How are research organizations supporting the decarbonization of buildings in Europe?

By Dr. William Burns PhD MSc


  • Decarbonizing buildings in Europe refers to decarbonizing the construction, maintenance, renovation and use of buildings. It spills over into issues of urban design and sustainable living.
  • A diverse range of institutions across the continent undertake research that is, or could be, relevant to this enterprise. The total expenditure on these activities might amount to a few billion € p.a.
  • I spoke with a handful of leading figures in building research. My impression was that we are witnessing the emergence of a very rich and intriguing R&D picture.
  • Connections between revenue needs and intentional research to promote sustainability seem crucial to the R&D business model but might be a challenge in the contract research environment that appears to dominate (even in public research organizations).
  • However, brilliant individuals are trying to get the research system ready to deliver what we need. I hope they receive the support they deserve. Climate change presses. Time runs out. European research organizations should, ideally, align around R&D likely to advance our understanding the most.


Decarbonizing buildings is essential if we are to stop climate change. It is a problem of both knowledge application and research. We have gone past the stage of discussions to one of needing to act.

Last year, the European Commission indicated funds would be available for building renovations across the member states as part of the covid recovery, stimulus, and cohesion packages (more than a trillion €).

In the documents containing these proposals, namely COM(2020) 662 final and SWD(2020) 550 final, officials wrote that ‘research must also spur innovation in the construction sector’ and that the EU would ‘rely on various instruments geared towards…supporting research and innovation’ (obviously, other instruments were proposed).

Officials also noted that Horizon Europe will ‘support research and innovation on energy technologies, sustainability and circularity of materials and systems for construction, taking into consideration the specific conditions of every geographic region of Europe’. Furthermore, the Commission was ‘considering’ a public-private partnership on the sustainable built environment and a ‘dedicated mission’ on ‘climate-neutral and smart cities’.

Overall, it seems that the Commission sees building renovation as a key aspect of ‘climate neutrality and recovery’ (with R&D as one of several instruments to support it – but precise details not yet confirmed).

The emphasis on renovation is an expert matter. I am not qualified to comment. It appears sensible given the carbon logically associated with new buildings. The Commission identified renovation as a particular policy problem because ‘the level of renovations of existing buildings remains persistently low and shallow’.

My understanding is that there are various processes in the built environment including demolition, new build, maintenance, retrofit, renovation, reuse/recycling, etc., all of which have impacts on carbon (not forgetting monetary costs, the cultural and esthetic value of buildings, convenience for builders or users, etc.).

Obviously, therefore, we need to keep an open mind because perhaps it is not always clear or even in principle predictable which of the above options is best from a carbon perspective.(1) This is why I used the general term decarbonization because, from the R&D perspective, we need decarbonization solutions applicable to all projects.(2)

In this report, I looked at what research institutions we actually have in Europe to deliver the necessary R&D activities, what approaches they use, and what has been done on this topic by the EU in the past. How, therefore, could research organizations be better deployed to support the decarbonization of buildings?

Inevitably, covering such a vast field meant skipping from topic to topic without much depth but my goal was to inform myself about some major trends being discussed. I then drew tentative conclusions in the final section.

The research we need

R&D expenditure in the EU construction sector amounts to the low billions of € p.a.(3) The OECD classifies construction as a low R&D intensity industry, but I suspect intensity varies between organizations. Types of institutions actually (or potentially) conducting research or generating new knowledge are in the table beneath.

Institutional types that conduct research about building in Europe(4)

CompaniesResearch in firms connected to the building industry or supplying it with materials, with a primary goal of profit, e.g., architectural and civil engineering practices, chemical manufacturers, consultancy firms, etc.
EcovillagesCommunities that might propose alternative ways of gaining new knowledge, drawing on spiritual as well as scientific and technological resources and learning-by-doing. Political and social change is a core ethos.
Government research institutesTaxpayer-funded research institutes often established in the early or mid 20thC.
UniversitiesProfessional schools of architecture, art and design, civil engineering, urban planning, but also programs in academic departments e.g., materials science, sociology.
Sources: institutional websites; Andreas and Wagner, 2012, Realizing Utopia: Ecovillage Endeavors and Academic Approaches; Smith, 2005, The Alternative Technology Movement: An Analysis of its Framing and Negotiation of Technology Development, in: Research in Human Ecology.

