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Sustainability Protocol
Sustainability Protocol. Environmental criteria for AMB and IMPSOL projects and works
The Sustainability Protocol aims to promote sustainable public procurement practices in building and public space design by defining environmental criteria guidelines that go beyond current regulations with which works must comply.
This cross-cutting holistic tool sets specific objectives and values to be achieved through design optimisation strategies. In this way, criteria concerning the decarbonisation and regeneration of cities are mainstreamed from the earliest stages of project planning.
EU Member State, Western Balkans or Ukraine
Metropolitan area of Barcelona
Mainly urban
It refers to other types of transformations (soft investment)
As a representative of an organisation

The Sustainability Protocol (SP) for AMB and IMPSOL projects and works was born out of professional and institutional responsibility in the face of the climate crisis, with the aim of providing project design and works technicians in the Barcelona Metropolitan Area (AMB) with resources with which to respond to the challenge of the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the UN in its 2030 Agenda.
A cross-cutting tool with a holistic vision, the SP is designed to enable assessment of the environmental impact of decisions taken during the drafting of project designs and the execution of works. With specific values and three-time horizons, the SP guides us to improve our resource management, reduce our water and energy demands, and promote biodiversity, sustainable mobility, renewable energies and urban renaturalisation, thereby mitigating and adapting to climate change within the reality of our particular territory.
The goal is to facilitate the incorporation of sustainability criteria from the early stages of project planning and design, with a special focus on the potentialities and risks of each particular site. These criteria set final objectives that are to be achieved, as far as possible, through programme and design optimisation strategies, minimising the need to incorporate additional elements or technologies.
The present 1.2 version of the SP is the result of its pilot application in a number of projects and a subsequent revision that makes achievement of the proposed objectives, albeit ambitious, a real possibility. It consists of nineteen criteria with different requirements under constant review as certain objectives are achieved, new opportunities arise, or circumstances demand.
To date, the SP has already been applied to 81 projects, 20 of which are buildings, and 61 are public space. Over and beyond the sustainable benefits of the projects, significant learning value has been obtained during implementation through teamwork between stakeholders.
The key objectives of the Sustainability Protocol (SP) are to respond to the United Nations 2030 Agenda Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) number 3, 6, 7, 9, 11, 12, 13 and 15. To do so, AMB recognises the need to go beyond current regulations by introducing mandatory environmental criteria in AMB and IMPSOL projects and works public procurement.
With this aim, specific target values in three-time horizons were set by a transdisciplinary team, guiding project designers towards circular resource management, reducing water and energy demands and consumptions, and promoting biodiversity, sustainable mobility, renewable energies and urban renaturalisation.
Considering other existing environmental criteria guides, the SP aims to be adapted to our local needs: both to the reality of our territory and to the typology of our works. About 75% of the works we manage at the Public Space Department (PSD) are urbanization works. By the time the SP was developed, there was reference on sustainability criteria for buildings, but little or none for streets, squares and parks scale and types of projects. Therefore, one of the goals was to establish urban energy, water and resource synergy strategies, and to develop new urban resilience and liveability indicators, with target values for directly related fields such as vegetation and heat island effect.
The construction sector being one of the most environmentally impactful industries, the SP is a step forward in tackling the challenges of climate change within the reality of our territory. It promotes renovation over new building, and regeneration of the city through circularity and renaturalisation for a sustainable development of our metropolis.
In Spain, the AMB has been a pioneer administration in establishing mandatory local environmental criteria. This can be exemplary for other national or international local administrations to promote sustainable public procurement practices in other cities or metropolis.

We believe global challenges need to be addressed through local solutions, by promoting local practices and actions through sustainability criteria adapted to the reality of our territory.
The SP enhances the mediterranean culture as the key to guide construction to passive design and local materials, low irrigation landscaping practices to ensure a sustainable development of our cities. This way it motivates new generations to learn from older people's wisdom as the way to preserve heritage and local know-how in landscaping and construction practices. In a context of renovation and regeneration over new building, local culture and heritage know-how and built environment are the key to success.
The SP is also meant to be an educational tool that highlights the importance of transdisciplinarity and provides design guidelines for all to improve all project’s quality, broadening everyone’s scope of knowledge and bringing new perspectives to light.
