Transcript of the 3rd Xperimania chat

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Welcome everybody,

Hello everybody and welcome to the third Xperimania V chat in collaboration with inGenious.

I’m Barbara Schwarzenbacher, pedagogical adviser at European Schoolnet and in charge of coordinating the online chats. The topic of this chat today is “Sustainable construction explained”.

We are now in Brussels in the office of European Schoolnet, and we have with us 3 industry representatives Pierre de Kettenis, Jacques Komornicki and Maggie Saykali. Welcome to our three experts and to all of you the students and to your teachers who are here today for this chat.

The industry representatives will be available for the next 1:30 hour to answer as many of your questions as possible. First of all let’s ask the industry representatives to introduce themselves.

Pierre de Kettenis (PDK), Executive Director, CEFIC Petrochemistry Program (APPE): I am a biologist by formation but working for the chemical industry.
Jacques Komornicki (JK), I’m a chemical engineer by education and am now working as Innovation Manager at CEFIC/Suschem.
Maggie Saykali (MS), I’m a chemical engineer by education and am now working at Cefic Sector Group as Manager for Plasticisers.

BS: Let’s start with a general definition of sustainability.

MS: Sustainability has many definitions but one that is generally acknowledged by most people as being the one that is closest to reality is that sustainability is the way in which the economic development of the world makes it possible to satisfy the needs of current generations without compromising the possibilities of future generations. Sustainability is not just a vague word. You have economic sustainability, functional sustainability and environmental sustainability. Later on we are going also to see how this applies and what we consider of being the functional and environmental sustainability.

BS: Thank you. We have 26 schools that have registered to this chat today. The first question comes from France and says: what kind of material is used in sustainable construction??

PDK: It is a complex question, because what we often understand as sustainable is not necessarily what is the most convenient. You have one range of sustainable material that is supposed to be renewable material. In fact it involves the economic, the environmental and social dimensions. It is important that at every stage of manufacturing and use of material, the three dimensions are considered. It will create jobs, it will create economic value, but it will also take care of the environment through the entire life cycle of the material. This includes the material itself but also the way the materials are produced so the way the house is built, how much energy and waste are generated through the construction, through the use of the building used building and hopefully, at the end of the lifetime of the construction, how the waste is managed. So it is really vital to take all aspects into account.

BS: Thank you Pierre. The next question comes from Italy and says: how is it possible to conciliate the use of these new technologies with economical possibilities? Basically Pierre already answered this question partly, but maybe you would like to add something to it.

JK: Well, if you are developing a new window, it has to be beautiful and fit the house, but of course it has to be well performing, for example, the windows should be double glazing. It also has to meet the needs of the customer and the price that the customer can afford. The people who design the new technologies they also have to think how much customers will be ready to pay for new technologies.

BS: The next question comes from Portugal and Romania. : Is it possible to recycle the cement resulting of a demolished building?

JK: Usually you can use the cement from a demolished building as an under layer when you construct a road, so it is not very difficult to recycle concrete from demolition.

PDK: I would like to add that recycling concrete is becoming a new trend and business. What happens when a concrete building is demolished is that all the materials can be recovered, crunched and packed again to make new concrete blocks and new construction material. It has become a true recycling loop now to start recycling concrete.

BS: The next question comes from Turkey. What kind of materials which are equivalent of plastics could be used?

MS: This is a very vast question because the most important criteria for sustainability is for a material to be ok for the whole life cycle for the article in question. As you would like to the material to last as long as the house itself, you would chose each material for the purpose that it has to fulfil. For example if you want to use a window to be locally sourced you would use wood, etc. You never speak about a sustainable material, but you always speak about the sustainable use of a material.

BS: The next question comes from Slovakia: How can we insulate houses efficiently? Is there new material which can help insulation? In walls? In paint?

PDK: Today there is a major emphasis on increasing the insulation of houses and there are two big streams of technologies. We can use the traditional materials which are usually either polystyrene or polyurethane, so traditional chemicals which by far have the highest performance for the smallest thickness: they are light, thin and extremely efficient. On the other hand alternative materials can be used: one is to fill the thickness of the walls of the house and use all the materials which may have a better life cycle for example you see houses which are combining wheat, clays, natural materials, which are quite ok in terms of life cycle, but to have the same performance of polystyrene or polyurethane you have to fill the thickness of the walls of 14-15 centimetres. What happens today is that in the majority of cases it is a combination of both. People are trying to combine different materials which improve the energy efficiency of a house by optimizing the types of materials used. The new passive houses usually are targeted to have zero energy consumption for heating and using glass to absorb the light and the heat. These houses usually also have very thick walls which are made of a combination of several materials.

