Ecological Building

To build means to substantially intervene in environment, be it through the exploitation of resources, the use of energy, the production of waste, the pollution of air, the greenhouse effect, the depletion of the ozone layer, or the acidification of soil. The contribution of the construction sector to these issues and thus its responsibility is much greater than generally assumed.

[picture 01: Global Material Sse]

„Building“ Has Never Been More Complex Than Today

In order to make sure that what is built today will not lose its value in the long term, questions of “building healthily” and thus the quality of the living environments of the buildings need to be addressed. It is a common misconception that healthy and ecological buildings are more expensive than regularly constructed buildings. What they do require are precise targets that need to be stated as early into the process as possible, before the architects even start planning. This is as much of a challenge for planners as it is for building owners. The amount of resources used and the burden put on the environment during the production and use of a building over one, two, or many more generations is entirely up to them.


„Sustainability“ has become something of a buzzword in the current discourse on environment protection, with varying definitions and interpretations. It was initially termed in 1713 and comes from a forestry background, denoting the rule that no more wood may be used than can be regrown, which means living off the interest and not the investment. This is just as true for circular economy.

As defined by the UN, sustainability is a criterion for human development that allows the current society to meet its needs without robbing future generations of the possibility to meet theirs. 

Acting sustainably means taking social, economic, and ecological matters into account. The construction sector excels at researching and implementing ecological criteria. Four principles can be discerned.

  • Avoiding the exploitation of non-renewable resources. 

    This requires the following measures: Efficient use of land; minimizing the consumption of primary energy for building operations, heating, and water heating; choosing construction materials with low energy demands during production and use of recycled products; efficient resource use through easy and compact designs; durability and reliability by employing well-protected and easily replaceable building elements.
  • Guaranteeing the regeneration of renewable resources.

    Wood is by far the most important renewable resource in the construction industry. As long as the forests are managed sustainably, it will be at the disposal of future generations. Timber taken from deforestation of Siberian, Canadian, or Tropical origin is to be avoided at all costs.
  • Reducing the environmental impact of toxic waste and debris.

    The use of non-renewable fuels results in massive environmental impacts, such as the greenhouse effect, soil acidification and overfertilization, air and ocean pollution, and the risks of nuclear energy. Reducing the use of non-renewable resources means substantially reducing the amount of toxic and pollutive waste. Still, all building products need to be examined for toxic debris and waste that can result from their production, processing, use, and disposal.
  • Preserving biological diversity.

    Every building constitutes an intervention in nature, reducing the biological diversity to some degree. The sealing of soil through buildings and roads needs to be reduced to a minimum and compensated with adequate measures. The exploitation and use of non-renewable sources endangers the natural eco systems, while avoiding said exploitation helps preserve the biological diversity.


Building is based on partnerships between the owners of the buildings and the companies and service providers, such as architects, engineers, planners, and construction companies. The success of every building project depends on how well these partnerships work. The knowledge required for this to work, however, more often than not cannot be provided by small and medium-sized enterprises, e.g. out of reasons of sheer capacity. This means that the sharing of information, team building, consultation, and quality assurance are deciding factors over the entire process of building.

Forming planning teams does not only make sense for large-scale and complex projects. Specialized planners and experts help find the best solutions for every given problem. Especially at the pre-planning stage, information provided by neutral experts is helpful. The clearer the building owners and investors communicate their demands, the better the architects can realize and analyze their wishes.

Quality assurance begins with supporting the investors defining and laying down mandatory target values as well as ecological and economic conditions for planning and implementation. This way, the designs, construction documentations, and procurement procedures can be optimized accordingly and set as verifiable standards.

The best possible implementation can be achieved when
  • the involved tradespersons are informed about the requirements of ecology directly after the commissioning;
  • the involved tradespersons are provided with a list requiring the declaration of all products and chemicals used on the construction site;
  • a specialist company examines whether or not the declared products are in compliance with the procurement, supporting the tradespersons in providing evidence and approving the compliant products;
  • the use of the compliant products is audited on-site by “ecological building inspectors”.

After finishing the construction, ascertaining the achievement of the objectives and gauging the reached values against their targets are in order, for instance by measuring the air quality, air tightness, or room acoustics. Ideally, operation and maintenance are provided after completion as well so to support the building owners in reaching the energy consumption targets and avoiding the contamination of the building with harmful substances during cleaning and maintenance.

When certifying the building and selecting the energy performance label, attention needs to be paid that the entire construction process, including the actual realization, are included in quality assurance. This is the only way to make sure that the building performs as certified. 

The ecological declaration of building products is neither common nor standardized. Familiarity with the breadth of all test certificates, parameters, or harmful substances and their effects can constitute a challenge even to specialists. The fact that manufacturers use specific parameters of their own complicates the matter additionally. Several online product databases help make ecological and healthy building possible.


Text: Bmst. Harald Gmeiner, Dornbirn, Energieinstitut Vorarlberg

Bilder und Grafiken

01 Endless forests  
02 Annual raw material extraction worldwide
 03Maple saplings – the growth of a new generation  
 06Precision elements for timber module construction
 08Children’s furniture “nanuu”
 09Roundwood stock
 10Renewal and conversion of a chalet
 11Minergie House