In the #BuildingLife Ambassador Spotlight Series, WorldGBC is profiling leaders who are tackling the whole lifecycle impact of the built environment and have endorsed our call to action:
“We call on the European Commission and national governments to support #BuildingLife by committing to ambitious policies to tackle the TOTAL carbon and resource impact of our sector.”
As we approach the COP26 climate summit in November 2021, where COP26 President Alok Sharma has committed to working with WorldGBC and other global organisations on a Cities and Built Environment Day, it is especially important to achieve industry-wide backing for the goals of #BuildingLife.
With this in mind, following our first interview with RICS Europe Chair Tina Paillet, we are delighted to introduce our latest Q&A of the #BuildingLife Ambassador Spotlight Series, with David Ducarme, Chief Operating Officer of Knauf Insulation, and Vincent Briard, Director of Sustainability of Knauf Insulation. Knauf Insulation is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of insulation products, employing 5,500 people in 40 countries with a turnover of around €2 billion, and is also a partner of the WorldGBC Europe Regional Network.
In this interview David and Vincent discuss:
- How Knauf Insulation products are created and the challenge of decarbonising this process
- Knauf Insulation’s commitment to circular products
- The importance of reviewing the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive
- What they would like to see achieved at COP26
Tell me about Knauf Insulation and your products
David Ducarme: Our main product is mineral wool, and we have two kinds: glass and rock fibres. But they follow roughly the same process. We melt minerals, and then we spin the molten glass or rock into fibres, we collect the fibres, spray binder on them, and form a mat that we cure and pack to the sizes that the market requires. This process creates slabs of fibres that are then used to insulate the thermal envelope of buildings.
It’s a very energy intensive process. To give you an idea, energy is about 20% of our costs. That’s very significant, not dissimilar to steel or cement or glass if you had to find similar industries. Our furnaces typically use natural gas or coke as fuel. Coke is more for rock and natural gas for glass. And both fuels create CO2 emissions at site. And then of course, we use some electricity where we have indirect emissions, that depends very much on the local mix of energy used to produce power.
In Europe, including Russia and Turkey, we run 17 mineral wool plants. We also have five sites in the USA and we are starting up a plant in Malaysia this year. Our total annual production of mineral wool is somewhere close to 2 million tonnes. On a smaller scale, for glass mineral wool for example, a truck that leaves a plant will carry about between six and eight tonnes of the insulation material. Typically you insulate between two and four new residential buildings with this one truck.
Why did you choose to become a #BuildingLife ambassador?
DD: The purpose of Knauf Insulation is to make buildings more sustainable. We contribute strongly to wider climate action through that. And we’ve been advocating for more sustainable buildings since the company was established. What’s interesting about buildings is that the methods and the technologies to get us to a much more sustainable position are known. And the benefits are very clear in terms of climate, in terms of economy, in terms of employment and in terms of wellbeing and comfort.
The Renovation Wave, for example, is something that is incredibly good. And that is going to accelerate the whole movement. But still, why don’t we see a faster transformation of the building stock? Our role as a company is to enable and advocate for this transformation, – that’s why this Ambassador role makes sense in the #BuildingLife project.
I’m also convinced that whole life carbon is the right approach because it closes the equation and puts the emphasis on the right combination of operational and embodied carbon. It will drive the right behaviours from the private building sector in the construction value chain. We need more of the right incentive policies and regulations. And that’s why this Ambassador role is important, and why I’m very happy to be one.
How is Knauf Insulation working towards a sustainable built environment?
DD: The insulation of residential buildings presents the biggest opportunity in terms of reducing the carbon footprint of buildings in Europe and elsewhere in the world. It also represents the majority of our sales, although we have a strong presence in commercial and industrial buildings. In addition we will always advocate for more sustainable buildings. And that’s the most important thing we can do to contribute to the climate action programme around the world.
Of course, we also look internally at our own impact on the environment. For example, between 2014 and 2020 we achieved a reduction of 23% in terms of carbon emissions and energy consumption per unit of product produced.
How are you working to reduce the embodied carbon of your products?
DD: So if we start with the most CO2 intensive field, that is coke which we use a lot for rock melting. Our programmes there are around switching to a cleaner fuel – natural gas or electricity. Of course, it’s a transition. In some countries, natural gas will be less carbon-intensive than grid electricity, while in others it would be the reverse. We strongly believe that natural gas is going to be a transition fuel and there won’t be enough green electricity in the coming 10 years to really make our melting processes super clean. So that will be something that will take two to three decades before we get there. The end game is probably more electricity than natural gas. But natural gas with carbon capture is also an option we are looking at.
We have an aspirational, long term target of carbon neutrality. And we are working on technology roadmaps to get us there. But it’s probably a full investment cycle of 30 years. And we need some externalities like clean grid electricity, for example, although we are also looking at some renewables on site. However, because of the energy intensity of our processes, we don’t think on-site renewables, such as solar and wind, can ever meet our requirements in terms of energy.
