A new institute researching renewable materials for sustainable buildings has been founded in Slovenia thanks to a COST Action on bio-based materials in construction. The Action connected the institute’s pioneers with research ideas, future staff and an essential start-up grant.
Bio-based materials could reduce the construction industry’s carbon footprint and boost rural economies where these products are grown. But can hemp or flax fibres reduce the amount of concrete in buildings? How can wood improve building interiors and the well-being of the people inside? Reliable data and performance tests could answer these questions and more, giving Europe’s building sector the confidence to use bio-based materials more widely.
The COST Action ‘Performance of Bio-based Building Materials’ addressed gaps in this area. The Action coordinated research on the performance of bio-based materials in buildings, on mould resistance, on staining and decay, and on assessing their environmental and health impacts. Between 2013 and 2017, up to 200 participants from 31 countries worked on the topic and shared best practices. The result was an overview of properties, applications and standards for bio-based materials in construction – the book Performance of Bio-based Building Materials by Dennis Jones and Christian Brischke – as a reference for academics, policymakers and industry.
“During its 4 year duration, this Action allowed a wide group of researchers and in particular early career investigators, to become active contributors within the European scientific community, gaining guidance, advice and opportunities for collaboration from established experts in many fields related to bio-based materials.” says Dennis Jones, Chair of the Action.
For four participants, the Action also allowed them to realise a bigger dream – to set up a new research institute in forest-rich Slovenia to explore the technology for, and health impacts of, renewable materials in construction. In 2017, the InnoRenew Centre of Excellence (InnoRenew CoE) was born.
“This was in a large part thanks to the Action, its conferences and training schools,” says one of the initiators, US-born researcher Michael Burnard, who was a PhD student when he joined the Action.
“The Action allowed us to identify other centres doing similar or complementary research to shape our research agenda and introduced us to a lot of the people we wanted to work with,” Burnard explains. “It also played a strong role in supporting work that led to some of our main areas of research, such as wood modification,” he adds.
The institute is being funded in its early years by EU grants. It was founded as a cross-Europe collaboration by the University of Primorska, the Slovenian National Building and Civil Engineering Institute, the Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage of Slovenia and Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Wood Research Wilhelm-Klauditz-Institut WKI.
Burnard says the successful grant applications cited research carried out in the Action and the more industry-focused complementary Action ModWoodLife.
The Action allowed us to identify other centres doing similar or complementary research to shape our research agenda and introduced us to a lot of the people we wanted to work with”Michael Burnard, Deputy Director & Research Group Leader for Human Health in the Built Environment, InnoRenew CoE
Since it was founded, InnoRenew CoE has published studies, articles and abstracts on a range of topics, from non-toxic wood preservation to the impact of office environments on health. It is also helping local communities develop their extensive plant-based resources, both locally and through the institute’s international living lab innovation network. Furthermore, as part of this success story, researchers from InnoRenew have initiated the construction of the largest timber frame building in Izola, Slovenia. Cooperation started in the network continues to grow. In 2018, the InnoRenew CoE joined partners from the same network in the Pro-Enrich project, which received funding from the EU and Bio-based Industries Joint Undertaking. The joint undertaking is funded by the EU and industry.
Dennis Jones, Chair of the Action says: “the key legacy of the Action has been the career development of many of these Early Career Investigators into the new generation of professional researchers, at a time when bio-innovation and sustainable construction is needed to help protect our environment and combat global climatic changes.”