Quality of experience for people is clearly achieved by raising health and liveability levels through enhancing accessibility to green spaces, and reducing the heat island effect, energy poverty noise and air pollution levels. A more liveable and resilient city also provides aesthetic values that have a positive psychological and economic impact. Aesthetics can be felt through the design of mediterranean seasonal green spaces in all projects, enhancing ecosystem services by arranging vegetation arranged in different layers. Also, in the design of cooling spaces as green, porous surfaces, light colours and shady areas avoid heat retention. Pacification of the cities bring wellbeing by reducing noise and air pollution.
The steady improvement of these spaces positively affects quality of life and facilitates our reconnection with nature, creating equal opportunity for all.
It is common knowledge that sustainability can only be addressed through transdisciplinary design, and with a whole life-cycle perspective. This means to achieve the objectives it is crucial to involve all stakeholders (design technicians, municipal and maintenance staff, and users) with minds set in projects’ all different levels of development.
We firmly believe the key to achieve long term sustainability is to set, albeit ambitious, realistic requirements so that they are credible and thus taken seriously by all stakeholders involved.
The SP aims as well to be inclusive in the sense that, although being a technical document, it is also a conceptual guide for design strategies, which makes it accessible for a wider public. The aim is to help technicians, architects, designers, or anyone interested on the topic to introduce sustainability criteria even in fields they’re not expert in. It is a public, accessible to everyone governance tool that, being a point of reference, it can be applied and adjusted to every situation as the project requires.
Furthermore, the SP is expected to have a strong societal impact that goes beyond the scope of the projects, in which not only learning by experience plays a key role among technicians, but also this acquired knowledge is taken to the personal field as users. This probably explains why dissemination events are being widely welcome.
Regarding the territory, the metropolitan area of Barcelona is densely populated with a great diversity of socio-economic status. Although its 52% of green open spaces, access to nature is therefore often limited for most vulnerable sectors of the population, most of which suffer from energy poverty at the same time. In this sense, the urban regeneration and renaturalisation promoted by the SP lead to elevated resilience and liveability levels, aiming at a more equitable distribution city-wide.

At citizen level, the main contributions are in functional program and in operational energy as it is managed by users.
Regarding functional programme definition and optimization, some projects managed by the AMB Public Space Department have previously undergone an extensive participatory process designed by the municipality concerned.
The role of the technicians designing the different projects is to collect requests from citizens as well as the council, and maintenance staff, at the time of applying and complying with the Sustainability Protocol while disseminating the benefits of implementing its environmental criteria.
Also, as a result of the dissemination actions carried on, feedback from Green Building Council of Spain, and other associations or professionals have already been considered.
After every period of the SP implementation, all this feedback is evaluated and considered in the next version of the SP with the aim of adjusting its requirements to local conditions at the same time as complying with the relevant European targets.
Regarding operational energy, we are aware that there is still a gap between the design stage and the real use and management of buildings, in which users play a key role. Some studies talk about a potential 20-30% savings due to user management. This is why, as a result of the SP implementation, we are currently setting up a methodology to collect energy and water consumption data during service life of buildings and public spaces. This will enable us to make progress on the issue by evaluating the magnitude of this gap, studying the correlations with diverse factors, and raising users’ awareness.
The initiative to launch the project came from the Public Space Department (PSD) of the Barcelona Metropolitan Area (AMB) supra-municipal administrative body, which supports the 36 councils in the metropolitan area of Barcelona, in different competence areas.
Tender specifications were drawn up, that foresaw the contracting of the drafting of the SP to an environmental consultancy, and a transdisciplinary commission of internal technicians to lead and monitor the project in all its stages. This commission, in addition to the PSD and IMPSOL, involved technicians from other AMB departments such as Ecology and Mobility with the intention of broadening the vision and focus of the SP.
Estudi Ramon Folch won the tender that included the drafting of the first version of the SP, a training on sustainability strategies and the implementation of the protocol in several pilot projects. The drafting had the contribution of the experience in different fields of the AMB technicians.
