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OVERVIEW | New skills for a sustainable and energy efficient EU building stock

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The construction sector has a large potential for cost effective energy savings. With the EU planning aimed at nearly zero energy target for new buildings by 2020, the construction sector is confronted with the urgent need to upskills its workforce.


This need implies both meeting the targets and learning how to use innovative approaches and technology solutions to keep high quality of construction and increase the building energy efficiency.


A proper managing of the whole construction process ensures effective interactions among the players in the value chain, enabling to reduce the gap between theoretical and actual performances.


Energy efficiency and digitalisation have emerged as two of the most influential drivers affecting the workers upskill in the construction industry.


This, especially in consideration to the fact that stringent energy efficiency targets and increasing demand for sustainable construction solutions are bringing a meaningful transformation of the needed skills.


Such transformation of skills is required during all stages of the building process, from planning to design, construction, maintenance and renovation, and in case demolition.


More specifically, some of the skills acquiring greater importance include process engineering, integrated planning, interdisciplinary communication, lean construction management, ICT/digital-base approach, knowledge of renewable energy and energy efficiency implementation from technology and impact point of view.


Naturally, aligning the competences of the workers to the requirements imposed both by policy drivers and market demand will ultimately result in a more productive, profitable and competitive construction sector.


Looking at the design stage, designers are facing the challenge, not only to predict the building performance (energy demand, indoor comfort, protection from the climate, etc.) but also to establish a degree of interaction between the occupant and the building that cannot be taken for granted. 


The construction sector is constantly dealing with new technologies and materials and building facility managers are called to handle the innovative solutions embedded in in building so that it performs as nominally designed, probably lacking the skills and knowledge to do so.


This has effectively resulted in the need to bridge the energy performance gap in energy efficient buildings, resulting from the construction sector embarking in the route of energy efficiency and decarbonisation.


This transition has prompted a transformation within the building sector that requires the acquisition of new skills.


However, the introduction of new skills in the construction sector is associated with several barriers, some of which are listed below.


  1. The decrease in the number of young skilled workers are probably influenced by a negative image of the construction sector (security, low wages, etc.).
  2. The ageing of the construction sector’s workforce has been recorded as a continuous issue. providing additional barriers for the integration of new skills in the industry.
  3. Migration of highly skilled workers from countries with lower wages to countries with higher wages can create a shortage of high-skilled workers in the former.
  4. The misalignment between vocational education trainings and the demand for skills on the construction labour market slows down the upgrade and development of the sector, leaving workers with often outdated skills.


While the question of which new skills are needed is wide open, the BUILD UP Skills initiative, coordinated by the Executive Agency for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (EASME), was set up in 2011 to boost education and training in construction.


Its primary aim is to increase the number of qualified workers across Europe to deliver building renovations, which offer high-energy performance as well as new, nearly zero-energy buildings.


This initiative funded 30 projects in 2011-2012 to gather key stakeholders from the energy, education, training and building sectors in ‘National Qualification Platforms’.


The platforms mapped the existing workforce, qualification programmes, gaps and barriers, and future skills needs. On this basis, national roadmaps were developed.


One of the main findings within the BUILD UP Skills initiative was that 3 million workers in Europe would need training on energy efficiency and renewable technologies by 2020.


In 2013-2014, a second batch of 22 projects was funded to turn the national roadmaps into action. This was achieved by designing new qualifications and training schemes and improving existing ones. In this context, more than 8 500 people across Europe were trained in 805 pilot courses.


From 2014 onwards, the Horizon 2020 Framework Programme provided continued support to BUILD UP Skills initiative. The focus was shifted to large-scale international qualification and training schemes, while also addressing professions (engineers, architects, building managers, etc.).


The EU contribution to BUILD UP Skills since 2011 amounts to EUR 38 million, showing the importance of the EU commitment in this field. Some of these projects are listed in the following.


-The FIT-TO-NZEB, have been focusing on understanding which competencies are required and it has attempted to develop taxonomies of new required energy-efficiency related competencies.


-The BUStoB pro­ject has approached to fill the skills gap with the introduction of training modules covering a range of subjects related to green skills for the building and installation workforce


-The platform BuildUpSkillsNL contributes to the energy transition with a particular focus on new skills required by construction workers. The mission of BUS-NL was to make sure that future Dutch workers in the construction and installation sectors would be ready for a future with (near) zero energy buildings in a sustainable built environment.


-The ingREeS project offers education and training programmes for middle and senior level engineers and construction professionals, the main target group of the project, while covering the following professions identified in both roadmaps as key for achieving the EU 2020 energy targets.


