Alfonso Ponce Alvarez, during his presentation to the World Green Building Council Congress, Singapore

14 October 2010 – Alfonso Ponce Alvarez was one of the speakers at the World Green Building Council Congress in Singapore in September.  He spoke with The Fifth Estate on his work with the United Nations to develop a common carbon metric and on green building drivers in Europe.

Following is an edited transcript of the interview.

The Fifth Estate: Please tell us what your work is about

Alfonso Ponce Alvarez: I work for the French Building Research Centre, under the authority of the huge Ministry for Sustainable Development in France, which is the result of a merger between the Ministry for Construction, Transportation and Urban Affairs, the Ministry of Environment, and the Ministry of Social Affairs. So my organisation is placed under the authority of this ministry.  So we are 900 engineers, five different locations in France, one in China.

We do fundamental research on buildings and infrastructures, and we get money from the French Government for that. We do certification of building products, and we run the French National Scheme for Green Buildings, which is called HQE and stands for High Environmental Quality. It’s a government-owned scheme. This is very peculiar.

TFE: What’s peculiar about it?

APA: It is completely public. It’s public sector driven. It’s not driven by industry. We do also testing; we do publications and we help the French Government in drafting all the regulation for buildings in France. And we are heavily involved in European standardisation too.  I’m also a board member of UNEP-SBCI (.The United Nations Environment Programme Sustainable Building & Construction Initiative

TFE: What is happening with green buildings in France and Europe? And what are the drivers?

APA: In Europe we have the European Commission, and we have what we call directives.  So the European Commission issues directives that all member states have to comply with.  But you are free to determine the path you will follow.  You need to get to the point A, but you are free to choose how you get there.  So there is no harmonised reality in Europe; every country is at a different stage.

I can tell you what’s happening in France.  In France we have this regulation called Grenelle de l’Environnement.  Basically, the commitment is all new buildings will consume 50 kilowatt hours per square metre per annum by 2012.

TFE: And what do they produce now?

APA: Today we are more or less about 120 [kwh] in new buildings.  So the first piece of the regulation is 50 kilowatt hours per square metre per annum by 2012.  Positive buildings by 2020.

TFE: What do they mean by positive buildings?

APA: Net zero energy.  So they produce more energy than they use.  In Europe we call that positive buildings.  And in America they call that net zero energy buildings. The idea is they produce more energy than they consume by 2020. This is the French Government, but it’s in line with a directive called 20-20-20 Directive or Energy Package, and that’s a European regulatory framework that says that by 2020 we will reduce by 20 per cent global emissions of carbon in the European Union, and we will use 20 per cent of renewable energy to get that goal.

TFE: On the base of 1990?

APA: On the base of 1990, exactly.

TFE: With this directive, how does that compare with existing buildings?

APA: Well, regulations in Europe are very stringent, more than in the US, because we didn’t have the same attitude towards the petroleum shocks of the ’80s and ’73. So energy efficiency policies have been in place for a long time in Europe. So regulations are quite high already.

TFE: How do European buildings compare with American buidlngs then?

APA: There is this British report from BRE which shows how a LEED-rated building will perform in the US and in Europe against a BREEAM and…Green Star. They’re basically comparing how a LEED Gold building would perform in Europe against a BREEAM outstanding building in Europe. The result is that you get a higher certification on the LEED in Europe, so you have several buildings that are certified in Europe with LEED, even if they are just complying with the regulation. But that’s normal. It’s because LEED is referring to American standards and different targets and different calculation methodologies, and the standards in the US tend to be lower because of the way you build a building. You use more wood, you know, it’s different, it’s a different reality.

TFE: Will it measure how many kilowatts per square metre?

APA: No….We had this situation in France in the biggest business district of Europe, which is La Défense on the West Bank of Paris, where we had several buildings being certified with two or even three different labels without any kind of coordination on the part of the scheme operators. So this situation was profoundly unhelpful for those business who wished to refer to global standards.

So the very first thing we did was, we created an organisation …and we tried to emulate the SkyTeam or Star Alliance partnership. So you see you have the SkyTeam umbrella brand, or Star Alliance umbrella brand, and beneath that brand you have several companies that are competing in the marketplace, airline companies like KLM or Air France, Aeromexico, et cetera.

They are all competing in the marketplace, but they all agree to have a minimum degree of commonality around services. In their case it’s the Miles Program. In our case it’s a set of common indicators so that we will measure the same impacts in the same way. So we will establish a common language. So that for the key issues – energy, waste, water, indoor air quality, financial performance, greenhouse gas emissions – we will be using the same metrics.

And the idea is that a transnational organisation or an investment trust would be able to compare buildings in the UK, in Germany, in France, for the key issues, because we are all measuring the same in the same manner. So we’re not creating a new certification; we’re not creating a new system. We’re just creating convergence between the existing rating systems by getting an agreement in the calculation methodologies and the metrics.

