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Sustainability and the circular economy in construction – How the RINNO project aims to improve efficiency and reduce emissions

August 14, 2020 dotLAB Radio
dotLAB Radio
Sustainability and the circular economy in construction – How the RINNO project aims to improve efficiency and reduce emissions
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dotLAB Radio
Sustainability and the circular economy in construction – How the RINNO project aims to improve efficiency and reduce emissions
Aug 14, 2020
dotLAB Radio

Under the current Programme for Government, Ireland has set a target of 500,000 homes to be retrofitted to improve energy efficiency by 2030. With the European Union committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2050 under the European Green Deal, the construction industry is a key player in helping society migrate to a circular economy and cutting emissions.

Launched in June 2020, RINNO is a four-year project, funded by the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme, that will focus on developing solutions for the construction industry to accelerate the rate of deep renovation in energy inefficient buildings across Europe. The Irish Institute of Digital Business at Dublin City University are leading the business research on the project and are working with 17 partners across industry and academia.

 In this episode of dotLAB Radio, Patrick Haughey (CEO, Audiobrand) is joined by Joseph Kilroy (Policy and Public Affairs Manager, The Chartered Institute of Building) and Dr Mohamad Kassem (RINNO Partner & Professor of Digital Construction and Engineering, Northumbria University). They discuss:

·      The role of the Chartered Institute of Building in Ireland in bringing multiple stakeholders together to address sustainability in the building industry.

·      The innovative technologies and processes being developed by the RINNO project to improve cost-efficiency, productivity and sustainability in European building renovation.

·      An overview of deep renovation, retrofitting and the benefits these offer for public health, employment and regional rebalancing.

·      How COVID-19 has presented an opportunity for developers to rethink and reimagine the built environment.

 Find out more about RINNO by visiting the project website and by following the project updates on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

Show Notes Transcript

Under the current Programme for Government, Ireland has set a target of 500,000 homes to be retrofitted to improve energy efficiency by 2030. With the European Union committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2050 under the European Green Deal, the construction industry is a key player in helping society migrate to a circular economy and cutting emissions.

Launched in June 2020, RINNO is a four-year project, funded by the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme, that will focus on developing solutions for the construction industry to accelerate the rate of deep renovation in energy inefficient buildings across Europe. The Irish Institute of Digital Business at Dublin City University are leading the business research on the project and are working with 17 partners across industry and academia.

 In this episode of dotLAB Radio, Patrick Haughey (CEO, Audiobrand) is joined by Joseph Kilroy (Policy and Public Affairs Manager, The Chartered Institute of Building) and Dr Mohamad Kassem (RINNO Partner & Professor of Digital Construction and Engineering, Northumbria University). They discuss:

·      The role of the Chartered Institute of Building in Ireland in bringing multiple stakeholders together to address sustainability in the building industry.

·      The innovative technologies and processes being developed by the RINNO project to improve cost-efficiency, productivity and sustainability in European building renovation.

·      An overview of deep renovation, retrofitting and the benefits these offer for public health, employment and regional rebalancing.

·      How COVID-19 has presented an opportunity for developers to rethink and reimagine the built environment.

 Find out more about RINNO by visiting the project website and by following the project updates on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

Patrick :

So Joseph, would you mind telling us first a little bit more about the Chartered Institute of Building and what you guys do?

Joseph :

Sure. So I suppose the kind of overall mission of the Institute is to promote the science and practice of building and construction for the betterment of society. That's where our charter comes into it. It means that we exist in the public interest. But within that, I suppose where we're three things. First of all, we're a membership organization. We've got about 45,000 members working all around the world, in the built environment. So anything from project managers, site managers, architects, planners, laborers, academics, all sorts, anyone really who works in the built environment. So that's the kind of membership side of things. We're also an education body. So we accredit university degrees, again in topics related to the built environments, and we also run our own education program on anything from sustainability in the construction process to mental health in the construction industry. And then finally, and this is where I work, I suppose, we are a think tank, we produce policy and research on topics spanning a range of areas in the built environment. So, the macroeconomic position of the construction sector and more recently obviously, it's been about the post pandemic picture for construction in the built environment, and also things around mental health in construction and quality in housing. So we've got quite a lot of different arms, I suppose. But in a snapshot that's essentially what The Chartered Institute of Building does.

Patrick :

Very good and I would like to touch before we wrap up this interview on that kind of post pandemic world because I know you have some very interesting thoughts in relation to the built environments post pandemic and how we can rethink it. The general theme of this episode is the sustainability, the efficiency of buildings and then a little later we're going to get into the deep retrofitting of buildings to make them more efficient. But just to kind of a broad question to start, and I don't you know, don't you don't need to give me specific percentages or anything like that if you don't have them to hand but in Ireland, how efficient in general would you say houses are and commercial buildings are? Are we an efficient country when it comes to our buildings?

