EUKI Interview: Sustainability and the Construction Industry in Czechia, Poland, and Slovenia
by Julian-Maximilian Dreyer, GIZ / EUKI
Agnieszka Sznyk is the president of the Board at INNOWO, a partner in the EUKI Circon4Climate project which strengthens circular construction processes in Czechia, Poland, and Slovenia. To achieve this objective, the project increases awareness regarding the circular construction process among regional governments and municipalities as well as key players within the industry: policymakers, architects, contractors, investors, and urban planning authorities.
Agnieszka Sznyk is an expert in the field of circular economy, sustainable consumption and production as well as economic aspects of the Polish healthcare system. She holds a Doctor of Sciences and received the prestigious “PRoton” award, which is a Public Relations award for the Best PR Specialist in the NGO sector, in 2009.
We talked to Agnieszka about problems that hinder the usage of secondary materials in the construction industry and what buildings might look like in 15-30 years.
Within construction, up to 70 percent of demolition waste can be used anew. In Czechia, Poland, and Slovenia, however, most of the construction industry’s waste is landfilled. Why? What is missing in the industry?
First of all, what is missing is reliable data on construction resource usage, waste generation and treatment. Numerous times it has been proved that the quality of official statistics could be improved. Having this in mind, the official Eurostat numbers for mineral wastes that, apart from soils, constitute the majority of construction sector waste look remarkably positive. Over 90% of mineral waste from construction and demolition in Slovenia and Czechia is being recycled or backfilled, while in Poland this proportion reaches 75%. My subjective expert opinion is a lot less optimistic. This starts from the very beginning of the construction life-cycle. Typically used technologies do not account for the possibility of construction materials reusage (e.g. modern mortar that enables fast construction process disables the reuse of bricks). The pursuit of short-term profit that manifests itself in decreased durability and faster construction times does not support the reuse of construction materials, elements, and structures.
“In summary, the construction sector found itself in a vicious circle that only a holistic, methodical approach can break. The CirCon4Climate projects aims to fill this gap by offering such a complete methodology and catering to the construction worker’s needs. This means making it as practical as possible.”
Agnieszka Sznyk, president of the Board at INNOWO, a partner in the EUKI CirCon4Climate project.
When you think about the target countries of your EUKI project CirCon4Climate and their construction industries: What combines them? Where are the differences? Is there any kind of “one fits all” approach?
There are some differences between construction industries in Slovenia, Czechia, and Poland. For example, the average age and materials used for the building stock. However, these discrepancies stem mostly from the geographical and cultural circumstances inherited from the past. Currently, it is safe to say that by and large, the present linear economic model construction sector uses global value chains with similar technologies and materials being applied in each market. Additionally, the legal framework EU countries operate in is more or less similar. Both facts imply that we actually can devise similar tools and guidelines for a circular transition, that can be used not only in those three countries but also in the rest of the EU. However, what we have already noticed in the CirCon4Climate project is that the approach to actually using those tools in the real world differs in each country. This means that convincing stakeholders to apply a circular concept should be tailored to each market. The use of examples, legal requirements, and economic arguments should be adapted to each country. The same applies to with whom to start the discussion. This is why our made-to-measure communication with each market, in the form of workshops, conferences, newsletters, and direct contacts, is so important.
CirCon4Climate strengthens circular construction with the help of best practices from Germany. Can you give us an example for a “simple” circular building principle?
The circular construction concept is a really broad one. It comprises of e.g. building for durability as well as for disassembly. Construction out of local materials as well as recyclable materials from the global market. Multifunctional buildings as well as those that will remain to have the same function for centuries. So, there are different principles to be considered depending on the construction strategies applied. However, if I were to choose one overarching principle to go by, it would be: consider not only your own needs, but also the needs of consecutive users well into the future. It seems a daunting task, however numerous times we have experienced that planning for the decades or centuries ahead is much better than thinking only of the current day. Other, more detailed rules (e.g. applying the hierarchy of waste, sheering layers concept, limiting carbon footprint) stem exactly from this principle.
A “simple” circular building principle that has been successfully implemented in Germany is the concept of using recycled or upcycled materials for construction. In many construction projects, a significant amount of waste is generated from demolition, renovation, and construction processes. Instead of sending these materials to landfills, a circular building principle involves salvaging and reusing them in new construction projects. This not only reduces waste but also saves resources and energy required for producing new materials. Instead of demolishing the entire structure and sending the debris to a landfill, the circular building approach would involve deconstructing the building carefully to preserve as many reusable materials as possible. This may include bricks, concrete blocks, steel beams, doors, windows, and even wooden components. These salvaged materials can then be cleaned, refurbished, or repaired as needed to ensure their quality and safety. Once the materials are ready, they can be used in new construction projects, either for building entirely new structures or for renovating existing ones. Circular4Climate’s efforts to strengthen circular construction with best practices from Germany can serve as an inspiring model for other regions to adopt similar principles and contribute to a more sustainable and circular built environment.
