Sustainable construction and Switzerland



Professor Dietrich Schwarz, Zürich 22.08.2019

The Earth System

An international and interdisciplinary research group around Will Steffen of the Stockholm Resilience Centre is developing a model which represents the Earth system ES as the comprehensive unit of nine planetary boundaries PB. The starting point is assumed to be the Holocene period since the last ice age 11’700 years ago, i.e. the most recent epoch (the blink of an eye) of Earth’s history, which is, however, decisive for the cultural history of mankind. The anthrobogenic (man-made) disturbances that have upset the Earth System ES since industrialisation, especially in the last century (a hundredth of a blink of an eye), are being studied. Four PBs are out of balance in ES: climate change, biosphere integrity, land system change (such as deforestation of large forest areas) and the biochemical flows of nitrogen and phosphorus from eutrophication and effluent from livestock and humans. Of these, biosphere integrity and biochemical flows are regarded of highest risk, as their irreversible effects have not yet been sufficiently researched.



We must recognize that we, as an industrialized society, are massively upsetting the earth system and that, in the very midst of this, architects and spatial planners, as a discipline with the greatest material transformation (and thus primarily responsible), are still indulging in platitudes of last century’s modernism. The architectural community itself has to undergo  a development of resilience before it can produce resilient designs. It must acknowledge its misconduct while not losing solution-oriented optimism. It must’nt see itself as a victim of external negative influences or unchangeable trends of the times, but rather take responsibility for its own mistakes. The architectural community must take up on networking with other disciplines, thus working its way out of the scientific deficit of its own discipline and acquiring the ability to plan for the future in a resilient manner.


Quality of Life as primary vision

All our activities as human beings should serve our quality of life.

If in the 20th century we acted according to the credo of unlimited freedom, today we must proclaim unpopular moderation. But instead of sufficiency, which wants to eliminate the unnecessary and tends to erase beauty and the joy of life, if not the meaning of life, I plead for a concentration, one’s own and one’s own creation. In contrast, this concentration doesn’t lead to impoverishment, but to a condensation of cultural creation. Culture is the concentration of knowledge and ability, its preservation over time and its communication through the work of art. For concentration, we need the ideal which, as a lighthouse, points the way in the far distance. In order to recognize the ideal in the future, we recite the knowledge of the past, of our culture. The ideal of boundless freedom of the last century will be followed by a return to our traditions and identities, innovately being worked on. A culture of condensing to the essential.

We must not disregard empathy, our sense of belonging, our sense of being affected. For what good is individualisation if it leads to loneliness and freedom to evanescence – and ends in nothingness. Again it is the concentration on the true values – the community, without which man cannot live at all. But also the will to recognize, preserve and communicate one’s own ideal.

Sustainability is not an ideology, it reacts to a real situation, it demands a correction in case of a persistent deficit in our behaviour. This gives it a realisticand constantly changing approach. The aim is not to save the world, but to recognise ourselves as part of the good whole and behave as such. This is how quality of life is created.


Broad basis – Great leverage – Decisive effect

The debate on sustainable development depends on time and place. The resulting concepts are therefore not a global panacea for all time, but must be developed and constantly refined by each society through a broad political discourse.

The development of our society and economy should therefore not be viewed one-sidedly or determined by abstract science. Rather, it should be supported by a broad consensus among the population, the sovereign and the economy. This provides the movement with the necessary legitimacy and vitality to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Direct democracy helps us in Switzerland in this respect.

The results of recent referendums, be they popular initiatives, counter-proposals or referenda, display in a simple way where the shoe pinches in society, what fears many people are subliminally concerned about, but also that they are prepared to redefine our political and social framework and actively shape the future.


Five relevant and measurable pairs of themes replace the rigid three-pillar model

Five pairs of topics of economic relevance, so-called “requirement themes”, are derived from this. These are easy to understand and communicate, because they correspond to real needs. They are interwoven, mutually dependent and mutually reinforcing.

Sustainable building

Sustainable building is closely related to all issues of need. Accordingly, sustainable building has a decisive, positive impact on society. The aim is to increase the quality of life of all social groups.

Research Questions

Specific research in the sub-areas of the individual topic pairs and the corresponding special disciplines is already well advanced. However, a conclusive link to the research discipline with a focus on programmatic architecture and resilient urban development is largely lacking. Exciting research questions can be derived from this gap.

