Eco-profile and Barriers to Environmental Innovation in the Danish Construction Sector

The bearing of the case studies of innovations in region Zealand are founded on the wide range of environmental problems related to the construction sector. The development of e.g. improved energy insulation, on using renewable energy supplies, on green roofing, new organic recyclable materials are only some of the elements in a number of transitory processes and the establishment of new developmental paths, aiming at a reduction of climate changes, environmental load and the consumption of resources in relation to construction and housing in general.

To assess the conditions and opportunities of carrying through such environmental transitions in the construction sector, it becomes important to understand how the environmental effects are related to the economic and organisational development of the sector. And to understand, both the technological paths and the institutional setting (regulations, knowledge centres), which is produced as part of this development of the sector. All these elements cannot be analysed in this study, but based on other studies we can examine some of the factors determining the conditions of a transitory process towards new insulating materials.

In 1997 the construction industry had a turn over of app. ECU 15 billions and had 140.000 employees,  topping in 2007 with over 183.000 employees. The industry has had the main part of its activities in the national market – and often the construction industry has been used as a socio-economic regulating means. The industry has been subject to large changes in turn over, and in particular the distribution between maintenance and construction has varied enormously.

After the 2ond world war, the construction sector in a period with high growth rates went through a process of industrialisation. In parallel with this process a re-structuring of the sector was established, which now set the framework for efforts in an environmental transitory process. It encompasses the way the sector was integrated in the national economy, the structure of enterprises, relations between the different parts of the product chain, the strategies of product- and production development, the branch related knowledge institutions and the public regulation of the economic and technical conditions of the industry.

In the 1960-70’ties the industry was at its height. In the period 1960-79 820.000 new residences were built. In this period the industry was industrialised – and the production organisation was based on 1) that most parts were pre-fabricated (such as pre-cast concrete panels) and 2) the use of ‘totalentrepriser’ (all functions in a construction project gathered at one developer firm). The principle in ‘totalentreprise’ is that the development firm (based on requirements and ideas from the builder) forward a total project including projecting, the building process, financing and management of the process. This organisation reinforced the tendency to operate with standard solutions based on pre-fabricated elements and contributed to the establishment of relatively rigid technology paths. In addition the industrialised montage process introduced numerous new material and chemicals into the building industry leading to a new set of problems regarding indoor climate and the durability of the houses.

In the period 1960-79 the share of building based on montage grew from 15 to 70 %. As a result a major part of the work process was shifted from the building site to material industries where growing efficiency in mass production. The production of building components, such as the production of tile, concrete and insulation, was based on mass production of standardised goods. At the end of the period the main part of the construction work still was taking place in small enterprises, having small orders (small series) and performing labour intensive tasks. But in relation to montage building a high degree of standardising of tasks has taken place.

The environmental load of construction is related to the organisation and dominating technology path of the industry. The construction sector is characterised by a huge flow of materials. In a life cycle perspective the sector is among the most resource consuming and environmental harmful activities in the Danish society. A key figure is that 30 % of the Danish produced raw materials are used in construction. In addition building involves the use of a large number of chemicals, leading to problems in the working environment; in the use (indoor climate) and in the disposal phase. Today more than 6000 different chemicals, all hazardous substances,  are used within construction.  The point at stake is, that this increased use of chemicals relates directly to the driving rationality of the industry: cost reduction and efficiency in the construction process. This has spurred the introduction of new materials and of chemicals. Environmental impacts, occupational health and indoor climate problems have not been given corresponding attention in this process.

Construction of housing makes products with a high life time, thus environmental problems related to the phase of operation and use surpasses the loads related to the construction process. 30 % of the total consumption of energy and 60 % of our consumption of water takes place in the domestic residence, as part of our household. On top of this, substantial problems are related to the outlet of wastewater and the disposal of waste. Thus, the main part of the existing housing was constructed in a period, where these environmental relations were given only marginal attention. The current construction of housing only introduces incremental changes to the technological path established in the Fordistic period (1960’ties and onward).

Looking at the disposal phase in relation to demolition and removal of houses, the construction sector is responsible of 25% of the total waste. In 1997 it amounted to 3.4 million tons of which 92 % went for recycling (including land fill), 8 % to waste disposal and less than 1 % to incineration. Looking at waste recycling and disposal the introduction of chemicals have jeopardised the potential of using recycling schemes (Miljø- og Energiministeriet, 1999).

Judged from an LCA perspective, improvements of the environmental performance of the construction industry are coming slow; economic and esthetical factors are dominating. Normally builders do not pay high attention to environmental issues, the industry lacks a clear vision on environmental objectives and the authorities give no regulatory pressure on the industry (except obligation to perform EIA if large constructions). Even on individual factors such as PVC the Danish regulation initiatives have been lax, and the enforcement of the few standards has not been efficient.

The barriers to introduce alternative materials, new sustainable materials and architecture are thus deeply embedded in the general technological, structural but also in  regulatory barriers. Besides, the education, training and commercial incorporation of entrepreneurs, carpenters, construction material firms into the predominant tracks is considerable. We could exemplify by referring to the building regulative, the occupational health regulation, energy-environmental regulation and the technical standard regulation  - all favour certain technological trajectories creating path dependencies in the Danish construction and housing sector..

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