Workshop of the CirCon4Climate project © Photo: CirCon4Climate
Workshop of the CirCon4Climate project © Photo: CirCon4Climate
Workshop of the CirCon4Climate project © Photo: CirCon4Climate
What does a well-designed building with recycled materials look like?
Well, the perfect building from recycled content is the one that currently lies unused. Of course, it is difficult to find empty buildings that match ones’ functionality needs. Therefore, if we were to construct a new building from recycled materials, we should definitely look for local materials. We can reuse an existing building structure along with its site. We could decide on using natural materials, for example wood, to further limit the carbon footprint. The recycled content in the building should not limit itself to the structure and facade but also to the interior in the form of ceiling tiles or flooring from recycled materials that are already available on the market.
Let’s not forget that choosing recycled materials is only the first step in developing a circular construction. We should also consider other phases of the building’s life cycle: usage and end of life, i.e. by considering energy-efficiency of the building or treating the building as a material bank.
Inflation and scarce resources make many things more expensive, including constructions and housing. Do you think the goals of cost efficiency and sustainability in the construction industry contradict one another?
At first glance it may seem that rising costs should slow down the construction circular transition. After all the standard “linear” construction materials are the cheaper ones and should be the rational choice for the buyer. However, this is only the case when short-term prices are considered. In reality, long-term considerations encourage more sustainable purchasing decisions. A truly circular building is more resource efficient which implies that the total costs of the building construction, operation, and end-of-life management should be lower. A real-world example of this is the push for renewable heating and electric energy in many EU countries, as a result of rising energy prices. Although the economic advantage of heat pumps or photovoltaic installation is seen only after years or decades, a rational consumer is aware that it pays to be sustainable.
You are an expert in the field of circular economy and sustainable production. Was there a defining moment that brought you into this field and what motivates you to keep going?
I was always highly concerned about the environment and climate. Starting with my PhD thesis where I conducted research about sustainable methods of protecting mushroom crops in mushroom houses using biological method of pest control. Later I have been working in WWF for 6 years and actually built recognition of this organization in Poland. So naturally my next step was to create a NGO where I can be involved in many meaningful and impactful projects regarding sustainable consumption and production. Besides, Circular Economy from my perspective is the best and most effective tool to combat climate change and biodiversity loss. And it could be done without sacrificing comfort of our everyday life. We just have to start living smarter. For the first time, we are not only talking about the environment but also about the economy. We are showing that the right circular business model could be profitable from an economic, social, and environmental perspective.
“Circular Economy from my perspective is the best and most effective tool to combat climate change and biodiversity loss. And it could be done without sacrificing comfort of our everyday life.”
Agnieszka Sznyk, expert in the field of circular economy, sustainable consumption and production.
Can you already see changes in Czechia, Poland, or Slovenia and their construction industries?
There are slight hints that the construction sector is changing. For example, more certified buildings are being constructed, the popularity of building information modeling tools is on the rise, and carbon footprint calculations are growing more common. However, although these indicators increase, they are far from becoming the standard in the mentioned countries. Judging by the current measures, it seems that the road ahead is a long one.
Yet, one should consider not only the present state, but the direction we are heading to and the circumstances we find ourselves in. There is a strong EU regulatory push towards circular construction. Limited material supply and growing demand drive up resource prices. Social transformations need more sustainable consumption choices. These are not changes that will lead to a change in our economic model overnight. Though, we hope that one day their combined effects will result in a snowball effect where everyone realizes that sustainable construction is the economically efficient choice.
Let us think about the next 15, 30 years: How do you think will the construction industry look like in future?
I hope that in the next 15 to 30 years, the construction industry will undergo significant changes and advancements driven by technological innovation, sustainability concerns, and shifting societal needs.
For sure Building Information Modeling (BIM) technology will become more prevalent, allowing for better collaboration, coordination, and visualization throughout the construction process. BIM will enable virtual design and construction simulations, optimizing efficiency and reducing errors.
Moreover, green building practices have to become the norm. The construction industry will adopt eco-friendly materials, energy-efficient designs, renewable energy integration, and waste reduction techniques to minimize environmental impact. New construction materials like carbon fiber or nanomaterials, and innovative techniques will emerge, offering improved strength, durability, and energy efficiency. This may include the use of carbon fiber, self-healing concrete, nanomaterials, and other innovations that enhance construction performance.3D printing technology will be increasingly utilized for creating complex building components and structures. It already became more popular not only for printing small particles but even for printing entire buildings. This method can reduce material waste, lower costs, and allow for intricate designs that were previously challenging to construct.
And finally, prefabricated and modular construction methods will gain popularity due to their cost-effectiveness, reduced construction time, and improved quality control. These methods allow for off-site construction and ease assembly and dis-assembly resulting in faster project completion and zero-waste demolition.
But we can’t forget that circular economy is about collaboration so collaborative and interdisciplinary approaches should become a norm also in the construction sector. Interdisciplinary teams composed of architects, engineers, contractors, and other stakeholders from the early stages of project planning will foster more efficient decision-making and better project outcomes.