I did not undertake a survey of these institutions but simply had brief conversations with representatives from a handful of examples in Europe and the USA (as well as reading what I could). Given my approach is unscientific, my conclusions can only be highly provisional.

Overall, however, the impression I received was that we are witnessing the emergence of a very rich and intriguing R&D picture in which positive change is forthcoming. However, a few billion € p.a. is not enough for it.

We can implement many positive changes now without research (and should not wait). But we also need R&D. This is about foresight on where we need or want the technology to be in a few years time and then asking what R&D we need to get there.(5)

The point becomes particularly obvious if we view the challenge from the perspective of stringent green building standards such as LBC, according to Prof. Ajla Akšamija, Chair, School of Architecture, University of Utah (USA), who spoke to me by phone in August. I believe similar arguments can, and are, made for retrofit standards like Energiesprong.

“I think LBC is a good standard. It puts emphasis on net-zero energy design, net-zero water use, and building materials. You also have to gather the building’s operational data to receive the certification. This is what we need to be working towards.”

“While it is possible to build small houses at the higher environmental standards, it’s difficult for larger projects. The materials mat not be readily available. This is a particular problem for complex buildings like hospitals. There is a substantial need for R&D.”

Prof. Akšamija is a globally-recognized pioneer of research in architecture. She created the research program at the multinational architectural firm, Perkins and Will, which unusually among such firms devotes considerable effort to research. The company now operates seven research labs and publishes a scientific journal (the latter is very well received by clients, Prof. Akšamija told me).

She is the author of a recent book which she describes as a “how-to” guide for organizations that want to undertake research.

“In my practice, I talk about qualitative research, which means observation, surveys, and reading archival materials. Then there is quantitative research where we measure and do computer modeling and simulations. Finally, there is experimental research where we are physically testing product types and building systems. Typically, of course, architects are mixing methods, for example, qualitative and quantitative.”

“Research is adding to the existing body of knowledge. But design is not research. It has to be repeatable to be classed as research,” Prof. Akšamija added.

“We need to get the message across to public research funders because, speaking from the American perspective, sometimes they don’t always see our work as scientific research. But buildings are crucial to our lives and of course account for 40% of emissions so this area matters. The scientific standards are high and we are definitely doing science. We’ve got to educate people about that,” she said, adding that she is keen to work with like-minded researchers in Europe.

Dr. Miimu Airaksinen, Senior Vice President, SRV Group Plc, and one of the most noted experts in Europe on innovation in the building industry, commented as follows.

“Sure we can implement a lot of things immediately. But we also have new problems to solve. Advanced control systems are coming into use. Increasingly, we think of buildings as part of an energy system, we have active buildings that generate energy, new super insulating materials, carbon neutral materials and so on. All of these things are changing how we work and we need R&D to support what we are doing.”

“The big issue is obviously responding to climate change and adapting our built environment to it as much as we can. That means a lot of things but one is ventilation and air conditioning even in places like Finland.”

“Another challenge lies with how users of buildings behave,“ Dr. Airaksinen said. “We rely on surveys and instrumentation of buildings to find out but the data are incomplete. Basic stuff about energy use at the building level is hard to find and not collected together. Another information gap – minor repairs are not recorded. Building up our knowledge on these topics, and sharing it, is an important role for researchers. We need long term sustainability.”

“I would like to see efforts put into encouraging collaborative working right from the start of projects. Architects collaborating with heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) engineers, energy modelers, building material producers etc. Building owners and cities could be more active in the process.”

What does the situation look like from the perspective of scientists who direct prominent European research institutions? I spoke with two such scientists in the Slovak Republic and Switzerland, respectively, Prof. Ing. Zuzana Sternová and Dr. Tanja Zimmermann.

