Why Digital Building Passports Are Vital for Change

Why Digital Building Passports Are Vital for Change

By Thomas Lützkendorf (Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, DE), Ursula Hartenberger (PathTo2050, BE), York Ostermeyer (Chalmers U, SE)

COP-26 is about showcasing action and replicable, practical solutions that will accelerate market transformation. Climate action must become incorporated into the regular activities of the construction and real estate sectors. The way to achieve this is to incentivise a systematic and transparent approach to building-related information which can accelerate and reward stakeholder action. The building passport can accomplish this by creating a “living document”. In first instance, governments should set an example by making building passports mandatory for public buildings and then consecutively roll it out across other building typologies and market segments.

A shift is needed from energy performance certificates (EPCs) to the more holistic approach of a building passport concept. The provision of accessible and high-quality information will enable optimised maintenance, refurbishment and general maintenance planning. It will reduce energy and material flows, extend the useful life span of the building and support circular economy principles. Among the performance criteria in question, carbon performance is undoubtedly extremely urgent.

In order to accelerate the decarbonisation of the building stock, carbon performance as a “hidden“ characteristic of buildings must be appropriately reflected in stakeholders’ decision-making and their data and information exchange with others.

Today’s discussions about the carbon performance of buildings bear all the hallmarks of past discussions in Europe when energy performance was also a “hidden” building characteristic. The subsequent introduction of EPCs was aimed at “unveiling” this hidden characteristic and at motivating owners to improve the energy performance of their buildings.

The roll-out of EPCs was transformative. EPCs made it possible for both developers and vendors to signal the energy performance of properties to third parties (signalling) and for prospective buyers or tenants to specifically search for corresponding properties with above-average energy performance (screening). This type of performance signalling and screening substantially reduces adverse selections caused by non-transparent, asymmetrical information.

However, at present energy performance certificates are still mainly used for transactions, i.e. renting or selling, and they ignore embodied energy (despite its significant share in the total energy consumption, especially in new buildings). Most importantly, EPCs are mostly static documents rather than a dynamic holistic reflection of a building’s history, condition and options for the future.

That raises the questions of whether it is sufficient to solely look at energy performance in transactions and to only focus on the operation of the building. Even if EPCs were to be expanded with information on GHG emissions, their ability to influence stakeholder activities and decision-making remains limited.

This is why a “digital building passport” has an important role: an extensive, continuously updated property information repository that accompanies the whole building life cycle and allows data and information sharing with value chain stakeholders. A detailed definition has been developed by the authors together with a dedicated stakeholder task force in the framework of a practical guideline for building passports prepared for the UNEP Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction.

As part of a digital building passport, energy consumption and other primary data can be gathered, evaluated and analysed to determine the actual GHG emissions and other pollutants during operation. The bill of materials / material inventory will support the life cycle based approach. Also results of life cycle based LCA can be “stored” in the building passport and updated during/after refurbishment.

Housing companies already link this type of information within their sustainability reporting.

A digital building passport would broaden the group of participants to include individual building owners and thus have a wide impact. This allows all those involved in the real estate sector the opportunity (i) to monitor their building’s performance and (ii) to create a process of continuous improvement toward (net) zero carbon.

The widespread adoption of the passport will facilitate market transformation through information sharing and improved information flows. It will help owners and other stakeholders to monitor progress towards mitigation targets.

At present most digital building passports are voluntary. Some are market-led, others are government-led. Government-led schemes clearly ensure impact and will create a harmonised approach. In first instance, governments should set an example by making it mandatory for public buildings to have a digital building passport and then consecutively roll it out across other building typologies and market segments.


European Commission. (2002). Directive 2002/91/EC of the Europen Parliament and of the Council of 16 December 2002 on the energy performance of buildings. Official Journal of the European Communities, 4.1.2003, L 1/65. https://bit.ly/3jdlVmI

European Commission. (2013). Energy performance certificates in buildings and their impact on transaction prices and rents in selected EU countries. Paris: Bio Intelligence Service. https://bit.ly/30EbylB

European Commission. (2021). Study on the development of an EU framework for digital building logbooks. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the EU. https://bit.ly/3DUKpt8

Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction & the UN Environment Progamme. (2021). The building passport: a tool for capturing whole life data in construction and real estate – practical guidelines. Nairobi: UNEP. https://bit.ly/3lNT8qG

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