Experience acquired through the pilot application in projects managed by the AMB’s PSD and the IMPSOL, the field-specific know-how of some of their technicians, and the work of the entire Public Space sustainability team were combined to produce a revision of the SP that makes achieving the proposed objectives a real possibility until the final SP “version 1.2” was published in December 2021.
Currently, together with feedback from the revision of the document by Green Building Council of Spain (GBCe) and from specific meetings with scientific experts the PSD is in the process of updating the document to "version 1.3" for publication in the near future.
It is a step on an uncertain path along which we must continue if we wish to maintain, augment, and improve our contribution to sustainable development. For all these reasons, it is an ambitious document, which is under constant review and will be modified as certain objectives are achieved, as new opportunities arise, or as circumstances require.
This project initiative was led by the Public Space Department of the AMB administrative body, which has competences in public space and public buildings projects design and works.
A number of disciplines concerning private and not-for-profit associations were involved in the process, together with the public administration. Some of them participated within the framework of a finite contract, whereas some others are our partners, which enables us to have a continuous workflow together with them for a constant evolution of the SP document and learning through its pilot application.
Collaboration among all the technicians involved a combination of research and pilot implementation of the proposed sustainability criteria, to adjust limits and procedures to the reality of the department’s workflow. Architects, technical architects, civil, landscape and MEP engineers were the main professional actor profiles involved, having representatives of different ages. Various sessions with specific experts in each field were also part of the process to provide the added value of know-how to the proposed sustainability scientific-based criteria.
With circularity and energy efficiency as the focal point of its current construction challenges, the Sustainability Protocol (SP) establishes guidelines for a long-term and whole life-cycle approach to projects, wherein maintenance prevision and the reduction of dependence on active systems are recognised as key aspects of a successful and durable design.
At the same time, the SP stresses the urgency of building less by first questioning whether there is a genuine need for a project to be new construction. It prioritises renovation over new building for the regeneration of the city through local synergies, functional programme optimisation, spatial adaptability, passive design and circular resource management.
The SP is especially innovative as it sets 19 mandatory environmental criteria, unlike other scoring methodologies such as BREEAM, LEED or equivalent, which are based on the sum of optional criteria. It also goes beyond existing methodologies, usually more focused on buildings, by including experience-based sustainability requirements for public space works. As an added value, all the criteria are adapted to the reality of our territory.
The SP is the first document in Spain to set limits on embodied carbon emissions. New resilience and liveability indicators for “green coverage”, “sum of vegetation layers”, “surface avoiding heat retention”, and “runoff management” have been developed with their corresponding values to meet local needs. Also, water consumption limits have been established per irrigated surface as a new concept to enhance consistency of green space design to accommodate local constraints and different vegetation needs.
Another step forward is to evaluate design success through future follow-up and monitoring of water and energy consumption, and verification of green and heat island effect indicators through NDVI and LiDAR technologies, and solar cartography. Real and reference values will encourage research for new design solutions.
The SP is a cross-cutting tool with an environmental holistic, strategic approach.
It sets final target values and constraints for different types of works, based on the evaluation of local works and the experience of the technicians involved. Ambitious objectives, but achievable if addressed strategically considering site conditions from the conceptual design stage.
Compliance methodology with all requirements is reflected in the following IT tools (Excel spreadsheets), developed to facilitate follow-up of criteria and data collection by including the key indicators and values demanded in each case:
Sustainability tool. summary of compliance with the 19 criteria.
Water tool. Justification of water consumption, recirculation and/or reuse.
Maintenance tool. Item-by-item analysis of the degree of maintenance required by the project, enabling decision-making to optimise project maintenance in proof of its durability.
For embodied emissions limits, different AMB works were evaluated in collaboration with ITeC, using GMA software. To establish percentage target reductions, reference studies were used.
To optimise passive design, energy demand and total consumption values have been adjusted to local conditions using local climate files in advanced energy simulation programmes. These files have been generated on a metropolitan scale with data from weather stations placed in different parts of the city so that the heat island effect is considered. Three different sub-climates have been obtained as a result.
For green infrastructure, theorical tree canopy radius was estimated based on the fieldwork data of each specie average growth after a reasonable planting period of 10 to 15 years. Limits per irrigated surface are based on metropolitan parks data, the drought decree, plants needs and irrigation systems efficiencies.