“Ninety % of apartments in Slovakia were built by the state after WW2. Our main task is to diagnose problems and find solutions for these buildings,” Prof. Ing. Sternová, Director, Building Testing and Research Institute (TSÚS) told me in a phone call in July.

TSÚS is a non-profit organization that undertakes work for the ministries of transport and construction of the Slovak Republic. It employs 120 staff with research and certification of construction products activities concentrated in Bratislava.

Efforts of the institute have been focused on major renovation, thermal protection, and structural repair extended to measures relating to technical systems up to the application of photovoltaics. In the majority of apartments, heat is supplied by district heating.

“The research challenge is developing multidisciplinary teams that bring all expertise together to diagnose problems across the building stock, work with the building owners, and find creative solutions.”

“Our particular expertise at the institute is in thermal protection and energy performance of buildings. Since Czechoslovakia introduced thermal standards in the 1960s we really built up that expertise. But to assemble the wider range of skills we need now, we work with the Slovak University of Technology. This is particularly with the faculties of architecture and civil engineering but also the electronics and information technology departments because of the range of electrical and sensor projects.”

“One thing I would like to see more of is funding for connections between ourselves and universities. This is where we can really make a difference by bringing along the more theoretical research from the university, and a range of disciplines.”

“Sales of the flats started in 1990 and now they are privately owned, including the building envelope. Maintenance was poor in Communist times and has not improved under private ownership. However, the buildings are generally solid and expected to last.”

“Over the years, our institute conducted studies on all the flats in terms of structural safety and thermal protection. We used a combination of theoretical calculations and measurements of actual buildings.”

“Our engineers gained a lot of experience talking to residents,” she laughed. “But one thing that has made the work easier from their perspective is that sensors have become less invasive as they are wireless. You don’t have cables everywhere.”

Dr. Zimmermann is Head of the Department of Functional Materials and Member of the Directorate at the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa).

Sustainable built environment is one of five research focus areas at Empa, which overall has around 1000 staff. Materials science is, logically, one of the most important sciences for decarbonization of buildings given that materials are believed to contribute 70% of the carbon footprint of construction.(6)

“In terms of our research process, we always start with basic research to gain a profound knowledge of the materials in question. In a next step, we try to attract industry partners to further develop and implement the materials and technologies we study for market entry. One of the approaches gaining ever-increasing impact is data mining and machine learning using big data to improve our predictive capacities on materials performance,” Dr. Zimmermann wrote in an email to me.

“We work in international teams comprised of members with complementary backgrounds such as physicists, chemists, biologists, materials scientists, data scientists, architects or engineers. We can thus tackle research and development with a holistic approach. Interdisciplinarity will also in future be the key for innovative materials and technology solutions,” she added.

“Implementation of new materials or technology solutions is always a challenge. It needs a close interaction between all stakeholders. In our opinion, technology transfer platforms such as NEST or move at Empa are key to investigate, test, further develop and validate new technologies, materials and systems.”(7)

“NEST is a validation platform for building innovations while the move platform concerns the mobility of the future.”

“They enhance networking between our stakeholders in research, industry and the public sector,” and, she believes, encourage adoption of new technology in the market.

“The digitalization of research data, its accessibility and new exploration methods will be at the center of focus of our data science specialists in the coming years,” Dr. Zimmermann added.

Dr.rer.nat. Mitchell Jones, Institute of Materials Science and Technology, Vienna University of Technology (TU Wien), gave me another perspective from a major university lab concerned with materials science.

“I think that much of what’s lacking in long-term vision is also relevant for the short term. The biggest problem in my opinion is the discrepancy between the rate of scientific progress in the research sector and what is realized through large-scale industrial adoption by society,” Dr.rer.nat. Jones told me.

“So much is already possible ‘technically speaking’ and yet its real world impact is next to nothing because it is not commercialized and widely used. This is not just a problem limited to complicated technologies that would be hard to roll out. Our bio-based materials are very simple compared to many other scientific innovations and are even compatible with many existing industries. They are already technically and commercially viable yet there is little demand for them.”