BS: Thank you Pierre. The next question is coming from Estonia and says: How do you know a building is not well isolated? How do you fix it?

JK: This question is related with the previous question. When you have an old building you wonder if the building is well isolated and, if it is not, first of all we need to give a look at the house, to make an estimation of the energy efficiency performance by doing a thermography which consists in taking pictures of the house from outside to inside using a special camera with infrareds. It shows that some zones are red because they are hot and some are blue because they are cold. This means that the house is not well isolated. Houses can also be ranked in terms of energy efficiency by letters: A means that it is very energy efficient and H means that the house is very poorly isolated. Depending on the type of construction you have a lot of solutions: Some houses have brick walls and between the two layers of bricks you have a void. This does not isolate well, but you can put insulation in between the two brick layers. Also, if you have single glazed windows you can replace it by a double glazed window. This means that there are two layers of glass separated by an air or other gas filled space to reduce heat transfer across a part of the building. Then, of course, we have to take care of the roof because the roof is a very important source for heat. There are plenty of solutions; it depends on many factors including the cost of the solutions.

BS: Thank you very much for this long and precise answer. The next question comes from France. What European country is the most involved in the sustainable construction? Another question coming from Sweden says: Do you know if sustainable materials are used the same way in most European countries?

MS: I will start with the second question. One of the keys of sustainability is also using materials that are local, that are available locally. So that means also that you don’t have exactly the same solutions everywhere in Europe. As for who is the most advanced in sustainable use in construction, well historically it has been the Nordic countries first, but now I could say that most of Europe is trying very hard to get to the sustainable housing. So the norms are European, the ideas are European and every country applies it to the best of its availabilities of materials and its possibilities.

BS: The next question comes from Portugal: Are recycled building materials reliable?

MS: This question is very easy to answer. There are construction norms and any material that you use have to fulfil these norms, so if you use it and you fulfil the norms it is safe and it is reliable as any virgin material, but you have to fulfil the technical requirements.

BS: The next question comes from Italy: Is it possible to build eco-friendly houses taking into account anti seismic building criteria?

PDK: This question has an easy answer. The anti-seismic properties are not related to the material itself but more on the way the construction is built. In most cases it is with specific engineering that you reach a model where the vibrations of the earthquake do not transmit to the structure of the house. If you really look at what happens today, in Japan for example; Japan is confronted with hundreds of earthquakes every year and most of the houses that were previously made of wood, are built with concrete today. This is a dumping system at the base to prevent vibrations to the structure of the house. So the answer is clearly yes, taking into account that you can use a variety of materials.

BS: the next question comes from Slovakia: Do you think that in the future, people will be able to recycle all the materials they'll produce?

JK: It is an interesting question and not easy to answer in a few words. For example in chemistry, one of the targets of sustainable chemistry is to be able to design materials that you know you will be able to recycle or reuse. One easy way to reuse plastic materials is by burning them and make energy with them, so you use the oil that is contained in the materials and you use it to make energy. This is not recycling. Recycling means that you take the material and you make another object with it. This is quite difficult, for example now we know what to do with concrete rubbers, and you can reuse it for concrete or reuse it for construction. For plastic materials in some cases we know that it is easy to recycle, for instance with PVC: you can reuse it and make a PVC pipe. One of the targets of European projects is to find ways to recycle materials as much as we can.

BS: Question coming from Turkey. If we use hi-tech materials for insulation, do we not add to the problem of recycling?

MS: As I have said before, during one of the first questions, it is not simply recycling which makes something sustainable. You have to think about the length of use the lifecycle and if the house is properly insulated it will last much longer. Something that has a short lifetime you will need to recycle much quicker. The hi-tech material have lengthened the life of any part of the house or the house itself and currently all the researches that has been done on recycling is to find new ways of recycling. Until now you would recycle what we call down-cycling: you take a noble application, you take the material that comes out of it and you transform it into something that has less value. But now the trend is to do up-cycling and finding other ways of recycling, and if you add to the lifetime of building a house, a window, any part of the house, then you have many more chances to find suitable solutions to even lengthen further the life of a house.