Joseph :

Yeah, it's a good question. And I think it kind of gets at a historical point, really, so so we are very good in terms of new builds. So there's there's quite kind of strict conditions around the energy efficiency of new buildings, they have to achieve a certain BER rating, that's building energy rating. They have to have a certain proportion, I think it's about 20% of their energy has to be taken from renewables. And generally they have to be well insulated and all the things that we associate with, I suppose low emission buildings. The issue for Ireland I suppose comes around our older building stock. So mostly it's around buildings that were built probably before the turn of the last decade. And that's where we kind of have issues. So something around half of our housing stock has got quite a poor building energy rating. And most of that, in fact, all of that comes from older building stock. And I'm probably that reached a crescendo, if you will, around the Celtic Tiger and since then, you know, to give credit where it's due policy has come into force to ensure that we've learned those lessons. And what we produce now is more energy efficient.

Patrick :

But of course, you know, we are building less buildings now. And there are an incredible amount built during the Celtic Tiger, not many of them particularly efficient. So what that brings us on to is retrofitting. How can we make older buildings that are not efficient, more efficient? That is something that I think particularly with the new government in place in Ireland, is something that has come back into focus in quite a big way.

Joseph :

Yeah, absolutely. It has. And if you look at the programme for government, there's a very ambitious targets that is of 500,000 homes to be retrofitted by the year 2030. And there's a huge kind of plan being put in place as part of the program for government to make that happen. And now it's probably worth saying that, you know, Ireland has had quite a few different retrofitting programs, shall we say, in place over the last 10 years or so. So we have over 400,000 households have taken advantage of various government supports that have been available until now. So we have a decent record of doing retrofitting, but certainly, as you're kind of getting out there, the new program for government has made this a national priority. And that can only be a good thing, because as we were kind of saying at the outset, a lot of our emissions do come from our buildings and the residential sector in particular, is responsible for a quarter of the co2 emissions in Ireland. So this is something that will be a huge benefit, not only in terms of emissions, but also in terms of health, employment, regional rebalancing, and we can come back to all of those things. But suffice to say that this is one of those policy areas that is really attractive to politicians, because it has so many associated benefits. And you know, if you get the messaging, and I think that's important, there are very few people who will be against this kind of agenda.

Patrick :

Yeah. And I think what's also very exciting and I'm going to come to you now Mohammed on this in a moment is the evolution of technologies and the new technologies which are allowing us to speed up and do even greater depth of retrofitting than we would have seen in the past. So Dr. Mohamed Kassem, before I asked you about those technologies and the RINNO project with which you were involved through your university, having listened to Joseph there, would you say that it's a sort of a similar situation in the UK around the building stock and construction and its efficiency?

Mohamed :

Yes, definitely. Britain has similar challenges like Ireland, maybe I could say even at a bigger scale, because as you know, the UK has a legally binding climate change target for 2050 which is a net zero carbon target. That means the UK needs to reduce 100% greenhouse gas emission compared to 1990 levels. That's actually the first country worldwide, the first developed country, to make a legally binding climate change target, which is a significant milestone. And it's really buildings, homes, retrofitting and energy efficiency that are at the center of achieving that net zero carbon target. And really quickly I can mention three facts why buildings are key to achieve that target by 2050. Just in 2018, buildings produced 66 million tons of co2 into the atmosphere. That's basically more than what all power stations that generate energy supply, produced. So it's a quite significant contribution to co2 emission. And currently, two thirds of all housing failed to meet their long term energy efficiency target and out of all emissions, Basically 19% comes from heating our buildings. So if you put those three pieces of data together, you can easily conclude that without energy efficiency in buildings, without retrofitting, the UK we'll never be able to achieve that zero carbon target by 2050.

Patrick :

So this is where the RINNO project comes in, which is this EU funded project in order to rapidly and deeply drive up the efficiency of buildings all across Europe. So I know you have become involved in the RINNO project. So maybe if you'd like to tell us a little bit about the project and what your involvement looks like.

Mohamed :

Yeah, the project basically is targeting the issues underpinning the slow adoption of deep innovation within the EU market and there are really a wide range of issues. Some are related to the cost of energy efficiency projects and their attractiveness to investors. Some are related to financing, some are related to efficiency of those projects. So, RINNO really takes all these challenges together and trys to provide a solution for managing innovation acrosss process, product, financing and business models. It involves 17 partners, covering end users, universities or research institutions, product developers, large contracting organizations, so we all together come to cover the whole value chain, to demonstrate ideas that really deep innovation can be changed. So we hope from demonstrating our innovation across process, product business models and financing that we will be able not only to stimulate the deep renovation market in Europe, but also to demonstrate that efficiencies can be gained and increase the attractiveness of deep renovation to both investors, tenants and landlords.