Dr.rer.nat. Jones is a prominent expert on bio-based materials. His recent research focused on mycelium composites that ‘can replace foams, timber and plastics for applications, such as insulation, door cores, panelling, flooring, cabinetry and other furnishings’, quoting a 2019 scientific review article that he wrote with his colleagues.

“Too many great ideas remain ideas despite the fact that we know they work. If even half of what scientific researchers have achieved was actually widely used in society we would not have the environmental problems that we have today,” he added in his email to me.

“I would comment on a need for closer working relationships between university-based researchers and major companies and most importantly consistent and widespread industrial adoption of successful technologies by existing companies rather than relying on scientists to upscale their research by establishing start-ups. The industrial-scale manufacturing facilities and economic foundations that existing companies enjoy are necessary to reach the scale of production required for a technology to have real world impact within a reasonable period. Struggling start-ups are not adequately equipped to generate this impact.”

Business models for research

How to design, manage, and fund R&D that supports sustainable building practices? I sought to analyse the various research business models and what they could mean in terms of answering this question.

In the public sector, finance for R&D is obviously provided through core or grant funding, which are in theory more flexible, or contract research, connected to a particular task.

Public sector research organizations(8) often present themselves as engaged in market-oriented research. A small number of them also receive significant sums from private firms (hundreds of millions € p.a.) and are effectively behaving as contract research organizations. While the taxpayer remains the dominant buyer in other situations, ministries will, I believe, often contract projects to institutes, thereby mirroring the actions of private buyers.

While acknowledging a complex picture, contract R&D seems to be important, at least in some cases. I wondered, therefore, what this funding model means for goals such as sustainability, community needs, or other societal metrics (particularly if these are not monetized). Could it also prevent learning if knowledge is compartmentalized project-by-project (according to the IP restrictions requested by each customer)?

The answer – I have no firm idea. To draw conclusions, we would need detailed insights into the day-to-day management of these organizations, income streams from different sources, and so on. We would also need to have an idea about the identity of the customers and their positions on sustainability. This is information I am never going to see.

As far as I can tell, work by SINTEF suggests that it is not always easy to decide if one research project delivers more or less sustainable outcomes than another (or how to guide the research program in a sustainable direction). Therefore, it seems, SINTEF concluded it would be useful to develop decision-making tools for this problem.

One new and exciting field of research we are developing in SINTEF assesses the impact of new technologies and solutions on sustainability. This is expertise that we will offer to our clients and that we will also use in our own projects to estimate the effects of technological development pathways we are working on. SINTEF wants to motivate researchers and decision makers in the public and private sectors to take into account their influence on the sustainable development goals and assist with analysing this…[Our] system could be used by clients who want to analyse the impact they are having on society, or internally in SINTEF to estimate the effects of our research…This is especially important since SINTEF is involved in the development of technologies and products from an early stage where there is still room for making decisions.

Sustainability Report SINTEF, Technology for a better society, November 2020 (p. 74)

What about the business models of universities? Universities might have different customers in mind (students). They do not, in general, rely on contract income (grants are probably more prominent). The most recent data I could find on sustainability across that sector was a 2017 study of 172 universities ‘across all continents’. It concluded that the idea was not embedded in teaching and research or in relationships with external partners in industry. The ‘main barrier’ to change, according to the authors, was ‘limited commitment…from the administration towards sustainability.’

A more recent (2020) study of sustainability at the University of Firenze by Fissi, et al. observed that ‘coordination in the form of a research strategy in the area of sustainability is absent…research and teaching are the activities in which the issues of sustainability are more diffused’.

Without doubt, universities are not usually set up to deliver goal-directed R&D in the same way that a company or research institute does.

In private enterprises, how is R&D conceptualized, organized and funded? To answer the question would need an understanding of R&D in a range of sectors relevant to construction. I have little information on this topic (and have not had time to read into what has already been written about it, which is a very significant amount).

