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Future of Buildings

The Future Of Buildings: From dumb to digital

23rd September 2021 Amanda Reaume 4 min read

Buildings are responsible for a shocking 40% of total global emissions. That means that any effort to achieve a net zero future has to focus on reducing the carbon footprint of the built environment. The experts who spoke at “The Future of Buildings: From Dumb to Digital” identified the following as good places to start in the effort to reduce building emissions:

  • Smart technologies
  • Energy efficiency
  • Retrofitting
  • The COVID-19-fueled shift to hybrid workplaces

The vital transition to greener buildings will require both expertise and stakeholder buy-in

The event, which was a part of Climate Week NYC’s The Hub Live, featured a number of experts, from Alan Richard Winde, the premier of the Western Cape, to Mark Chambers, the senior director for Building Emissions at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Speakers talked about the urgency of making a just transition to greener buildings.

“We want to make sure that we are investing in not only making these buildings stronger and more resilient to climate change, but that the people inside them will actually be put to work in doing so as well,” Chambers said. He also sees the coming push to build, rebuild and retrofit millions of homes across the US as an opportunity to create good jobs.

Buildings are a key part of the climate transition

“Two-thirds of existing buildings will exist in 2050,” Chambers noted. “So, the decisions we make have a long-term impact.”

Chambers believes that policy evolution is key. Changes to energy codes, appliance codes and building standards will fundamentally transform how buildings are built. A massive deployment of retrofit regulations and rebates will then be critical in upgrading existing residential and commercial buildings.

In South Africa, Winde is also focusing on using policy to change buildings’ climate impact by altering planning codes. He’s found that people support requirements like having water tanks and water harvesting systems in new buildings.

“People understand [the need for climate mitigation work] because we’re living it…The fires are here. The drought is here….It’s not an academic debate,” he said. “We feel it every day.”

Smart technology will make a difference

Smart buildings are the future, said Charlene Lake, CSO and SVP of Corporate Social Responsibility at AT&T.

“Connectivity enables [building management systems],” she said. “It enables an operator to manage all kinds of infrastructure in the built environment—lighting, heating [and] cooling.”

AT&T is working with businesses to find ways that its 5G network can be used to deploy smart tech that will help reduce emissions. Enabling building owners to better control energy systems can ensure that power is not being wasted when people aren’t in the office. 

Energy efficiency needs to be a priority

“The future of buildings absolutely depends on the efficiency of the equipment and the appliances in them,” said Dan Hamza-Goodacre, COP26 advisor for the UK government. “Improvements in efficiency of products saved more energy than was produced by solar and wind combined.”

For that reason, he’s calling on governments to quickly double their energy efficiency programs and roll out new energy labels and rebates as soon as possible. With these in hand, industry can get started on developing the necessary strategies, tools and technologies to meet the new efficiency requirements.

Hybrid workplaces will drive emissions reductions

When COVID-19 hit, workplaces had to quickly switch from physical to digital offices. The pandemic has led more companies to adopt permanent work-from-home or hybrid work models.

“The hybrid workplace is here to stay,” said Mike Sewell, Plan Zero director at Mitie. Sewell added that many employers are encouraging people to come into the office only two to three days a week now.

These shifts will likely drive huge energy savings by allowing companies to reduce the energy use and square footage of their office space.

Green buildings are good for business

Ultimately, green buildings will be a huge boon for business, said Martin Haese, CEO of Business South Australia and chair of the Premier’s Climate Change Council.

“In Australia, buildings account for over 50% of electricity use and over a quarter of our emissions,” he said.

The World Green Building Council even shows a 7% increase in asset value in green buildings over traditional buildings, he added.

Climate justice must be central in the transition to green buildings

While Chambers believes reducing building emissions is critical, he stressed that it’s important that the requirement to retrofit homes and upgrade appliances doesn’t impact low-income or marginalized communities.

“We need to do this important work in a way that doesn’t exacerbate any existing inequalities,” he explained. “The work for environmental justice and the work for climate response go hand-in-hand.”

To view the event in full, explore Climate Week NYC 2021 on Facebook Watch.