Professor Matti Kuittinen: 'Hey, take a break at the construction site!'

This column deals with construction reduction and is related to the Time out! exhibit. Check it out at Väre (address: Otaniementie 14, Espoo), Designs for a Cooler Planet, until 6 October 2023.
Matti Kuittinen seisoo pohdiskelevan näköisenä, leukaa käteensä nojaten valkoisen marmorikuvioisen kiviseinän edessä. Seinään muodostuu hänestä voimakas tumma varjo. Kuvaaja: Nita Vera.
Matti Kuittinen was photographed by Nita Vera.

“What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?” * American philosopher Henry Thoreau’s question is more relevant today than ever before. The environmental impacts of construction threaten the Paris Agreement on climate change and our efforts to stop the sixth mass extinction.

Half of the world’s annual consumption of raw materials and about 40 percent of energy consumption go towards the built environment. The construction industry also generates over one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions, and 90 percent of biodiversity loss results from raw material extraction. As our planet’s population continues to grow and more people can afford to live more comfortably, construction will consume more energy and materials. By the 2050s, the increased production of cement, steel, aluminium and plastics alone is expected to produce nearly double the emissions budget we have left if we’re to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Our planet cannot sustain current construction practices – a change in direction is urgently needed. Fortunately, the laws of nature do not prevent limiting emissions. Accomplishing that is largely a question of how we practise and profit from construction.

Laws and agreements are needed to correct the situation, but their effect is too slow to successfully limit emissions. We also need a change in values. That would guide our actions more quickly than regulations, which take years to come into effect. 

In developed countries with stable population growth, non-essential new construction should be postponed until we find sustainable construction solutions. In the meantime, we should focus on reusing existing buildings and renovating old ones.

Developing countries and areas recovering from wars or natural disasters should have the right to build their way out of poverty and misery. But even in these cases, construction has to fit within our shrinking  global emissions budget.

These principles may be difficult to accept. Why shouldn’t we enjoy a high standard of living and build new shopping centres? What would happen to employment, industry, and tax revenues if we started genuinely downshifting construction? And surely Finland doesn’t have to come up with solutions to the global problems of construction, right?

These questions are challenging. There are no easy answers, but answers must be found – and quickly. In the meantime, let’s pause construction wherever possible.

*From Thoreau’s Familiar Letters.

The author is an architect and Professor of Sustainable Construction at Aalto University. He previously worked at the Finnish Ministry of Environment, where he was responsible for the climate aspects of the construction law reform and developed a method for assessing the carbon footprint of buildings in Finland. Kuittinen is active in climate work in the construction sector in Europe and the Nordic countries.

This article has been published in the Aalto University Magazine issue 33, September 2023.

Read more about the Designs for a Cooler Planet Festival

Designs for a Cooler Planet 2023 hero image. Graphic design Veera Kemppainen.

Designs for a Cooler Planet

Open exhibitions and events in Otaniemi from 6 Sept to 6 Oct 2023 with the theme Invisible – what don't we see even though we should?

Designs for a Cooler Planet 2023 main visual with Events title.

Designs for a Cooler Planet 2023 – Events programme

Welcome and participate in Designs for a Cooler Planet 2023 through a variety of different events, from live talk shows to webinars, workshops and guided exhibition tours.

  • Published:
  • Updated:

Read more news

People sitting in a large lecture theatre
Research & Art, Studies Published:

ELLIS Distinguished Lectures bring outstanding AI researchers to greater Helsinki

Students can earn credits by attending the seminar series.
Research & Art Published:

Open Science Short News

Short summary of what is happening at Aalto and in the national Open Science Coordination.
Piirroskuvituksessa on siniasuinen mieshamo kumartuneena 3D-printterin ylle, kuvassa on myös maapallo, jonka yllä kulkee lentokone, sekä sormet, jotka pitelevät kuutiota, jossa lukee error!. Kuvitus: Studio Jenni & Jukka.
Aalto Magazine Published:

True or false? Space rockets can be made with a 3D printer

Assistant Professor Mika Salmi corrects common misconceptions about 3D printing. Salmi’s professorship focuses on sustainability in manufacturing.
Jaakko Honko -luennon 2023 pääpuhuja Kaisa Hietala
University Published:

Keynote speaker, Business Director Kaisa Hietala: We lack a definition of the value of nature

About 300 invitees and alumni took part in the lecture bearing the name of Chancellor Jaakko Honko