An example that offers a well-conceived framework – Prof. Akšamija, quoted in the previous section, described three research business models. One model is having an internal research department.

The second model relies on collaborative research efforts between universities, industry, national laboratories, etc. The final model, which she called hybrid, relies on firms establishing separate non-profit research entities.

Turning, finally, to the ecovillages. These organizations could be not-for-profit businesses that rely on a patchwork of volunteerism (donation of time), tuition fees for courses, minor commercial activities (e.g., operating a café or accommodation), donations from individuals, grants from charitable foundations and occasional corporate sponsorship.(9) Besides anything else, this is a chronically underfunded sector.

Among some ecovillages, such as Sieben Linden, it has been reported that residents did not wish to use the term research.(10) While in others, such as Tamera, science and research are explicitly invoked.

A notable feature of the ecovillages is the focus on a particular site over long periods (in the case of Findhorn, for example, it has been many decades). This implies the development of close relationships between practice and research (if the institution uses that term) that extend across design, build, maintenance, use and even obsolescence/demolition.

Overall, it appears there is no easy answer on research business models (I certainly cannot think of one). Connections between revenue needs and intentional research to promote sustainability are crucial. In a contract research environment it might be difficult to reconcile wider goals with the requests of individual customers.

The ecovillages testify to the difficulty of finding a workable business model but have also, over many years, developed solutions even though necessarily at a small scale. Perkins and Will, the architecture firm noted in the previous section, experimented with different delivery models and by this means made research a prominent part of their practice.

It seems to me, if we are to look for positive signs, it will be where both research organizations and their customers openly discuss research business models, acknowledge limitations, and look for flexible solutions (which might vary from project to project).

Research in an ecovillage

Sunseed Desert Technology is an ecovillage of about 50 inhabitants in Andalucía, Spain. Founded in 1987, it aims to ‘realise, demonstrate and communicate solutions that support a low-impact lifestyle’. The organization puts emphasis on research as part of its ethos.

“In Sunseed, the method we use to generate or find knowledge is diverse. We get much knowledge from the volunteers and staff that come to share some time with us. This knowledge is usually put to use in a practical way and then stored in a document related to the particular project. Therefore, mouth to mouth transmission of information is really important here and transmitted in many ways such as workshops,” César Tomé Pizarro, Ecomaintenance Coordinator, Sunseed Desert Technology, wrote in an email to me.

Mr. Tomé is an architect who in his career worked on projects in self-sufficient communities in Spain, Switzerland, Norway and Slovakia, and has written about the ‘architecture of decrease’ (or degrowth).

“For many projects we use information researched from the vast library of technical books we have here, the archive of old projects and investigations, and of course through the internet (youtube, research papers, online books, etc).”

“Since Sunseed has been running for so long we have a lot of information about old projects, techniques, etc. We try to make the transmission of this information clear and tidy through the use of the archive (record of all of our projects) and the google drive we share. We also try to get in contact with the old sunseeders often to ask about the ways they used in the past.”

“Educational skills and group management are some of the more important skills in my opinion. All of us have technical knowledge about our different fields or this information can be found in books or papers, but being able to teach this information and do so in an entertaining and interesting way is hard. Also helping people in their own learning about these technical fields and being a good member of the group.”

“Most of us have university degrees in various fields like engineering, architecture, biology, psychology, arts, philosophy, etc. Some of us also have a little bit of practical experience in this field.”

“But I feel our generation is missing a lot of practical formation, something we try to fix here in Sunseed. Most of the people that come to Sunseed have degrees and lots of theoretical information but we are missing how to make that knowledge tangible,” Mr. Tomé added.

EU research projects intended to stimulate sustainable building

As noted at the start of this report, the European Commission identified R&D as a means to support the decarbonization of buildings. Of course, looking back over the past two decades, the Commission has funded many research projects intended to innovate sustainable building practices. What, in general, has been learned from these projects?

