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  • Writer's picturePaul Steven - Jennings

Sustainability and the quest for Carbon Neutral Buildings

Zero carbon building, Carbon Neutral operations, Net zero energy, Sustainable building operations, are all the buzzwords being thrown around in the construction industry at the moment. This article explores what they mean and how technology and digitization can play their part in designing a greener, more sustainable future and that it, quite possibly, isn’t enough.

According to the United nations environment program, buildings in the US account for 40% of energy consumption and consequently, a very slightly lower, 39% of energy related carbon emissions annually. These are very significant numbers but as with all big problems there are big solutions to be found and big positive changes to be made.

To effectively address this, we need a multi-pronged approach. Standards are being created and discussed the world over and rightly so, the standards for North America could never apply in the Middle East, climates vary too much, as does latitude and longitude, essential in sighting a building to take maximum advantage of the passage of the sun. The possible variations in construction requirements are almost infinite so how do we ensure that we are getting the most sustainable solution possible from every new building design and with new construction slowing, how do we apply the same, to existing buildings?

We could start with technology, architectural software design leader, Autodesk, has released a SaaS tool called Green Building Studio which can directly integrate with Revit. Built in energy consumption analytics can provide designers with a means to analyze the thermal and energy performance of an entire build. Green Building Studio also provides predictive analytics which can test against 50 preconfigured parameters to assist construction managers in finding the most sustainable solutions to construction challenges.

There are several other solutions out there that incorporate the standards of sustainable building design certification leaders, LEED, into the design process. This gives architects and BIM specialists ongoing insight into the sustainability of their designs.

This is a good start but with the amount of data required and considering the wide variations that arise in any construction project, we are also turning to the power of AI to not only ensure that we create green, sustainable new buildings but also look into green renovations of our existing real estate.

Technology is moving at breakneck pace with intelligent, AI powered digital design solutions, innovative lighting, heating and cooling systems, electrochromic windows and many others but what is currently holding us back as we strive to go green? Well, in this observer’s opinion, the green.

Green has been synonymous with money in pop culture for a long time and it is one of the greatest obstacles getting in the way of sustainability. Building a green, sustainable building is expensive, it’s a bit like organic food. It’s good for you, it’s good for the environment but comes at a price. In a world of mass produced, cheap products, whether it is food or building materials we are seeing a constant tug of war between our conscience and our budget.

Many years ago, I partnered with an intelligent lighting solution that delivered LED lighting over Cat5e cabling and combined with an incredibly dense array of sensors could theoretically provide up to 85% savings in lighting operational costs alone. The data collected from sensors could also be integrated with BMS via open API to produce an additional, theoretical 30% savings on HVAC running costs. I can go into details on how this is achieved, but I am trying my level best to keep this under 800 words.

Every conversation I had about this product was positive, but I dropped it after only one installation. Why? Cost! There was between a 15 and 20 percent uplift in cost for the installation and procurement of the solution and even though the ROI was less than 2 years for most installations, the initial CAPEX investment was deemed too high.

I believe, the most likely way for the Middle East construction industry to achieve sustainability is through government mandated programs. The world has seen some incredible success stories of entire countries running on sustainable energy for weeks at a time. This doesn’t happen without national level intervention and that’s what we need here.

Unfortunately, in the Middle East we don’t have tax breaks to offer, but we do have cash rich governments that could subsidize the construction of carbon neutral buildings or the renovation of existing buildings to a sustainability standard. A tie up with a certification body like LEED would be a good metric to measure against with a percentage of construction costs paid back to developers based on, for example, 5% of construction costs for silver up to 15% for platinum.

Incentives like this would see an incredible uplift in investment in sustainable designs and technology, bolstering the efforts already being made by the private sector.

While I applaud the efforts being made by green building councils all over the world to raise awareness and drive change, in the Middle East, they are struggling to gain traction and without national government intervention by law or by actual financial incentives, the events that they organize are a net carbon producer and are putting us further behind our sustainability goals, not moving us towards them.

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