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Professor Matti Kuittinen: ‘I want to bring hope back to construction’

Professor of Sustainable Construction Matti Kuittinen returned to Aalto University after several years as Senior Ministerial Adviser in the Ministry of the Environment. He wants to be part of a major change in the construction industry and help educate the experts of the future.
Lyhythiuksinen mies sinisenharmaa pikkutakki yllään katsoo kameraan

What is your professorship all about?

‘My work focuses on how to make construction support the Sustainable Development Goals and fit within the carrying capacity of the planet. In all construction, we need to put our money where our mouth is and share resources better. This can be called for in the name of fairness: those of us who are doing well need to moderate our use of materials to sustainable levels. Of course, change is difficult at the level of our consumption patterns, our politics and our personal lives.

But the good news is that because the volumes of construction are so huge, even small fixes can make big, environmentally significant changes. We need to be knowledgeable about what materials to build with, how to combine them and how to enable buildings to have the longest and most adaptable life cycle possible – and how to recycle materials at the end of that life cycle. This is very practical work, so it's about how you design and build, and how you minimise waste.’ 

What brought you back to Aalto?

‘I had always thought that at some point I would definitely come back. Now, conveniently, a call for professorship opened up and I decided to apply. Of course, it's sad to leave the Ministry of the Environment because of the good working atmosphere, colleagues and future prospects. But there is another side to it: there are many gaps in the research work there, i.e. there is a constant need for more researched data about sustainable construction. There is also a glaring shortage of talent in the field, and I want to educate them.’

What are the highlights of your career?

‘Back in the day, when I got the chance to study architecture, I was happy because it was my childhood dream and the greatest thing I could imagine. Another highlight was when, in the dramatic situation after the earthquake in Haiti, I was able to plan the rebuilding of schools. We innovated and implemented a lot of solutions there, including using crushed concrete and seeing what you can do with it.

One of the highlights is undoubtedly that I have been able to be involved in creating Finnish construction legislation and helping Finland to become a pioneer in sustainable construction. In Finland, we not only have a carbon footprint, but also, by law, a carbon handprint, which means that we aim to achieve a positive environmental impact in construction. This is unique on a global scale.’

What do you research and why? 

‘I study the climate and environmental impact of construction, its circular economy and architecture that remains within the limits of the planet. These issues are of great interest to me because construction is using the largest amount of raw materials with growing consumption, and the consumption of resources in construction causes significant damage on climate. Without changes in construction industry, the Paris Agreement targets will not be met. Architectural creativity is needed to solve these problems. Designers are needed, to interpret and develop the facts further.

I believe that climate action cannot be just a confession of sins, but that in addition to being as little bad as possible, we must also be as good as possible: that we reduce the harms and increase the benefits. Both are needed. This is also characteristic of Finland's pioneering spirit. We are finally beginning to see the same echoes in European Union legislation. EU representatives have been invited a lot to the Nordic forums in this field and I believe that they have noticed this development and are taking note of it.

The EU's recent New European Bauhaus initiative is also a great idea – to broaden the way in which the construction sector is governed. Given the scale of the challenges, we need a broader role also for design and the creative industries. The construction industry needs a moment of enlightenment, a change in values, so that change really happens. What's great is that the new Bauhaus initiative provides inspiring role models and can help to set different, new goals.’

It would be great to get construction industry developed to a state where it is part of the solution, whereas now it's part of the problem."

Professor Matti Kuittinen

What issues are topical in your field right now? 

‘The situation caused by Russia is catastrophic also for climate action, and the role of the United Nations has been weakened. The global situation can cause anxiety and despair. For my part, I try to empower students with the idea that it is possible to do something – we can do something. In addition to feeling bad about it all, we need inspiration.

In the context of legislation, it is timely that Finland and the Nordic countries are introducing climate guidance for construction, which will affect the design, materials and practices of construction. Another guiding factor is Finland's carbon neutrality target for 2035, which is coming fast – and a year ago it was discovered that carbon sinks in Finland have disappeared. There's not much time to find a political consensus to save them, so that means more emission reductions will have to be made by other sectors of society.

The construction industry can be a key factor here: what means do we have to make buildings both carbon storages and carbon sinks. So, the aim is not only to reduce emissions, but also to increase carbon sinks. Carbon can be stored both in natural materials and by technical means. We have investigated these and found a total of 13 different ways of storing carbon in the built environment. Some are ancient, such as wood construction, vegetation or biochar. Some are new, such as artificial photosynthesis or CO2-cured concrete. Here at Aalto University we are exploring all of this and trying to find solutions and get them to the industry.’

What are your expectations for the future of your field?

‘I would like to bring hope back to construction. There could still be a healthy belief in the future, which was there during modernism, but which has now been overshadowed by the problems. It would be great to get construction industry developed to a state where it is part of the solution, whereas it now is part of the problem. This is my mission.

You have to be realistic, of course. Doing more is not the way to improve the situation, but instead we have to reduce consumption and at the same time create a better environment that also creates more wellbeing. If the walls and everything in this empty room could support our action for the planet, then architecture would have succeeded.’

Why should one study the field?

‘There are plenty of exciting prospects in the field: a new construction law is on the way, and new sustainable construction experts and designers are needed. There are also ambitious national and EU carbon neutrality targets. The carbon footprint of construction industry is huge, so change agents are needed.

Globally, half of all raw materials are used in construction on an annual basis. The world's population is growing, the urban area is increasing – all this is totally unsustainable for the planet. Construction is the best way to change the way we do things, so that the big change can happen. It's also motivating: in terms of volume, construction can do good for the planet much more easily than many other industries.’

What else are you interested in? 

‘I'm active in oriental martial arts, taekwondo in particular has long been a hobby I've loved. I also grow grapes on the land, riesling and beta, and make my own wine.’

Fact box: 

Position: Professor of sustainable construction at Aalto University’s School of Arts, Design and Architecture from 1 July 2023 

Background: Construction Advisor at the Ministry of the Environment 2016–2023 

Education: PhD in Engineering, Aalto University (2016) 

Age: 50 

Hobbies: martial arts, outdoor activities 

Contact: 

[email protected], +358 50 594 7990

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