Patrick :

And by right that one of the things you're doing in terms of your involvement of the project is bringing a smart connected homes tool to the table.

Mohamed :

Correct. Yeah, at Northumbria University the two things we are working on are: One is the smart connected homes. Basically, it's a platform we developed previously with our joint venture called BIM Academy, under a UK funded project by Innovate UK. Basically, it's a platform where sensors installed in homes can detect all kinds of well being thermal efficiency variables and feed those back to a 3D model, which was the same model that was used to build the building. Obviously, for existing buildings, you wouldn't have models so we need to develop some models for existing buildings. So we'll be able to link every room, every space within a building to the energy performance, to the well being within that space, within that room, all connected. So we have a connection between the physical asset and the virtual asset. And on top of that, there is currently a rule based alert system. So you have rules, for example, if a sensor is detecing a humidity higher than a certain value for a certain amount of time, the system will alert the landlord or the occupant of the building. So there are all sorts of rules that can be implemented. And once you have a larger data set, you can even implement machine learning techniques to produce more insight and better understanding of the operation of a building.

Patrick :

It's really, really interesting stuff. And Joseph, for somebody in your position that has been involved in this field for quite some time. Are you excited by the application of these technologies and really interesting technologies taking in machine learning AI, robots, cobots, blockchain and the whole gamut?

Joseph :

Yeah, absolutely. And I would say particularly in the context of retrofits where hopefully what's coming across from both what myself and Mohamed have been saying is that this is going to be done at scale. In Ireland, it's 500,000 homes retrofit by 2030. In the UK, it's, you know, obviously a lot higher. And I think, you know, these technologies are very exciting because they mean that we can ensure that the program is rolled out on a very consistent basis and takes advantage of modular construction. It basically means that we can have a consistent model that we reproduce across the country rather than working in pockets of inconsistencies, and so on, because I suppose one of the issues previous retrofitting campaigns have had is that there hasn't been a consistent rollout. I think one of the one of the great things about digital technologies in the built environment is that they do allow you to produce things consistently.

Patrick :

And like you say, at scale as well, because it makes things that used to be incredibly expensive, it can make them a lot more cost efficient. And I think this is probably getting to the heart of it as well, because, let's say across the UK and Ireland all of these homes are retrofitted to a high spec, and our existing stock is in really good shape. But what about the stock coming down the line in the future? We're already seeing a drop off in construction because of the actual construction costs that builders are facing. So they're not incentivized to do it. When you add an A rating on top of that, it becomes exponentially more expensive to create this building and to build it. So what are we going to do to incentivize energy efficient buildings being constructed far into the future?

Joseph :

Yeah, I mean, I think one thing that we've been dancing around a little bit so far is the skills point. So I think in order to roll out of this stuff out, we're going to need and to be fair, the program for government does outline plans to do this, but we're going to need to overhaul skills within the construction sector. So a lot of what we're talking about can be pretty complex projects and that requires people who work in construction to be upskilled and to be able to embrace technology in a way that is beneficial. And in terms of the the added cost, I mean, it's a really good point because a lot of the stuff that you see on the sustainability agenda and the Green New Deal and and all of these things, there is this kind of like, issue bubbling away that well, is this going to make things more expensive? Is it going to make housing more expensive again for owner occupiers and renters? And I think yeah, there there is a big job to do to ensure that we don't price out occupiers of housing, but also SME builders that just don't have the capacity to invest in research and development themselves. So there are thankfully plans contained within the program for government and indeed, as I understand it in the UK, to provide an innovation fund mostly geared towards SME developers that you can access that and use it to invest in research and development. And so that, you know, these don't become costs that end up pricing, particularly smaller developers and out of the market. But yeah, I think it's absolutely a point well made, and we can't carry on as though this isn't going to increase the cost of the final product. There needs to be plans baked in and I think, certainly in terms of previous retrofitting agendas, there hasn't been that kind of join up with things like skills, finance, but encouragingly in the programme for government for Ireland, okay, it's yet to be actually rolled out but certainly at a high level, it does seem to accept that sustainability and buildings and retrofitting and so on, needs to be joined up in terms of policymaking. You need to have things done on a range of fronts rather than just having, I suppose the construction industry awareness to have this rolled out successfully

Patrick :

Dr. Mohamed Kassem, on that point of cost what do you think? Do you think this is something that needs policy and a change of attitude around policy in order to look ahead to how we can apply this approach on an ongoing and sustainable basis into the future?

