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We need to do much more

Interview with Carlo Battisti of International Living Future Institute

Carlo Battisti, president of Living Future Europe (LFE), is a sustainable innovation consultant and project manager. He co-founded the Living Building Challenge Collaborative: Italy (LBCCI) and served as European Executive Director for the International Living Future Institute (ILFI). Battisti is also Chair and Project Manager of COST Action 16114 RESTORE (REthinking Sustainability TOwards a Regenerative Economy), which seeks a paradigm shift towards restorative sustainability for new and existing buildings and space design across Europe.

Carlo Battisti will be the keynote speaker at the InnoRenew CoE International Conference 2020, “Integrating sustainability and health in buildings through renewable materials”, which will take place on 3 September 2020 both live from Izola, Slovenia and online.


Can you explain the history of the International Living Future Institute and Living Future Europe as well as your role within the organization?

Living Building Challenge as a framework was developed for the first time in 2006 by the architects Jason McLennan and Bob Berkebile in the United States, where they were working on innovative building projects. Shortly afterward, the 1.0 version was published, and a few years later, basically, what’s now called International Living Future Institute (ILFI) was established in Seattle. ILFI has developed further versions of the standard, now just coming to the 4.0 version. Five years ago, we [Carlo and his previous business partner] founded the Living Building Challenge Collaborative: Italy (LBCCI), a community of local volunteers like more than 130 across the world. Two years ago, I was appointed as European executive director for ILFI and within the so-called Living Future Europe Initiative, there was the idea to implement a Living Building Challenge in Europe.

At the end of November 2019, we also established Living Future Europe (LFE) as a nonprofit organization in the form of an association that shares the same exact principles of ILFI with a specific focus on what’s happening in Europe. The idea is to advance the ILFI programs across Europe, considering the Green new deal for the European Commission and topics of specific interest for the European market. That’s why now I’m president of this nonprofit organization, LFE, and from the office based in the north of Italy, we are basically coordinating the activities across Europe.


Can you describe a few pivotal personal experiences regarding construction and engineering that helps shape your work at the institute?

My background is as a building engineer. I graduated from the Polytechnic of Milan, and I worked for 20 years in construction firms. In 2008, I changed my activity, and I started working with a couple of public organizations here in Trentino-South Tirol that are dealing with innovation and sustainability in the building industry. One activity currently has been to help local companies with this topic.

That’s how I discovered international sustainability standards, like LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), and the time that was the first opportunity to implement LEED, for instance in Italy, was with the creation of Green Building Council Italy. And a few years later, I discovered Living Building Challenge and realized that it was really the most effective and strategically meaningful tool in order to address climate emergency through the built environment. So that’s why we are implementing these programs across the world and also in Europe.


Is there a quiet revolution of materials taking place?

Yes, definitely very quiet. We have seen an increasing demand for transparency in the building industry, especially from owners, developers and designers. They all want to know more about materials. Because in the last 15 to 20 years, we’ve been focused on energy efficiency. From a practical perspective, we insulated our buildings and focused on making them sealed. This means that the quality of the materials we are introducing into our buildings now matters a lot.

Generally speaking, complete transparency is coming from building manufacturers to the market. That’s why users and customers started asking for more information. For instance: Where does this product come from? How has it has been made? How much is recyclable? And, moreover, if there are some ingredients that are harmful or not, which is a crucial request.

We are trying to reply through our programs. Specifically, with Declare and with the Living Product Challenge, we provide more transparent information to enable this. This is really something that can change the market quite radically. And something that is difficult to implement because the reaction from the building industry is a bit slow.


What role do you see materials playing in sustainable healthy living?

They play a central role, if we think that buildings are an assembly of materials. And sustainability is based on how our buildings are made, how our buildings perform and design strategies. But, sustainability in buildings, and sustainability in materials or meaning, is also building manufacturers approaching sustainability in their production processes. The way they are producing and using these materials and all the resources needed to produce them, is clearly important. We really need to change the focus from building scale to company scale. Companies are implementing real sustainability in their production processes. If a big corporation makes even slight changes in their production processes, given the huge volume they are producing on a global scale, this will really impact the overall situation. That’s why we need to focus on materials.


For you, which renewable material has the most potential for use in sustainable building?