Ex-post assessment is difficult. Exactly what was done, why, and producing what results is, to my knowledge, not consistently documented. The information will be scattered over scientific papers, reports (public and confidential), prototypes, tacit knowledge of participants, and so on.

In the CORDIS database, over 100 projects have been categorized as sustainable architecture or building (about €230m total investment since 2004).(11) The majority of these projects developed technology (about €130m). Research on solar panels (e.g. building-integrated solar) is the dominant field (about €72m). This reflects the EU’s consistent interest in solar energy.

The remainder of the investment appears to have gone to projects which are relatively more systemic, i.e., not focused on particular devices but rather the problem of how to decarbonize large numbers of buildings (see table beneath for a personal selection of five such projects delivered at various funding levels).

Sustainable architecture and building research projects funded by the EU (selection)

ProjectEU funding (€)Years activeInsight
EU-GUGLE16.7m2013-2018Renovating buildings does not save money. It is to combat climate change.
ECO-LIFE12.2m2010-2015Retrofit and installation of renewable generation ‘influenced and pushed the political agenda in the direction of more sustainability’.
TRANSITION ZERO3.5m2016-2018Energy efficiency retrofit must be done at a whole-house scale not with piecemeal steps.
ERABUILD2.5m2004-2007Renovating schools would be ‘ standard bearer of political and social commitment’ that ‘reaches a large…population’.
SMART-ECO500k2007-2010Insulation, passive cooling, passive solar, lighting, and building orientation are energy-saving approaches with ‘highest potential’.
Sources: CORDIS; EU-GUGLE; Hummelshøj, 2016, ECO-Life – Sustainable Zero Carbon ECO-Town
Developments Improving Quality of Life across EU: Final publishable summary report
; Itard, et al., 2008, Building Renovation and Modernisation in Europe: State of the art review; Manteca, 2018, Lessons learnt from EU funded smart cities projects; Morishita, et al., 2016, in: Smart and Sustainable Planning for Cities and Regions; Sjöström, et al., 2011, Sustainable Smart ECO-Buildings.

Have these investments delivered insights that should be picked up further and built upon? Yes. But learning, in terms of difficulties faced and how they were met, is perhaps not so well captured in the public reporting (as far as I know).

Overall, the R&D program is made of many individual projects. Perhaps, therefore, the EU could now move into a more directed and synthetic phase in which new projects build upon one another (with better systems in place to retain expertise)?

I have no idea if this would be a good idea. But it would be difficult for the bureaucracy to deliver. The ratio of projects to European Commission project officers is probably too high. There are also big legal and political barriers.

Built4People (B4P)

Built4People (B4P) is a research and innovation program developed by the European Construction, built environment and energy efficient building Technology Platform (ECTP) in cooperation with the energy directorate of the European Commission (DG ENER). It is one of 11 ‘partnerships’ with industry announced by the Commission in June 2021.

The ECTP also published a research strategy which aims to guide research investments across the continent. This document is a significant achievement. I am not aware of anything similar.

B2P, set to run until 2028, aims to mobilize the ‘whole value chain’ to accelerate ‘innovation in the built environment that drives the transition towards a sustainable society and economy’. It brings together a large number of relevant organizations with the idea of encouraging coordination of their actions.

“Our main focus is integration and deployment of innovation packages in a double-twin transition (sustainability and digitalisation) for the construction and built environment sector, which means among others, large-scale experiments and further validation, regulations and standards, experimenting and fine-tuning innovative business models, and generalising digital tools and applications,” Dr. Alain Zarli, Secretary-General, ECTP, and Manager Partner, R2M, wrote in an email to me.

“In regard to the research strategy, and continuous relationships with the European Commission, there is a clear plan to connect B4P with the SET-Plan (and, in particular, Implementation Working Group 5 – Energy Efficiency in Buildings), informing member states on a regular basis.”

SET-Plan is a long-standing coordination mechanism for energy research across the EU. Opinions vary as to its success but without doubt it is better than nothing.

