How can the construction sector adapt to climate challenges? Gabriel Affentranger, a leadership team member at a pioneering company in this field, shares his knowledge.
With soaring raw material prices, rising energy costs and new climate-related regulations, the construction industry is facing new challenges. Based in Altbüron (LU), the family-owned business Affentranger Bau AG is setting an example through its long-standing commitment to sustainability. This SME, with 80 employees, has been recognized several times, for its innovative choices.
Your company has set a goal to become climate-neutral. Why?
Gabriel Affentranger: We are located in a rural area and we understand the value of green spaces, forests and good-quality water. Since our company was founded in 1978, it has been committed to using these resources responsibly and balancing social and economic interests. In addition, it is now possible to produce energy independently and sustainably through renewable energy sources. As a result, our company now has a positive energy balance of 194%. The installation of solar roofs and the gradual electrification of our vehicles and machinery have significantly contributed to this outcome.
Can you describe some of the measures you have taken so far?
Affentranger: In 2012, we installed a solar power system in our new service center in Altbüron (LU). This enabled us to take a big step towards climate neutrality. Another example: in 2015, we developed the world's first battery-powered 16-tonne electric excavator, which earned us the European Solar Prize. Today, we consume about 1.75 gigawatt hours (GWh) per year, including our various vehicles and eleven excavators and heavy construction machines, while producing 3.41 GWh from our solar installations. The surplus is equivalent to the energy required for 1,120 electric vehicles to travel 10,000 km per year.
Are these measures solely technical or also organizational?
Affentranger: It is always a combination of both measures. Technical aspects are easier to implement. For example, do I buy a diesel-powered vehicle or is there a similar option available for an electric car? Do I use a machine for its entire lifespan or do I rent or buy a new machine every three years? It is possible to find a reasonable way forward by considering both the ecological and the economic aspects of each of these questions that arise in the company.
Organizational measures are a little more challenging to implement. Every employee in the company must consider the ecological and economic aspects in their decision-making process. This corporate culture involves setting an example, training, informing and raising awareness on an ongoing basis. Thus, each department completes a short training session every month on a topic related to quality, safety and ecology: for example, vital rules in building construction or the components of materials that must be sorted and recycled. These training sessions encourage each employee to reflect and to make suggestions for improvement for the company.
How is this commitment perceived by your clients?
Affentranger: It is more often perceived in the private sector than in the public sector. However, price remains the main criterion, especially as increasing costs make construction less and less affordable for a large part of the population. Moreover, the energy balance criterion is not taken into account or is relegated to a mere excuse in public tenders or bids. This, in my opinion, illustrates an ever-widening gap between politics and society. The public is prepared to give more importance to the ecological aspect but lacks the necessary means, whereas the political arena has the means but pursues other priority objectives. We are, however, firmly convinced that our strategy is in line with the future of construction in economic, social and ecological terms.
You have been awarded the Swiss and European Solar Prize several times. What do these distinctions mean for the company?
Affentranger: This represents the recognition of a lot of hard work and dedication from all of our employees and especially from the company founder Markus Affentranger. Many extra hours were invested daily to achieve these awards. The Solar Prizes have also allowed us to expand our network and make contacts with like-minded companies and people.
Do you have any advice to give entrepreneurs who wish to embark on a similar path?
Affentranger: My first piece of advice is to start with small steps, taking into account both profitability and ecology to guide your choices. It is also important to raise awareness among employees and train them. Finally, it is important to take into account the opinions of others, but in the end, you should always decide for yourself what is best for your company.