But we didn’t want to only have an aspirational long term aim, that does not create short term accountability. So we have given ourselves the objective of reducing embodied carbon across the board by 15% by 2025. So it’s more ambitious than the previous 10-year cycle. But it’s a wider scope, because it’s the full embodied carbon of the product, not only local emissions.
What is the circularity of Knauf Insulation’s products like?
DD: Today we already use a lot of recycled material in our production. In glass mineral wool, typically we use between 50 and 80% of recycled glass from bottles and flat glass. We believe that in the future, we will replace that portion with recycled fibres coming from construction and deconstruction sites. The process as we see it today will involve a remelting of the fibres before we spin the glass again and introduce it in a new material.
Vincent Briard: In the buildings that have been demolished or deconstructed up to the present day, the level of insulation is very low, because they were built at least 20 to 30 years ago. So it’s extremely difficult to get this insulation out and back to our plants. But with the progression of renovation, the quantities available on the market are going to increase. So it’s becoming more and more important to be able to handle this new quantity of used mineral wool.
DD: In France they are putting in place regulation that will make the producer of mineral fibres responsible for end-of-life fibres coming out from demolition or deconstruction sites. That’s going to change the dynamic. We are investing in a pilot facility in Europe that will take waste or recycled material from construction sites and recycle it. There is a lot of pressure around this topic, not only from the regulation but also from landfill costs that are increasing significantly. And this is pushing manufacturers to consider recycling much more, as some countries will completely ban some construction waste categories from going to landfill.
What policy changes would Knauf Insulation like to see and how can you use your influence in this area?
DD: We need a revision of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD), and we need the member states to put their action plans [Long Term Renovation Strategies] in place. We need that to be approved and financed by Europe. In renovation, we want to see clearer minimum energy performance requirements. We hope as well that there is a greater emphasis on the real performance of buildings.
Something that we believe is a barrier to the development of renovation is that today, a lot of the regulation still demands a certain solution, but not a certain performance. Our view is that measuring the real performance after renovation by following and monitoring the energy usage would be a much better approach. We also want to see the Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) based on real performance metrics. We believe that doing that will put a lot of pressure on the private sector to deliver better buildings that are more cost effective and have a better performance. So these are some of the changes which we are looking to advocate for inclusion in the EPBD revision.
We participate in pilots as well. A notable example contributed research to the Level(s) Framework where one of our buildings in Slovenia was built to the highest possible sustainability standards. We use our Experience Centre to communicate and train the whole construction chain about sustainability in buildings. And it’s quite a big success. We’ve had a lot of extremely positive feedback.
Do you think that the Level(s) framework is connected with the success of whole life carbon policy?
VB: Yes, I see Level(s) as being the structure, the support, the direction that European regulation and subsequently national regulation will take. I believe that one day we will replace the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive with a ‘sustainable performance of building directive’, which will be based on Level(s). It will not forget energy performance, because this is the number one criteria for Level(s), but it will include many other aspects. The second key criteria would be carbon footprint, and then circular economy, indoor air quality, resilience, etc. In this way I think Level(s) could be absolutely central into the deployment of the whole life carbon.
How can Knauf Insulation influence private sector action?
DD: The eco design tools that we are bringing to the market will contribute to this. By making them more transparent and more visible, we continue to work on environmental declarations, LCAs and ensure they are as accessible as possible to our customers. We are also trying to make renovation easier for small contractors to access by putting in place the right systems and the right training so that they can be effective in their job. Two years ago, we launched a small startup that looks specifically at that aspect of things, and making sure that we achieve real performance after the renovation of residential buildings. It’s called Knauf Energy Solutions. And through the measurements of real performance, we are hoping to enable and transform the building chain to provide more value and a higher quality renovation to the market.
What are you hoping to see achieved at the COP26 climate summit in November?
DD: In terms of how buildings fit into the overall effort I think the clear position is that with the built environment everything is known about what we can and should do. The challenge is more about enabling a whole sector to achieve it. Therefore it’s part of the low-hanging fruit of the overall sustainability question. It’s not always known to the world leaders. I think to see more of that being acknowledged would be a great result, and we are delighted to see that WorldGBC is going to be working with other global organisations on a Built Environment day to put our sector on the agenda at COP26.
#BuildingLife is a project led by WorldGBC and ten European Green Building Councils in Croatia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and the UK.
The initiative aims to achieve the mix of private sector action and public policy necessary to tackle the whole-life impact of buildings. #BuildingLife will galvanise climate action in the built environment through national and regional decarbonisation roadmaps. It focuses not only on the operational emissions of buildings, but also the environmental impact of the manufacturing, transportation, construction, and end-of-life phases of built assets – often called embodied emissions.
Tackling these emissions is essential to addressing the total impact of the buildings sector and progressing towards the European Green Deal’s aim of a climate neutral Europe by 2050.
Get involved with #BuildingLife or find out more information about the project, by getting in touch with your local Green Building Council.