The B2P planning document argues that ‘industrial investment [in R&D] will need to rise from around €5 billion per annum to as much as €14 billion per annum by 2030 to deliver deep decarbonisation’ (p. 25). The document calls for an overall budget of €1.9 billion from the Commission between now and 2027 to support progress towards that goal. This seems quite a small amount of taxpayer funding.

“There is no funding for ECTP to manage the partnership. But there are and will be Horizon Europe calls to support R&I efforts. For the time being, DG Energy’s funding plan is up to €380m over 2021-2027,” Dr. Zarli wrote.

“The Commission wants more and more impact generated by the R&I ecosystem and the industry. So the program is dependent on investment from the members of ECTP too.”

“The engine of B4P will be the Partnership management team and its Partnership Board as a governing instrument (and a stakeholders forum for informing entities throughout Europe that are interested in B4P objectives and achievements).”

“DG ENER is the lead unit in the Commission in charge of B4P. DG RTD (research directorate) has a special mission in charge of collecting the various reports and KPIs to be produced annually from next year onward. This is as a future demonstration of the potential and expected success of the partnership concept.”

“With B4P, I’d say we are lucky with the Commission staff involved being quite active and having deep knowledge of the domain,” Dr. Zarli added.


An agenda to fundamentally change building practices would need to be judged by its engagement with the major construction firms and the global supply chain for building materials. This topic is beyond the scope of my analysis. But obviously some of the largest firms in this field are based in Europe.

R&D is, manifestly, a source of new knowledge. But it also plays other public roles such as providing a space for trial-and-error, discussion between different groups, or demonstrating new ways of working that convince skeptics. As such, it seems an important element of the agenda to change building practices although not the only one.

Connections between revenue needs and intentional research to promote sustainability seem crucial. This presents a challenge to developing a workable research business model but, as highlighted above, there are various potential solutions.

Overall, two points stuck in my mind from the conversations I had. Neither will surprise anyone in the field.

The first was data and data sharing. We all talk about it. Evidently we lack data at a number of levels particularly in such topics as the use of buildings. Some of it is often quite basic data which prevents us gaining a schematic view. You can commission consultants to find some of the information but the information is not, then, publically available. Much of the research is conducted in private due to commercial secrecy.

Addressing these issues could be crucial. But there does not seem to be a universal solution and improvisation tends to dominate. At the least, everyone I spoke with was very aware of the issue and probably accommodated the inevitable data gaps in their plans.

The second point was the development of long-term relationships between research and practice. These might need to extend across design, build, maintenance, use and even obsolescence/demolition. But it is also, obviously, the familiar matter of connecting academic knowledge to knowledge on the building site. Everyone felt such links are vital for effective action. They might also help overcome the data gaps noted above. My question was therefore how to value such collaborations, most of which are not contractual.(12)

To conclude – brilliant individuals are trying to get the research system ready to deliver what we need. I hope they receive the support they deserve. Climate change presses. Time runs out. European research organizations should, ideally, align around R&D likely to advance our understanding the most.

I would like to thank the experts who gave their advice and comments. However, opinions expressed in this report remain my own and should not be construed as representing the views of others, except where clearly attributed.