-MEnS is a project conceived to provide or improve the near-zero-energy-building professional’s skills. It is an aid for building managers, engineers, and architects and it is delivered through a series of accredited training activities.


-There is also the PROF/TRAC European Qualification Scheme on nZEB skills which targets higher degree professionals. This framework constitutes a solid basis to compare the nZEB skills required by the different professions and from one country to another. This provides an extensive library of nZEB-related courses.


-The Train-to-NZEB project aims to provide training to improve the knowledge and skills in the construction sector and to provide practical training, demonstrations and a comprehensive consulting service for the design and construction of Nearly Zero-Energy Buildings (NZEB) supported by RES, based on the Passive House concept.


For the coming years, the focus will be on boosting the demand for skilled building professionals. The Horizon 2020 Secure, clean and efficient energy Work Programme for 2019-2020 is currently welcoming proposals in this field.


These proposals are expected to develop market level actions and/or support legislative changes.


The digitalisation of the building sector is a skill that keeps attracting attention and raises new questions.


Digital skills, and how to go about them and where will they take the building sector has been examined recently in the Skills event at CONSTRUMAT’19, where several experts from the construction sector and the European Commission gathered to answer such questions and develop guidelines to inform policymakers.


The proceedings to such event and the presentations are published in the BUILD UP Skills section and EASME website


Among the certainties, one is that digital attitude in the building sector has been increasing over recent years, but it is necessary it continues to increase and improve in the future.


One tangible example is the even larger use of building information modelling (BIM) which allows not only an enhanced systematic approach for quality control of the entire process, it also facilitates the change of the scale and scope of focus within a building-related project.


BIM can manage neighbourhood scale design for planning purposes but is also very useful when designing low to zero carbon technologies, such as district heating at a development level.


A digital environment allows to hold constructive detailing information that can be later used in the construction phase and reach a 1:1 scale of specific constructive detail for tendering purposes.


The principal benefit of BIM is that it allows the efficient progress throughout the lifecycle of an architectural project from design through construction to closeout and beyond, safeguarding information and integrating different stakeholder requirements in a common data environment.


Later in the buildings’ life cycle, the same detail can be used as a source of information for maintenance and retrofitting activities.


A number of projects currently funded under the BUILD UP Skills initiative are developing  BIM related skills qualification frameworks as well as competencies training: these are the Net-UBIEP , BIMplement, BIMEET and BIMcert projects.


Digitalisation has achieved an important point for performance prediction, with the introduction of Building Energy Modelling (BEM) in the design of buildings. BEM tools and processes can be used to simulate energy performance, evaluate energy needs and optimize architectural design.


Knowing how to use BEM is a skill that is getting attention from designers in recent years and has also been enabled by the update of climate data.


The combination of both leads to another aspect of building energy efficiency and defines a new approach to translate between Building Information Modelling (BIM) and Building Energy Modelling (BEM) so called BIM2BEM.


The BIM2BEM approach integrates BEM and BIM and leads to the design and construction of more adaptable buildings that can cope with evolving environmental policies.


In the construction and operation of buildings, digitalisation has become more open to the use of sensor and digital platforms for sharing data. This way, stakeholders of a building (such as designers, building managers, owners, occupants, owners, etc.) can share data and inform decisions in a continuous communication channel.


This is the case not only for the increased attention to the post-occupancy evaluation of buildings, but also to the development of platforms such as the one from the ExcEED project, collecting an actual building’s energy performance data and providing information to designers, energy managers and policymakers.


The building sector faces several challenges in embedding a process of digitalisation. However, there appears to be many questions as to what tools are needed and therefore what skills.


The required transformation of the building stock (energy efficiency, renewable resources integration, building simulation, optimization of building simulation) to achieve carbon emissions targeted by governments is a key challenge in the agenda of the European Commission


While it is claimed that digital technologies are necessary to achieve energy efficiency, there are several obstacles to overcome and questions yet to answer.


The question of what skills are needed is immediately correlated to how such skills will be facilitated to those who may have been working differently up until now.


Adaptation is required not only at the educational level but also in the day-to-day work environment.  


Projects such as Fit-to-NZEB create tools to fill the gap and have also developed courses where technology is translated for those hand-on-hand with the operational tasks.


Finally, other projects such as CraftEdu and NEWCOM work by setting up national qualification and training schemes for craftspeople in an attempt to completely close the gap between strategic and operational labour in the construction process.


A common approach to skills needs to be adopted in order to allow a robust transformation of the building sector.


Digitalisation is on its way and the training of skilled workers needs to be a parallel and important task, as well as the creation of a platform of qualified trainers that can support the adoption of innovation.


The EU-funded projects are designed and implemented such notable upskilling programmes to turn this ambition into a viable reality across Europe.