  • In what forms can a resilient settlement of twelve billion people as consumers within a world as hosts be structured?
  • How do resilient building forms and settlement structures develop against the background of different cultures and their traditions?
  • How can the built city transform itself from an energy consumer to an energy producer?
  • How can a contemporary building be constructed using energy-saving transformation methods?
  • How do we achieve shrinking settlement areas and what consequences does this have for the settlement structure? With which urban interventions do we achieve this transformation?
  • With which principles for the city and the buildings do we achieve settlement density?
  • What does it mean for urban development to understand the city as part of the landscape?
  • Which settlement structures allow an optimal coexistence or interlocking of housing and food production?
  • How does the “urban entity” transform when settlement expansion turns and “agriculture” expands from the landscape into the city, be it through urban farming or industrial food production?
  • What programmatic measures must be taken in the functional and spatial programme to strengthen social structures in such a way that the sharing of (life) time is promoted instead of financial compensation?
  • How can existing building types change from modernist segregation to sustainable integration?
  • How is the building culture influenced when qualitative densification is given priority over quantitative expansion?
  • How can changed risk structures in “sustainable building” lead to incentive-efficient financing solutions?


The EPFL is a university with an excellent reputation. This is due to its widely diversified faculties and its excellent track record. If sustainable construction is to develop and assert itself as a comprehensive and forward-looking discipline, it needs a broad academic base and a first-class standing, also in Switzerland. The EPFL with its seven faculties can offer this in an ideal way for teaching and research. It will be the great opportunity of sustainable designto build credible bridges between the faculties through the common content. I see the professorships advertised in the fields of urban and territorial design, as well as theory of architecture and the environment, in conjunction with the already existing successful professorships of the colleagues Marilyne Andersen, Dolaana Khovalyg, Jean-Louis Scartezzini and Emanuel Rey, as a creative nucleus within the Institute of Architecture, hopefully with viral radiance both internally and externally.


I. Requirement Theme: Resources and Energy

Energy Strategy 2050: vote on the Energy Act

On 21 May 2017 the electorate adopted the revised Energy Act. It aims to reduce energy consumption, increase energy efficiency and promote renewable energies. In addition, the construction of new nuclear power stations is prohibited. Switzerland can thus reduce its dependence on imported fossil fuels and strengthen domestic renewable energies. This creates jobs and investment in Switzerland.  All texts relating to the votes are taken from the official sources of the Confederation.


Strategy: Efficiency and Renewables

The construction industry is the largest consumer of resources and energy. Accordingly, this law has a major impact on sustainable construction. Three strategies lead to the goal in construction activity. An improved building envelope reduces thermal energy consumption in winter and summer. More advanced building technology enables more efficient use of energy for the comfort of the occupants, thereby reducing electricity consumption. In the near future, photovoltaic surfaces with decentralised battery storage systems will serve as a renewable energy source for the increased demand for electricity. These will be integrated into the settlement area itself and under no circumstances into the landscape (need topic: food and health). Logically, these three strategies are not in competition with each other, but complement each other.

This targeted restructuring and further development of outdated infrastructures and technologies strengthens the domestic economy and, through innovation, promotes Switzerland as a centre of knowledge and the export economy, both of which create sustainable jobs at all qualification levels, from semi-skilled workers to highly specialised nanophysicists.

However, the renewal and preservation of the Swiss building stock should not lead to it being ploughed up and valuable infrastructure being destroyed. Rather, appropriate and targeted interventions will ensure the optimal use of energy and resources for the forthcoming transformation of Switzerland’s building stock and, ultimately, its value retention.


Indicators: Resources and Energy

– 1. operating energy

– 2. grey energy (LCA)

– 3. renewable energy (PV, wind, hydro, geothermal) > space (where?)


II. Requirement Theme: Space and Mobility


Vote on the amendment of the Spatial Planning Act


On 3 March 2013, the Swiss electorate voted in favour of the revision of the Spatial Planning Act. This will help to slow down urban sprawl. The revision stops land degradation, ensures more compact settlement development and keeps Switzerland attractive as a place to live and work.


Strategy: Density and Networking

The construction industry is also the largest consumer of space and landscape, so the influence on spatial planning and construction is also evident in this law. With this referendum, the Swiss population wants to protect the remaining landscape in order to ensure a certain degree of self-sufficiency in food, fodder, timber and fuel. At the same time, the landscapes will be preserved as a diverse habitat for local recreation.

A paradigm shift is called for by spatial planners, town planners and architects. The primacy of the settlement area, the associated infrastructure and the resulting land consumption of the construction industry over the landscape is to be overcome. The city and the landscape, including its inhabitants and their needs, are mutually dependent and complementary. This is, moreover, a cornerstone of Switzerland’s self-image.

Settlement areas in towns and villages should be densified in strategically well developed locations in order to reduce the increasing volume of traffic. This will automatically lead to better networking between these areas. No new green spaces will be claimed for this purpose, but existing brownfields or underused centres will be converted. As a consequence, the peripheral agglomerations should lose their attractiveness and, if possible, be led back to green space. Just as in energy policy, a turnaround is also to be achieved in settlement development.