BS: I would like to ask our experts about their day to day life at work.

MS: I started my career as a chemical engineer and I have chosen it simply because I like to know how things work. Being an engineer and a chemist is simply the best way to know how the world around us works. At the beginning of my career I have worked on research: you experiment in a lab, you have a project that you work on for a couple of years. After that I worked in applied technical field, which means you go to see companies to help them with technical questions because you can solve their problem (for example what type of material to use, of composition…) Now, in my latest development of my career I give advice to questions regarding health and the environment to some scientists and people like you and me.

JK: At the beginning of my careers I was a scientist, while doing my PHD in chemistry. I was working in a lab with some technicians (3-4 people) making experiments. The purpose of the research was not related to some specific application but to find out how things work and then I supported customers by answering their questions. Then I worked in Japan, I was the head of a lab in charge of building the lab. After that I came back and I was in charge of organizing the research program and was not anymore doing experiments in the lab. Now I am advising some chemical companies: I have to make reports, write conclusions or meet people of the European Institutions.

PDK: My background is Biology. After I finished my studies I worked in micro Biology lab at the University for three years and then I moved to work in the private sector. I was a technical advisor for clients to implement their businesses in the Biotechnology sector. I worked as technical development manager for a company developing biotech products and I worked in sales, marketing and business development later on for a larger company. After that I joined the European Federation of Chemical Industries. My job there is to take care of a number of activities for industries. It is a combination of organizing meetings for many chemical companies, to collect information, using this information in a form that can best be shared: it includes authorities, experts of the society and we indeed go very often outside to speak to people to explain what the chemical industry is doing about the local economy, etc. We develop views, opinions and collect information from the industries to share with authorities and society to develop a number of policies and strategies that are helping society.

BS: The next question comes from Portugal and says: Are there examples of multifamily buildings self-sustainable in energy?

PDK: There are across Europe a large number of pilot projects which are either like small villages or buildings with multi-storage, so it is collective residential construction. In fact the more people live together in a place, the more energy efficient is the construction, because you can have access to technologies which are really efficient geothermic. By having one very efficient unit, providing either electricity or energy to a significant number of residence, in fact you reduce all the losses. If you have all different houses with different boilers it is much more wasting rather than if you have many people living together sharing one big boiler. The trend is to go for a more collective area where you can have recycling units, waste management system, shared services and a good infrastructure. This is a very integral part of energy efficiency for the future by grouping services to collectivities.

BS: I want to ask now a general question: What kind of smart cities can we think of to improve the quality of life?

JK: Smart cities: the word smart means clever, intelligent and there are three main aspects in smart cities. One, of course, is energy efficient buildings (you want to spend less energy to heat or cool the building). The second one is the smart transportation (you want the smartest way to move around the city, with the best energy efficiency) and the third aspect is the quality of air. Smart also means that you understand what is going on, so it is important to know the amount of energy you are using: there are smart equipment to be used in a house, for example a “smart thermostat” on the heating device. This means that for example the heating will know when you are in the room and will only start heating when you are in the room. In a smart city you will think about how you will produce energy. If you produce it for a whole district it is more efficient than if you produce it for single people. You could use for example photovoltaic roofs which will collect energy. However, it is important that this energy can be stored. Sometimes you will not need electricity during the day, but during the night, so you store it and then you use it or send to somebody else.

BS: Another question coming from Portugal. Is there any solution based on permaculture, which will improve air quality in cities?

MS: I do not have an answer because permaculture is very new and a very exciting field of urbanism and architecture. Actually it is a philosophy of design of smart cities, taking advantage of nature and the laws of nature that means use whatever local resource you have. We have been talking about that in the chat since the beginning but we have been doing it without giving it a name. Permaculture aims to implement the laws of nature in a daily life by taking advantage of everything we have in our disposal. It is a very new field. Some architects and city planners are specializing in that. Personally I think that it has a great future.

PDK: On my smartphone I tried to find a good definition for Permaculture on Wikipedia, which says that it involves the conscious design of landscape but also urban area which combines in the best way human activity and nature. It is something combining human activity and nature, a real philosophy of life where you live in harmony with nature (for example you can have vegetable walls or vegetable roofs, which provide a lot of advantages like insulation of the roof, it contributes to the quality of air and it is locally produced.

MS: there are even train stations and airports that are starting to develop this with vegetal roofs in order to provide good insulation and good ventilation.