(1) In the scientific literature there is, obviously, big discussion on this topic. I personally found the following paper informative: Schwartz, et al., 2018, The life cycle carbon footprint of refurbished and new buildings – a systematic review of case studies, in: Renewable and Sustainable Energy.
(2) Keep in mind my subject is not how to decarbonize buildings but how to structure R&D to support that goal (although the two, understandably, often get mixed together).
(3) Draft proposal for a European Partnerships under Horizon Europe Built4People (June 2020) cites €1.42bn p.a. (appendix 4) based on the EU Industrial and R&D Scoreboard for ‘construction and materials’ (with R&D on ‘materials not related to construction’ removed). A second route to a number in the low billions € p.a. would be the assumption that R&D accounts for about 0.1-0.5% of total output of the construction industry (and construction industry accounts for about 9% of the total EU economic output of about €15tn). Myers, 2016, Construction Economics: A New Approach, argued that R&D ‘rarely exceeds’ 0.4% of total annual output of the construction industry in ‘most’ OECD countries (p. 240).
(4) The European Network of Building Research Institutes (ENBRI), GEN Europe, and the European Association or Architectural Education (EAAE) Research Academy are relevant groups for government institutes, ecovillages, and architecture schools, respectively. Concerning ecovillages, while some might not identify with research, others evidently do, often combining spirituality with sustainable technology. Aurora’s Eye Films posted various informative videos about ecovillages, e.g., Solar Village in Action; The Findhorn Community and Foundation in Scotland. The four types I used are obviously not exhaustive. For example, we should note research activities occurring in the gig economy (probably numerous but not particularly visible). Passivhaus Institut GmbH does not seem to fit into the four types I used (possibly other examples).
(5) Looking at the archives, the European Commission DGXII (RTD) funded an analysis along these lines in 1991. Thirty years later, the report, Dekker, et al., 1991, Construction: a challenge for European industry defining priorities for R&D, makes fascinating reading. It informs us that ‘the construction industry is becoming more aware of environmental issues’. Therefore, a project on ‘environmental oriented construction’ was proposed (p. 22).
(6) Hertwich, 2021, Increased carbon footprint of materials production driven by rise in investments, in: Nature Geoscience (p. 152). Please note Hertwich used 1995-2015 data but I guess probably no reason to believe this changed much.
(7) The NEST website hosts a thoughtful podcast on ‘the future of construction’ (the latest podcast, featuring Prof. Catherine De Wolf, about reuse of materials, has English-language content).
(8) The bureaucratic context of these institutes is varied. Some are primarily building certification bodies with a small research unit (e.g., TZÚS Praha). Others harbor substantial R&D programs, e.g., CSTB. Buildings research is also integrated into larger application-oriented organizations, e.g., Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, TNO; or basic scientific research organizations e.g., IETcc (part of CSIC), ITC (part of CNR). Research institutions associated with trade bodies, such as the Belgian Building Research Institute (CSTC or WTCB), might also find a home in this group. In terms of legal form, some might be under ministry supervision, others established as independent not-for-profit entities, and so on.
(9) Information derived from most recent annual reports of: Center for Alternative Technology; Center for Sustainable Energy; Sunseed Trust.
(10) Andreas and Wagner, 2012, “For Whom? For the Future!” Ecovillage Sieben Linden as a Model and Research Project, in: Realizing Utopia: Ecovillage Endeavors and Academic Approaches (p. 147). Please note the data on this point are more than a decade out of date. I did not contact Sieben Linden to clarify if this is still felt valid.
(11) Based on CORDIS search in June 2021 with the ‘field of science’ set as ‘sustainable architecture’ and ‘sustainable building’. Search brought back 114 projects with a total investment of €234.6m (since 2004). The largest project was funded at €16.7m (the smallest was €50k). Median funding per project was €1.2m. The data are a sample and should not be taken as a systematic report of EU research projects relevant to the topic. CORDIS contains only data on the framework programs. The EU also funds a significant amount of R&D through the cohesion policy (see: COM(2021) 213 final, pp. 7-8). Regrettably, there is no database of these projects so I could not include them in my analysis.
(12) Would it be a good idea to embed research teams in all the large building and renovation projects in Europe (and then maintain an R&D presence as the buildings were used, at least for a few years)? Practicalities aside, we ought, at least, to be alert to such phenomena and gain the maximum information from them that we can. Google Scholar obviously gives back thousands of hits on major European building projects like HafenCity, La Défense, 22@Barcelona, etc. (less, perhaps, on renovation projects). I would guess much of this research was not directly attached to the building process (and is probably, therefore, unknown to the designers, contractors, building owners, etc.). But some of it could be relevant (I would love to have time to read through the articles!). Another obvious focus would be where an architecture school or similar has been deliberately co-located with a large building project (e.g. HafenCity University Hamburg) or possibly the various ‘innovation district’ or ‘city lab’ projects (e.g., AMS Institute).