Mohamed :

Yeah, I think Joseph raised a very important point, which is government or policies need to look at things in a tuned up way. If you look at the UK, fuel poverty is a big challenge. So there are currently in the UK around 2.5 million who are fuel poor. So these people suffer more than others from inefficient houses. Because they have higher energy requirements. And if the energy is more expensive, they are really the worst off. So yes, definitely looking at the costs, looking at all stakeholders that are involved into the transformation towards energy efficient housing, you need to consider all of them. For example, if you look at developers, they obviously aren't interested in running costs, they build and walk away. That's generally because they don't bear the operation costs. Alternative housing associations are, because they have really a vested interest in keeping running costs as low as possible for themselves and for tenants. And then you have those who are able to pay but they aren't interested in energy efficiency. And you have obviously those fuel poor who can't afford it. So can you target all of these landscapes? We need to join up policy. And I think there is a committee in the UK called committee on climate change. They issued a report last year, and they actually captured all that I have mentioned and tried to develop a joint policy where you have all these different measures. So you can target every stakeholder or every segment within the existing housing stock. I have details of those measures. If there is time I can I can give you some more insight about that.

Patrick :

Well, what I might do, I don't know if we'll have time on this episode, but maybe we can share the information in the show notes for this episode. And maybe even come back to it another episode because I think there's there's a huge amount to talk about there and it's very, very interesting. But just my final question to you, Mohamed, looking into the next 10 or 20 years what are your hopes? Do you do you see the RINNO project really contributing to some major breakthroughs in relation to how we retrofit houses and buildings into the future?

Mohamed :

Yes, definitely. I think what RINNO project will be doing is, it will attempt to explore an industrialized approach to building retrofit and building renovation. I can't guarantee that all elements of that approach will succeed. But definitely, there will be some best practice coming from RINNO that will form a breakthrough in the renovation market. The range of innovation that we are testing in RINNO is really really wide, from exploring at the design stage what possible products are available, to recommendning the renovation options, to executing that in the most efficient way by using process industrialization. Things like cockpits digital twin ways of controlling sites, to process optimization through augmented reality on site while executing the solution itself, to you know, business models in terms of crowdfunding schemes and smart contracts. So that is really a wide range of innovation. I can't say all of them will succeed, but I'm very confident that some of them will succeed. And this is why we are doing this project. By the end of it we'll be able to really talk about and recommend to the industry the specific innovations that have the most impact on a renovation project.

Patrick :

I think it's it's it genuinely is very exciting to see what might be achieved through this. And Joseph Gilroy, my final question to you, projects like RINNO, stepping back and testing technologies and seeing how innovation can make things better for business, societies and for homeowners and renters. Is it a good time post-COVID to be looking at these kind of things, because I know you wrote recently that difficult as the COVID emergency has been for everyone, it is giving us an opportunity to rethink how our cities and buildings work.

Joseph :

Yeah, absolutely. And it's also giving the construction industry specifically a chance to reflect because construction has had this ongoing productivity problem for quite a while now. And I think it's generally accepted that the more we embrace digital technologies, and as that relates to sustainability on emissions, the more we can actually look to improve on that productivity problem. And in terms of the wider societal picture and the built environment post COVID, I think there's going to be a lot of behavioral change in terms of the way we interact with the built environment. We're seeing a lot of towns and cities repurpose themselves to be more pedestrian and cycle friendly and to facilitate social distancing. I think the construction industry and the built environment more generally, will have a key role to play in terms of actually producing those new vistas in our towns and cities. So obviously, as you mentioned Patrick, the construction industry has taken a big hit from the shutdown. People aren't sure about continuously producing large scale office developments and so on. But I would say, looking at it optimistically, aside from all the exciting technologies we've been mentioning, there is going to be a lot of work to do in terms of reimagining our public spaces. And indeed, in potentially reimagining spaces that we've traditionally devoted to offices for example. So I think it's a difficult time for everybody. And I wouldn't would never want to be kind of glib about how difficult the whole thing has been. But in terms of policy and terms of the built environment, we have to try and find the kind of benefits and how we're going to move forward. And I think both in terms of embracing digital technologies and reimagining and repurposing our built environments, they are the two areas that I would be quite optimistic about in terms of coming out of COVID.

Patrick :

Joseph Kilroy, Policy and Public Affairs manager at the Chartered Institute of Building and Dr. Mohamed Kassem, Professor of Digital Construction and Engineering at Northumbria University. Thank you very much for joining us here on dotLAB Radio today.