BS: next question comes from Czech Republic: Can materials be unhealthy or toxic for people after some time?

MS: If I answer to this question in the perspective of buildings and constructions, what is an unhealthy building? It is one that is not well ventilated and not well insulated. Something that we tend to do is that we want so much to preserve the energy and the heating and we tend not to ventilate our houses as we did before. Not to open windows can bring a lot of problems in the indoor space. This is a field that has to be developed to prevent any negative effect on the health of people. If we talk about the norms we have, very few materials that are still used in our houses that are very toxic materials because they have been eliminated long time ago. In Europe we have a very strict set of regulations that have to be followed.

JK: There some progress made in paintings. The paint designers design products (organic products) with a very low level of toxicity.

BS: Students from Portugal are asking: Is nanotechnology already used in renewable energy?

JK: The short answer is “Yes”. If you take for example lithium batteries; in these batteries you have some products which are responsible to store the energy. Some of these products are based on Nanotechnology as they are more efficient in saving even more energy. This is one example of the use of nanotechnology for renewable energy.

BS: the next question comes from Italy and says: What do you think about Toronto PATH, the underground city. Can it be considered a smart city? Could it be realistic to build it in Europe?

PDK: I was checking on Wikipedia the configuration of the PATH, even a map of the PATH. In terms of heating it must be energy efficient but of course, as it is underground you need to take care of the ventilation, you need to switch so many lights on, so I am not sure about the lifecycle of the PATH, you have to consider all the aspects, I am not sure how pleasant it is to do shopping in an underground! Here in Europe we have more moderate climate than in parts of Canada, so we would probably not need that. In Europe we definitely have to consider renewable lightening so zero energy consumption for lightening for example through using optical fibres instead of LED. The ventilation should be passive ventilation and not big fans. I could even say that if you are generating a lot of heat, it might even be that a complex like this needs to be cooled instead of heated. So it is important to look on the engineering side of all these investments including the waste management.

BS: Two questions very similar are coming from Slovakia and Turkey. Students are asking: How would we deal with pollution in smart cities? New pollution and the one already created in the past. How do we respond to the lack of water in smart cities?

JK: There will be always less and less use of energy because you will have efficient buildings regarding heating, you will have smart transportation including public transportation and electric cars. Most of the pollution is coming from emission from either the buildings or from the cars/transportations. This technology could be used to reduce the pollution of the cities. Another point is the water consumption. People should be aware that water is not free and should not waste it. And a way to use less water is to recycle it. We have to recycle the water that we use for the shower or the bath for example, and this is something that architects are working on at the moment, in order to find ways to make the water consumption more efficient.

BS: Students from Portugal are asking: Knowing the lack of fresh water, why aren’t buildings equipped with a tank to storage rain water for the toilets and for watering gardens?? Is this possible? Is this too expensive?

MS: There are more and more people who are installing tanks for individual houses, so that they can be self-sufficient. This is a very good and not too expensive solution and the next step will be to implement it for large buildings.

BS: Is there anything you would like to tell to the students, any message you would like to give them on their way to become a scientists?

PDK: I think you are going to live a great time, because we are now at a turn-point like we were probably forty or fifty years ago, because to move to next stage of resource management, energy and waste management there will be a need for intensification of research and development, a changing in lifestyle, new design and consuming the least of possible resource. We would need one and a half planets to cover the same resources for everybody, and if you compare the different regions, in order to live like we live in Europe we would need five planets, and to provide to the whole world population with the same life standards in energy like in the US we would need ten planets; So in no case we can continue with that level. And to do this shift we will need a huge development. There is a huge opportunity for you to participate in this shift so go do science, you will love it!

MS: Science is really fun, and if you want to understand how things really are, then there is nothing better than studying Sciences and Life Sciences. Chemistry, Biology, Science, really give you the perception that you are building something positive. It is a great career also for girls.

JK: There are many countries that suffer the lack of scientists so it would be a great job in the future, as we will need more and more scientists and engineers. Science can provide a lot of solutions to the problems of today, so you can be proud of what science can do to help humanity.

BS: In the name of Xperimania and inGenious I would like to thank the experts for their time and efforts in answering many questions today. Thank you very much also to the students for their active participation. If you would like to show your appreciation to the experts please click on the clapping icons.
Don’t forget to participate to the competition. You can find all the relevant information on the Xperimania website and we will link it to the inGenious website as well.