements.

To what extent can other developers orient themselves to this example – ultimately they are confronted with different obstacles and various building sins in their projects?

The criteria for a climate-friendly revitalisation are clearly defined: circular flow land use management and the avoidance of waste rank among these. What we need now are projects such as “FRANCIS” in which these aspects are implemented. Such case studies are extremely important for ÖGNI, among other things so as to be able to consolidate our parliamentary work in Brussels – for “FRANCIS” also serves, alongside other projects, as an example of what is actually possible. It demonstrates that such revitalisations of existing buildings can also make very considerable economic sense, while illustrating that the social sustainability aspect – the concept of a city district therefore – can also be implemented quite easily in refurbishment projects. In this manner we want to make a contribution to steering the development of taxonomy even more strongly towards the preservation of existing buildings. In this respect we have not shied away from opposing other lobbyists who are active in Brussels and pursuing divergent objectives.

What impetus do you hope to gain for future city district and refurbishment projects?

One of the things I would wish to see in the future are even better thought-out mobility concepts with local public transport, short-distance travel offerings based on electricity, links to taxi services and rental vehicles and the like – namely from one source. There could also be common, digitally-aided solutions with regard to energy consumption topics and the availability of power or its on-site generation. So that we can take these various steps towards the future city district, however, the project developers must at all costs share their current knowledge. In this respect I expressly believe that 6B47 has to take responsibility and offer insights into the “FRANCIS” project and explain in a transparent manner which measures have to be implemented at what point in time and for what reasons.