‘We can help people and the planet by creating sustainable buildings’

Sustainable buildings

Increasing revenues and focusing on sustainability are compatible ambitions, Skanska’s Katarzyna Zawodna-Bijoch tells Nicol Dynes.

When it comes to sustainability, some companies talk the talk and some walk the walk. Skanska is in the second category: the group embraced ESG over 10 years ago and has made great strides in reducing emissions, using more sustainable materials and making buildings more resilient against climate change.

Real Asset Impact asked Katarzyna Zawodna-Bijoch, president and chief executive for CEE at Skanska Commercial Development Europe, about the progress that has been made and the challenges that still lie ahead.

What are the biggest changes you have seen and the most difficult challenges you have faced in the past 10 years?

The climate crisis is one of humanity’s greatest challenges. The built environment accounts for nearly 40% of all energy-related carbon emissions in the world.  No other sector has a larger impact on emissions.

Being part of the sector, we are part of this problem, but we also want to be part of the solution by leading the way to a greener industry. By working smarter and looking at the whole-life perspective of spaces, we can help people and the planet by creating more sustainable buildings.

I believe the biggest challenge is the lack of sufficient knowledge for our industry to be able to act quicker. Time is needed to educate individuals and organisations in the value chain and to create solutions that will take us to net zero. This includes figuring out how to do the things we are doing already in a climate-smarter way. A good example is better construction-waste management; another one is materials. Those are the big opportunities across the building life cycle.

We need to examine the energy and carbon embodied in materials, and in the building process itself. Concrete, steel, wood and glass will still be used widely, but we need to select versions that are less carbon intensive. The construction phase is on its way to becoming carbon neutral.  Equipment and machinery can either be powered by electricity or fossil-free fuels.

We are pushing to raise awareness and connect various areas of expertise. We want to educate ourselves and the market around us and actively look for solutions that could bring us closer to meeting our climate target.

One issue that has come to the fore recently is the resilience of buildings against the physical risks of climate change, like wildfires, floods and excessive heat. How are you addressing these risks?

Many buildings and spaces are still not designed for challenges such as extreme weather, air pollution, energy shortages and water scarcity. They also may not be designed for changes in social patterns, such as ageing populations, urbanisation or changing lifestyles.

At Skanska, we integrate climate resilience into project development to help cities and communities prepare for and respond to changing conditions. For example, on land we are considering purchasing, we include analysis of the risk of flooding over several decades. This tells us if it would be safe to build
on a particular plot, if our project would be insurable and what the potential barriers are.

Excessive heat is another condition our buildings will need to address. We pay a lot of attention to the thermal insulation of our office projects, which helps manage both ends of temperature extremes outside – both heat and very low temperatures.

We also look at energy efficiency and energy self-reliance. Skanska is part of Powerhouse, a collaboration between companies dedicated to creating ‘energy positive’ and ‘Paris-proof’ buildings. The model buildings developed as part of this collaboration produce more energy than they consume over a 60-year life cycle while aligning with the climate ambitions in the Paris Agreement.

 We do not focus solely on resilience regarding climate change, we also factor social changes into the design and operation of our buildings. We make sure our buildings have no barriers for elderly people or individuals with disabilities, and undergo the relevant certification processes.

Innovation and technology clearly play a crucial role in the fight against climate change. Which developments are likely to have the biggest impact?

In a world exposed to climate change, digitalisation can accelerate positive transformation.

Modern technologies, innovations and improved products are playing an increasingly significant role, offering the potential to fundamentally improve productivity, efficiency and the construction sector’s sustainability performance across the entire business – from operations, compliance and communication to transparent disclosure and finance. Two such examples are the collection and management of complex information to improve decision-making, and resource optimisation to improve productivity and efficiency.

‘Many buildings are still not designed for challenges such as extreme weather, air pollution, energy shortages and water scarcity.’

Katarzyna Zawodna-Bijoch, Skanska

Innovation is also very much needed in the non-digital world. We need to look at the entire life cycle of our buildings and develop solutions enabling us to limit energy use, as well as identify where energy can be generated on the construction site, or which alternative energy sources can be used.

Another important area is the responsible use of materials. Firstly, we need to minimise the use of materials, to what is necessary.

Secondly, we need to be better at reusing materials obtained from the demolition of old buildings. This could help us reduce embodied CO2 emissions.

How is the Connected by Skanska project to create an ecosystem of smart buildings going?

The demand for connected solutions, focused on quality, functionality and design, is growing. With digitalisation, the construction and development industry takes a holistic approach to buildings’ life cycle and impact, taking end-user design needs into account from day one.

Connected by Skanska is our in-house developed smart-management ecosystem. It integrates innovative building technologies in one place, allowing for flexible interactions between tenants, guests, users and the building itself.

To define our next step in developing this system, we conducted wide-ranging research, benchmarking Connected by Skanska against more than 50 office-building applications and tenant-experience platforms all over the world.

While working on projects, we constantly develop innovations and digital solutions. We use them to strengthen our leading position in the market, where similar solutions, in various forms and shapes, are being developed.

By incorporating artificial intelligence (AI) into the system, we want Connected by Skanska to enable tenants and building administrators to optimise the use of space and energy.

Skanska has a stated goal of reaching net zero by 2045. Could you reach that earlier? What are the main obstacles?

Our ambition is to reach net zero as soon as possible and we’re working hard to realise this ambition. We are actively looking for solutions that will bring us closer to our carbon targets, both within the Skanska Group, where we can learn a lot from the Nordics, as well as outside the company.

What is clear is that we won’t be able to achieve it acting individually: we’re part of an ecosystem, a value chain, where various actors need to be aware and determined to cut emissions.

We have a long-term goal of reaching net zero in just over 20 years, but we have also set ourselves interim targets.

By 2030, we aim to reduce our own carbon emissions (Scope 1 and 2) by 70%, and our Scope 3 emissions by 50% in our project development operations.

We want to reach net zero across our value chain by 2045. Our climate target was scientifically validated by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) to be in line with the Paris Agreement, and our sustainability work is aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Setting a target helps mobilise the organisation and stimulates the search for the right solutions and innovations. Within our own operations, we’ve reduced carbon emissions by 51% compared with 2015, the base year. During this period, the group’s revenues have increased. In other words, revenue and focusing on sustainability are not conflicting ambitions, quite the contrary.

There is a shift happening as more and more clients – both tenants and investors – require their impact to be sustainable. Creating sustainable places is not just a matter of our own responsibility towards the planet, but also about helping our clients to make a positive impact.

Would you say more companies in the sector are coming on board? 

I have seen an acceleration of interest in sustainable solutions and projects in the real estate sector over the last few years. This is very encouraging, as growing demand motivates suppliers of such solutions to develop them.

If we are to slow down climate change, the entire real estate sector must make great changes. By working smarter and looking at the whole-life perspective of spaces, we can help people and the planet by creating more sustainable buildings.

In the office sector, a number of developers are taking action to implement ESG principles in their operations, which is encouraging. This is driven by regulators, which are implementing new requirements, by customers who expect buildings to support their own sustainability ambitions and targets, and by society, which expects the business world to contribute to safeguarding the environment.

These are very important drivers no organisation can ignore, even if care for our planet is not embedded in their values.

I would say that continuing to act in a way that is not sustainable is not an option. Developers have to adjust, simply to survive in the long term.