VTT and Tampere University are bringing construction sector players together to map out the carbon dioxide emissions of buildings and develop methods to control them. Because buildings are a significant source of emissions during both construction and consequent use, we can take important steps towards our climate goals by modernising construction. The objective is a carbon-neutral and healthy building.

Finland has established a goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2035, and the rest of Europe is set to follow close behind. Among other things, achieving this goal requires new buildings to be mostly carbon neutral. At the moment, buildings still produce 40 per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions when construction, building materials and the use of the buildings are tallied up.

The use of buildings, starting with heating and cooling, has long been the largest producer of emissions in the built environment, which is why investments have been made in energy efficiency in recent years. We know how to cut emissions that are produced while the building is in use, and those emissions are indeed being reduced, but the emissions linked to construction and construction materials have remained largely the same. Soon, materials will have risen to account for as much as half of a new building’s emissions.

“Now is the time to pay attention to the carbon dioxide emissions of construction and construction materials, and this cannot be done by the buyer, planner or builder alone. We want to bring the sector’s players together and establish exactly what the emissions of construction sites and construction materials consist of and how we can reduce them. It’s already clear that solutions are available, but we have to be able to choose the ones that have the best overall effect. Our goal is a carbon-neutral and healthy building. In the best-case scenario, over the course of its lifetime, a building may even be able to trap more carbon than it emits,” says VTT Senior Scientist Pekka Tuominen.

In March 2020, VTT and Tampere University launched the Build4Clima project funded by Business Finland. Over the coming year, the project aims to establish a carbon-neutral construction ecosystem in the form of a cooperative network and together define the sector’s vision and roadmap for achieving that aim. To ensure that cooperation produces the best possible outcomes, we hope to include construction companies, architects’ offices, construction planning firms and manufacturers of construction materials and components.

The objective is a carbon-neutral and healthy building

“VTT and Tampere University offer a scientific framework for the construction ecosystem, starting at the very beginning: defining terms. It’s still somewhat unclear what is meant by the term ’carbon-neutral building‘ in different contexts and how a building’s carbon emissions can be reliably measured and presented in a simple manner. It’s also important to find out what kinds of tools, such as databases and software, designers and builders can utilise to achieve low emissions,” Tuominen says.

In addition to coordination and expertise in life cycle assessment, VTT also brings expertise in construction materials, their manufacturing methods and healthy living to the ecosystem. Novel wood-based construction materials may rise to a newfound position of importance in a carbon-neutral and healthy building. They can be used to replace traditional insulation materials, coatings and glues that emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the indoor air long after construction work has ended. Subjects of development also include other common materials that are known emission sources, such as steel and concrete. For example, VTT’s laboratory has already successfully produced concrete that traps carbon dioxide as it dries, going from an emission source to a carbon storage solution.