A Swiss model for sustainable construction in Colombia

Entrepreneurial ecosystems, Green cities
The construction sector plays a crucial role in the Colombian economy. In terms of climate change, it bears great responsibility, as its consumption of resources and the waste it generates have a large impact on the environment. In the department of Santander, Swisscontact has supported a project that promotes the adoption of sustainable construction practices through innovation.  

The construction sector accounts for nearly 40 per cent of global CO2 emissions and the number of buildings worldwide is projected to double by 2050 (UN, 2019). Better building design, the use of less polluting materials, and the recycling of construction waste are helping to make the sector more sustainable. This is because energy-efficient homes reduce the contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, thereby mitigating climate change.

Santander - a pioneer in promoting sustainable construction in Colombia

Bucaramanga, the capital of the department of Santander, is growing steadily and has experienced significant development in construction; the construction sector employs over 40 000 people and accounts for 6.5 per cent of the department’s GDP. In the wake of new technical requirements for sustainable construction, private and public actors joined forces with educational institutions in the local construction sector; in 2015, they formed a cluster to jointly promote the research and development of innovative solutions for sustainable construction throughout the country.

Understanding the local context as a starting point for innovation

The local Chamber of Commerce developed a project on circular economy and sustainable construction in Santander's construction sector (in Spanish), which took place from 2018 to 2020 and was supported by Swisscontact under the Colombia Más Competitiva Programme. The project started by measuring the water and energy consumption in buildings in the region, as the existing national consumption data did not reflect the reality in Bucaramanga, where the climate is different due to its particular location 959 metres above sea level.

Otto Cala, Director of the architecture firm Proun and member of the Santander Chamber of Architects
"The standard is based on cities like Cali, Medellín and Bogotá. These regions have a completely different climate than Bucaramanga. Architects need a localised reference value to follow in order to comply with the new specifications for energy and water savings."

In addition to obtaining local data, a methodology (in Spanish) was developed so that other regions could also collect quantitative and qualitative data on water and energy consumption.

Swiss model replicated in Colombia  

Testeo is a modular “living” test laboratory built like a house and equipped with numerous sensors. It allows the monitoring, analysis and simulation of different variables related to building materials, energy and water. With the help of Testeo, the researchers want to better understand which factors make a building more energy efficient, for example whether the building orientation can influence the temperature conditions. The lab plays a crucial role in innovation and the development of practicable procedures.  

Testeo - a practice-oriented test laboratory for construction companies
"Sustainability in construction is often associated with higher costs or complexity, but in a region with a favourable climate like Bucaramanga, some easy-to implement solutions can save resources. This is the case with the natural ventilation system built in the lab. A builder is pragmatic and has to plan with tight budgets; they want to see proof that a certain practice won't cost more."
Otto Cala, Director of the architecture firm Proun and member of the Santander Chamber of Architects

Maira Figueroa, the project coordinator of the Bucaramanga Chamber of Commerce, explains how the idea for a test lab came about: "We wanted to develop a prototype. One of the 10 international models we looked at immediately inspired us: the Smart Living Lab in Fribourg, Switzerland. We decided to replicate something similar here." The Santander cluster used the experience from Fribourg and, through the Swisscontact expert network, brought several Swiss engineers to the country to set up the first lab of its kind in Colombia.

The way forward: overcoming the challenges of implementing sustainable practices 

Once innovative technologies and practices are developed, applying them in practice is crucial. This includes training and raising awareness among construction professionals. As part of the SECO-funded Colombia Más Competitiva Programme, Swisscontact supported Santander universities in updating their curricula to integrate sustainable construction practices into all study plans.  

Sustainable practices are often perceived as costly investments. To drive demand for sustainable construction, it is also essential to raise awareness among consumers that energy and water savings pay off financially in the long run.  

It is still important to motivate construction companies to use Testeo's offer to develop processes that can improve the efficiency of the construction sector without additional costs. After all, in this highly competitive sector, companies can set themselves apart from other market participants through innovative solutions.  

Colombia Más Competitiva is financed by the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO).

Entrepreneurial ecosystems, Sustainable tourism
Colombia + Competitiva - Strengthening the Competitiveness of the Private Sector
The Programme aims to support Colombia in its systematic efforts to improve the competitiveness of its private sector in the framework of the National System of Competitiveness, Science, Technology and Innovation and its Productive Development Policy.
"Colombia + Competitiva" follows a programmatic and systemic approach with clear ownership of the...