TFE: So a Platinum LEED might equate to what in France?

APA: It’s not that – what we say is – for example, energy; energy will be calculated in this manner: kilowatt hours per square metre per annum. And we will all measure that in the same way. And the same applies for indoor air quality.

TFE: Okay, so it’s not that the actual ratings will harmonise, it’s the actual methodology will be the same, for water, energy, for anything?

APA: Exactly. So the metrics that we will be using will be the same.

TFE: Is there a move to make it the same rating systems so everyone understands what a Five Star is?

APA: Well, that’s more of a political movement. Not today.

TFE: How does it help the fund manager, though?  Because the fund manager wants to know that his or her portfolio of buildings in four different countries with four different rating system, is the same standard. Does this really help them?
APA:    Yeah, it does. It does, because what this guy wants is to actually establish baselines, benchmark his portfolio, the performance of his portfolio with his competitors, and monetarised indicators.

TFE: So he’ll know that a level three on one scale is the same as a level four somewhere else?

APA: Exactly.

TFE: But the market doesn’t understand that?

APA: The market might not understand. It’s a first step, it’s a first step.

TFE: Okay, first step, you’re not going to stop there?

APA: No. It’s a technical step so that this guy will know, will be able to compare the energy performance of his portfolio, even if he has buildings in France, Germany and the UK, because for energy he will know that we are using the same metric.

TFE: How are you organising that?

APA: We decided to partner with the Working Building Council and UNEP-SBCI – United Nations Environment Program – Sustainable Building and Climate Change Initiative. So these people basically took one of the metrics we defined, the carbon metric –  the way we calculate the carbon emissions from buildings. We worked with them, so we worked the metric a little bit, and they endorsed that metric. And that metric was presented by UNEP’s spokesman, Nick Nuttall at the latest COP, COP 15 in Denmark, in Copenhagen. What we’re planning to do now is to extend that collaboration to other metrics. So we have to find six metrics and we’ll want to extend that cooperation to the rest of the metrics that we have to find.

TFE: Can you tell us more about the European and French situation with green buildings?.

APA: Well, you know, France is in a very funny spot, because the involvement of the French Government is huge because of the French traditions. So for example, the HQE rating system is mandatory in several parts of the country, in what we call… business districts, for example.  So if you want to build a skyscraper, for example, in Paris, in La Défense, you have to comply to the HQE scheme. It’s mandatory. It’s the High Environmental Quality. It’s the equivalent of Green Star.   Insurance companies are giving premiums if you use it where it’s not mandatory.

TFE: Why is this?

APA: Because from their perspective it presents a risk-reduction factor. It anticipates regulation, so it’s a way for them to reduce their risk exposure. So they give premiums. You get also an acceleration of your working premium or tax rebates if you use it. So these are the things that the government …it’s highly, highly incentivised.

TFE: What other incentives are there?

APA: The  public policies include tax rebates, and the acceleration of the working permits, so you get your working permit more quickly.

TFE: To start development?

APA: Yes.

TFE: And what about the tenants, the premium tenants, do they want it?

APA:    Yes, landlords because of [the incentive] and tenants because…they would like to display the results.

TFE: What about existing stock?

APA: I am not really familiar with existing stock.  What I know from existing stock is the problem we have with existing stock is we don’t really know if certification is the right tool to incentivise this sector. I mean, certification as a third party verified system. It’s probably more a simple assessment that we need, and what we need is to collect that data from the stock. So physical, functional data, but also financial data. And put that into a database. But the problem is, who owns that database? How can you make sure that the data is confidential

In all the European territory, you have  a directive called the Etiquette- the European Etiquette for Energy, and you have the DPCs…so this is basically that you have to disclose the energy..for all buildings when you sell it and when you rent. And that’s mandatory.

TFE: There’s no minimum performance, or saying you have to improve it?

APA: No. This Energy Etiquette is not really having an impact in the marketplace actually.
The reality in the European Union [on energy] is so diverse. For example, a country like France, people don’t really care about carbon because 85 per cent of our energy comes from nuclear power.  So it’s carbon neutral.

TFE: So why are they making restrictions for new buildings, then?

APA: To be in line with European directives. But carbon is not an issue in France. Water is an issue in Spain, but it’s not an issue in Finland. It’s very… very …like that.

TFE: So what are the big drivers then in France?  Just the European directives, then?

APA: The big drivers in France are, yes, the directives [which are market drivers] just for a segment, the leaders, the 20 per cent more advanced. And that’s pretty much it.

TFE: Alfonso, thank you for that.

The Fifth Estate travelled to Singapore to cover the World Green Building Council Congress, as a guest of the Green Building Council of Australia