The population should grow in these potential, well developed areas and thus ensure the prosperity of the Swiss economy. This is ensured by existing or specifically developed infrastructures. This applies appropriately to both urban and rural centres, but these should not be confused with metropolitan areas. The latter tend to expand unchecked and swallow up sub-centres in their suburbs. Rather, the identities of the centres and especially of the sub-centres should be strengthened.

For the forthcoming electrification of individual transport, the necessary electricity production with renewable energy sources must be built up in addition to the challenges for the rest of the energy system transformation (need topic: resource and energy). The existing infrastructure areas of the railway lines and national roads are suitable for this purpose. The short-term storage capacity of the vehicles is able to compensate for daily fluctuations, but not for seasonal fluctuations. These must be absorbed by existing, new pumped storage facilities or large-scale geothermal plants.


Indicators: Space and Mobility

– 4. density in relation to settlement size

– 5. networking of infrastructure and settlement (development quality class)

– 6. food production in the settlement area (zone plan) > food


III. Requirement Theme: Food and Health

Alternative draft to the popular initiative “For food security”

On 24 September 2017, the electorate accepted the counter-proposal of the Council of States to the popular initiative “For food security” of the Farmers’ Union.

The article covers the entire food chain from field to plate. It comprises the following five pillars, which are of particular importance for food security

1) The agricultural production bases such as cultivated land, water and know-how must be secured.

2) food production must be adapted to local conditions so that ecosystems are not overloaded.

3) the Swiss agricultural and food industry must be better able to assert itself on the market.

4) Good trade relations with foreign countries are central to food security.

5) In Switzerland, around one third of food ends up in waste.


Strategy: Permaculture and Industrial Farming

Agriculture produces food for the population, but in return it cultivates the landscape. As a result of Switzerland’s growing population, the accompanying growth in settlement and the corresponding land consumption, food sovereignty was already abandoned 100 years ago. Today, domestic food production is only able to cover about half of the local demand.

The first thing to do is to reduce the pressure of settlement (need for space and mobility) on the landscape. Another goal must be to make agriculture more environmentally compatible through ecological approaches without necessarily sacrificing yield. At the same time, however, expectations of natural food production must be lowered. We achieve this by means of additional, industrialised food production in urban areas. This concerns sustainable construction.

To increase efficiency, we have been operating large-scale monocultures in recent decades, but because these are very susceptible to pests and diseases, this susceptibility is countered with pesticides and genetic manipulation, and in fattening with antibiotics. An alternative to this is the well-known permaculture, where natural, resistant ecosystems with the highest possible level of biodiversity are strived for, in keeping with natural models such as forests and lakes. These permacultures are, due to their higher labour intensity and the light equipment, on the one hand very suitable for small-scale family farms, on the other hand for the integration of poorly trained workers and for urban, neighbourhood cooperatives.

Industrial vegetable production is already practised today in multi-storey greenhouses in Europe, often with hydroponics in highly efficient, closed cycles. The consequence is clear: agriculture is leaving the landscape and is instead being practised in settlement areas, whether in industrial zones or in the residential zones themselves. This potential of intensive urban food production is ten times more efficient than current agriculture. It would therefore also be possible to regain food sovereignty in Switzerland. But here we are still at the very beginning.

Phosphate pollution is just as damaging to the biosphere of lakes and oceans as CO2 emissions are to the global climate. This pollution is caused by the waste water of humans and farm animals. The Water Institute of the ETH, EAWAG, can demonstrate research successes and pilot projects that meet this challenge through urine separation, or the NoMix technology. This pioneering technology simultaneously produces biological liquid fertilizer and material for soil upgrading. In combination with the above-mentioned industrial food production, it is now possible to close a further and very decisive cycle for the relief of the global biosphere through human civilisation.

In addition, the distances from food production to the customer are to be shortened, and direct sales can reduce expensive margins and unnecessary food waste by the wholesaler. This also enables farmers and food producers to achieve fair prices for ecological and sustainable production. Last but not least, our eating habits with too much meat must be reconsidered. With this consideration we leave the boundaries of the built city or the built landscape and rightly include the human being with his responsibility and his nature more strongly.

When it comes to health, we have definitely arrived at the human being and yet all too often we operate with expensive infrastructure instead of free care. The Swiss population receives the highest level of medical care. At the same time, this highly developed healthcare system causes costs to soar. The reasons for this are rising life expectancy and the so-called diseases of civilisation. In Switzerland, it is increasingly important to counteract the origin of the diseases instead of further inflating the health care system with expensive medical symptom treatment. To this end, special attention must be paid to healthy nutrition in connection with sensible food production and demographic integration in connection with new forms of society (needs issue: demography and integration).