Although already aligned, the subsequent version of the SP will be adapted to Level(s) methodology and comply with EU taxonomy and DNSH guidelines.
The main added value that would be of interest to transfer is the cross-cutting transdisciplinary design approach at different stages of project development. Specially, how design projects are strategically approached from the site implementation stage, based on multiple-scale analysis thanks to all the cartographic information we have.
Globally, besides this general strategic component, all indicators are transferable as a measurement methodology to other construction projects with similar determining factors, whether from public or private stakeholders. Particularly, indicators to maximise green spaces, to reduce the heat island effect and to manage rainfall water in the public space are even transferable to other design project scales such as urban sector, neighbourhood, or city masterplans, with the aim to verify the correspondence between ratios at different levels.
Nevertheless, as the target values set for the different indicators have been adjusted to local conditions so they can be transferred to other mediterranean areas, they might need to be adapted if applied to cities with different needs. However, embodied carbon emissions limits could be a reference at national or international level since, according to research, their impact is more closely related to the construction system than to territorial conditions. In fact, these target values have already been adopted as a baseline for the INDICATE project led by the Green Building Council of Spain, which aims to set embodied emissions limits at national level.
Being already quite aligned in guidelines, transferability will also be maximised in the coming years as the next version of the SP is aimed to be adapted to the EU Level(s) methodology, while maintaining its local dimension for a higher accuracy of the results.
In its efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change and biodiversity loss, the EU is committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 and addressing local impacts for more resilient cities. The SP deals with these issues through the construction sector by setting sustainability criteria at project scale, according to departmental competences.
Construction sector is responsible for 38% of global carbon emissions and several cases of loss of habitat in our territory. Studies conducted by the AMB indicate that the metropolitan area of Barcelona is likely to suffer about a 33% water deficit in the near future. On health, 7% of premature deaths each year could be avoided by complying with international recommendations on air pollution, noise, heat, and access to green spaces.
In cutting climate change drivers, the SP is the first in Spain to set limits on embodied emissions. Unlike the current building code regulation, the SP approaches operational energy with locally adjusted limits on global demand and total consumption. In this way, optimisation is achieved through first passive and then active design, regardless of the renewable energy supply.
To balance the water cycle, the SP sets criteria for a minimum rainfall to be managed in public space through sustainable urban drainage systems to reduce aquifer saltwater intrusion and erosion. With respect to drought, it promotes the use of alternative water sources and sets limits on water consumption for irrigation.
On health, the SP sets ratios on sustainable mobility facilities and constraints on harmful materials. A new indicator limiting the impermeable surface area exposed to sunlight intends to avoid heat retention by increasing the albedo effect and improving the evapotranspiration conditions of urban surfaces. Two new indicators are defined to comply with minimum green surface guidelines and to enhance ecosystem services through vegetation layers, as well as biodiversity, which is the basis for resilience.
The main added value of a sustainability protocol promoted by a supra-municipal administrative body is its broader scale of impact and its capacity to set standards for all building and public space projects.
During its 2-year life, the impact of the Sustainability Protocol (SP) has gone beyond expectations. Since we started its dissemination, the SP project has aroused interest broader than AMB municipalities.
We have participated in several national and international lectures, webinars, events and workshops organised by the Architectural Association of Catalonia, by the Architecture School of Barcelona, by Green Building Council of Spain, by the Climate Action department of the Government of Catalonia, by the BEIS department of the UK Government and by the ICLEI European Secretariat. We also played a role in international conferences like the REBUILD Congress Madrid 2022 and 2023, the Smart City Expo World Congress Barcelona 2022, the VI International Seminar on Urban Form Madrid 2022, the Green Spaces Professionals Association of Catalonia Congress 2022, and the European Urban Resilience Forum Malmö 2021. In addition, we have done dissemination under international relations exchange programmes with other cities or metropolitan areas such as Boston and North Virginia in the US, Singapore, Brazil, or Zagreb.
We are very happy to have had very positive feedback from all of them, which encourages us to continue working on our aim of changing mind-sets among technicians and users of buildings and public space.