Renewable sources are really important in this strategy. Let’s say our concept of regenerative sustainability is to give back to the environment more than what we have taken. In terms of our resource consumption and use, this means that we need to rethink our production processes and cycles. Renewable materials are important under this perspective.

Timber is a good example as there are some species that are rapidly renewable. And, moreover, timber captures carbon dioxide (CO2) in the immediate production process from the very beginning when timber is still just a tree. That’s why, on one side, we are trying to create a real cycle or circular economy. And, on the other side, we are trying to find solutions to capture CO2 in the production and reconstruction process. Our end goal is to reduce CO2 emissions globally and move to a neutral scenario for our buildings. That’s why the materials we are using and selecting matters.


Can you provide an example of a healthy sustainable building that exists? Why are you fascinated by it?

There are more than 680 projects across the world – United States, Canada, Central America, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, which means that it’s possible to build these types of buildings no matter the climate zone, culture or established local production traditions. It’s something technically feasible.

What differentiates us is that we really, really like to be reconnecting with nature. Biophilia has a lot to do with the Living Building Challenge framework — recreating, reconnecting ourselves with nature through the building and construction process. And biophilia means a lot of very good things – more daylight, natural shapes, quality indoor environments.

I have to say that Living Building Challenges played a crucial role in relaunching the interest for biophilic design approaches. On our website, we have all our certified projects displayed and described as case studies. For instance, you can get free information about design and construction processes and approaches for the energy perspective, water perspective and material perspective, adopting different strategies. There are many examples, and beauty is definitely one of the components in our framework.

Our design teams are also implementing some features that are specifically dedicated to the well-being and pure joy of people living in these buildings. This is something that is quite intuitive, and it creates a difference.


Can you share your prediction for how sustainable built environments will evolve in the future?

The current situation is that we are not addressing the climate emergency issue seriously. We are asking the building industry to really make a shift in this approach and be more courageous. This issue needs to be addressed in a much more effective way because, at the end of the day, the building industry is responsible for at least 40 percent of every impact on the environment in terms of resource consumption, waste production, energy consumption and so on.

We need to do much more. When it comes to green buildings, we are still talking about a niche in the market. We need to scale up this culture, increase our knowledge and adopt a more radical strategy and approach in the building industry. On one side, we have awareness about the severe climate emergency and know that we need to do something right now. We also have several social movements, so we are asked by society to do more. On the other side, we have policies like the ambitious program from the European Commission to make Europe the first carbon neutral continent by 2050. We have to go through the plan in detail because, you know they say, “the devil is in the details”. But we know that this is the right direction, and it’s really a matter of time for when we will reach this goal.


How do businesses and companies respond to this push for more green building?

I think they are basically following the usual tradition of the curve of innovation. You know, at the beginning there are something like two percent of the entrepreneurs in the market that are really innovative. And there are the early adopters, and then the overall mass of the building industry comes a bit later.

There are a few innovative companies that can also be working on a global scale. Luckily, many of them are supporting us. They understood the importance of taking this courageous decision, while also knowing that sustainability might be a competitive advantage problem on the market.

It is a slow process. We are trying to work closely with both the big international players and the small companies. We want to assist big players because, even if they do a slight change in their activities or production processes, they can have a big impact. But we are also trying to see some innovative, small and medium companies that are paving the way in order to find innovative solutions because they really can work as beacons for what the building industry should do.


What country or countries invest the most money or research into healthy sustainable built environments?

It’s a difficult question to answer. There are some companies across Europe and the United States that are creating some great impact within the built environment. Generally speaking, some countries in Europe, like northern countries, are a bit more developed in terms of cultural sustainability and sustainability awareness. But there are also other countries doing very good things. Italy, for instance, is one of the countries that is implementing in a much more effective way the percentage of renewable sources in terms of energy production at the national scale, and this is very good news.

We need to understand what’s coming from the European Green Deal. Because the good news is that we are all dependent on the same European directives in terms of energy efficiency and sustainability. Sooner or later, all the countries in Europe will adopt, with slight differences, these directives. This is completely different from the situation in the United States where each state is basically autonomous in terms of energy, policy and consumer energy developments. Here in Europe, the situation is more coherent. We are quite optimistic that we will have good results in the next years.

Listen to the complete interview with Carlo Battisti in English.