Indicators: Food and Health

– 7. biodiversity in the landscape and in urban areas

– 8. industrial food production – closing the waste water cycle

– 9. healthy diet and exercise > health


IV. Requirement Theme: Demography and Integration

Vote on the Federal Act of 19 May 2019 on Tax Reform and AHV Financing

In the referendum of 19 May 2019, Swiss voters approved the Federal Law on Tax Reform and OASI Financing (STAF) with 66.4 % in favour and 33.6 % against.

The tax reform is intended to preserve the attractiveness and competitiveness of Switzerland as a business location and to safeguard jobs and tax revenues in the medium to long term. In addition, the AHV bill will generate urgently needed additional revenue and thus contribute to securing pensions.

Popular initiative “Against mass immigration”

Referendum of 9 February 2014. The popular initiative “Against Mass Immigration” was adopted on 9 February 2014 by a narrow majority of 50.3% of the Swiss people and cantons.


Strategy: New Communities

The real estate industry produces forms of housing that were in demand in the second half of the last century. On the one hand, these are family apartments for small families and small apartments for senior citizens or single people. The networking within these conventional forms of housing is neglected. On the other hand, when care is needed, homes for the elderly, the disabled, children’s homes, refugee homes are built. In this way, unhealthy segregation is promoted (need topic: food and health). Sustainable building promotes networked forms of housing, such as multi-generational houses, integrative communities and targeted neighbourhood management.

In terms of old-age provision and the health system, we organise sustainable financing, but not care that is tailored to people’s needs. The Swiss population is getting older, but not happier. The baby boomers, currently an important basis of our social services, will be receiving care services in thirty years at the latest, perhaps there will be enough money, but definitely not enough people to take care of the elderly and dying. It is not difficult to see that the model of state-organised social services must be flanked by individual, private solutions if we want to avoid collapse and inhumane conditions.

In the past two generations, the individualisation of society has dissolved existing family structures, today there are more and more households with two or only one person, and there are also more and more single parents. Especially in the area of care and nursing, new forms of society must replace the former extended family structures. Neighbourhood must be lived in suitable forms of housing and empathy between individuals must be encouraged. This is the only way to create a basis for neighbourly help, which in turn is the basis of every social form of society. These new communities need professional management, similar to the matriarchy of an original extended family. Social work is thus shifting from the offices to the new forms of community.

Globalization not only generates enormous flows of goods, it also mobilizes a large number of people. Refugees act out of social and economic need, while so-called expatriates mostly follow economic commitments. In both cases, locals and newcomers meet each other. It is important to promote settlement structures, forms of living and working in which neighbourhood and getting to know one another have their place, as well as cultural freedom, diversity and identity.

Among other things, a low unemployment rate serves the cause of social peace, and this can be achieved with sustainable jobs (need topic: conservation of value and affordability). These in turn will be created in the relevant areas of a sustainable economy.

Indicators: Demography and Integration

– 10. multi-generational communities and care for the needy

– 11. integration of immigration through inclusive communities

– 12. identities through home, home through integration


V. Requirement Theme: Value Retention and Viability

Popular initiative “For a sustainable and resource-efficient economy”

On 25 September 2016, Swiss voters voted on the popular initiative “For a sustainable and resource-efficient economy” and rejected it outright.

The initiative demanded that the Confederation, cantons and municipalities take measures to ensure that the economy uses resources efficiently and protects the environment as far as possible. By 2050, Switzerland should reduce its consumption of resources to such an extent that it no longer exceeds the earth’s natural capacity.


Strategy: Sustainability and appropriateness

If we use our economic productivity and financial capacity to meet the first four needs, we are also economically on a long-term path to achieving our goals. This also applies to the construction industry, of course.

Over the next two generations, Switzerland will have to retrofit and retrofit the entire building stock in an energy-efficient manner, to redensify it and to prepare it for the challenges facing society. This calls for a common political will, but also for the economical use of private and public funds. It is therefore essential to focus on relevant issues of sustainable development and to promote development steps in instalments.

Financial sustainability is at the heart of this. Neither the state nor the private sector should become overindebted. This braking effect is welcome and ensures the necessary seriousness and reflection in construction activity. Particular attention should be paid to maintaining the value of the building substance, not only for economic reasons but also for cultural reasons. It would be an architectural mistake if we wanted to meet the challenges exclusively through new buildings. We must take care of the identity-creating features of our homeland and understand that not every generation has to reinvent itself. It makes sense to understand traditions as accumulated knowledge and to continue them. Sustainable building means durability and careful maintenance, intelligent design enables recycling, both together create a sustainable real value.

Building always has a social and cultural component in addition to the economic component of the investor. Think of European cities as real treasure troves, but also of the public spaces, squares and parks that shape our social life and self-image.


Indicators: Value Retention and Viability

– 13. long-term return (LCC)

– 14. durability and recycling

– 15. renewal and upgrading