Sustainable Built Environment: What Role Can Buildings Play in The Fight Against Climate Change?

With President Elect Joe Biden’s commitment to re-enter the United States into the Paris Climate Agreement comes great opportunities to create and implement a new plan and mechanisms to reduce domestic emissions. Placing buildings and building technology front and center of this plan is crucial for two reasons: 1. Buildings account for nearly half of the country’s CO2 emissions; 2. Building technology offers a tangible opportunity to meet climate change targets.

 The Paris Agreement set a target of limiting global warming to “well below 2˚C” this century, since when the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) set a more concrete goal 1.5˚C by 2050. For the building sector to hit the target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, we need to achieve an annual reduction of 6%.

Encouragement comes from figures showing a 7% global fall in greenhouse gas emissions in 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic. While  we can expect a rebound as lockdown restrictions are relaxed, it shows what is possible if we make the right decisions now and implement the structural changes that will bring about a truly sustainable built environment.

Considering how folks react to positive (inspiration) vs negative (criticism) and that many individuals and companies are quite likely feeling vulnerable and frustrated, I’m hoping we can change the tone to be more positive and constructive.

Despite not being a signatory the past four years, there should be data available telling us how building emissions have changed during this time (knowing Covid contributed greatly in 2020).

Sustainable Built Environment: We have the technology

But the picture isn’t hopeless.  Far from it. We are already implementing solutions that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from buildings to within the target limits. One study by The International Energy Agency put the potential cut in emissions from the built environment at 87%.

What are these solutions? Well, there are the well-covered ones like on site renewable and clean energy, enhanced building automation systems, passive heating, cooling and ventilation, enhanced roofing, glazing, insulation and greater use of natural light. Despite their availability over these past couple of decades, only few buildings are built using these technologies. The largest impact opportunities focus on providing solutions for existing buildings.

Many improvements may be made to existing building energy consumers: LED lighting, ultra-efficient heating, air-conditioning, refrigeration, and process equipment. Smart servicing and developing a standard for planned upgrades and renewals of inefficient and aging HVAC systems will be key for progress.

There are also technologies like battery storage, building-to-grid (B2G) and vehicle-to-grid (V2G), which reduce grid generation peak capacity needs by storing electricity off peak when costs are low, and feeding it back to the grid when demand is high. Allied to these are continuous commissioning – ongoing, data-driven monitoring to evaluate and improve building energy performance through the use of multiple meters or virtual sub-metering to manage discrete system performance.

Years ago, many in the industry implemented submetering and exception reporting followed up with careful operations and maintenance and achieved persistent and sustained savings. Today, ‘proxy submetering’ is achieving extremely accurate results at a fraction of the cost, using sensors and algorithms instead of physical meters. Progressive businesses have teams dedicated to review systems’ data and make informed decisions to maintain or increase performance. Tweaks and strategies deployed include simple adjustments to conditions, predictive maintenance, dispatching batteries, back-up generators or thermal storage, load shedding and even adjustments to operational hours/working shifts. These strategies save on current utility bills and also earn revenues in capacity and utility operated demand response programs.

In short, we have the technology.

Together can make all the difference

So many of us individually and with our teams have the will; we need wider stakeholder collaboration to gel the collective will. It needs coordinating from inside out and back again. Building owners and occupants know their operation and together with savvy service partners and utility companies can design their optimal energy usage intensities and strategies to ensure the baseline doesn’t creep up. Extremely helpful to create wide engagement will be clear, predictable and consistent policymaking. Finally, ways to assist businesses to finance these technologies and process improvements are available to accelerate implementation while preserving classic P&L economics. 

Most businesses already pay into efficiency incentive programs their utilities and states administer; unfortunately, some of these programs struggle to provide greater than 50% of the cash received back towards improvements.  The collected funds can be drained by legacy requirements for monitoring and verification, costly marketing and program administration. Streamlining incentive program burdens can raise the deployed capital by meaningful amounts.

A handful of large utility companies are also offering no interest loans to cover efficiency costs not offset by incentives. These short-term (3-5 year) loans are repaid on customer utility bills, and the goal is to create efficiency upgrade projects that book as P&L cash neutral or positive across the note duration, encouraging C-level approval. This could be adopted widely by utilities nationally to reduce the barrier to capital, increase participation and deployment. Dig for Victory, Give a Hoot Don’t Pollute, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and slogans like Think Different and Just Do It are all great calls to action and helped motivate and still are motivating generations. Is another one needed to bring the stakeholder model together?

The benefits need to be trumpeted. The technologies we’re talking about not only allow for aligning supply and demand optimally, they also increase occupant comfort, which improves health and wellbeing generating productivity.

Upfront costs are recouped in short order, yet some building owners and tenants still can’t always compete for capital when other pressures confront their businesses. Despite that total building lifetime benefits far outweigh the initial capital investments, many building operators are held to antiquated cost to build metrics and forced to manage and maintain through status quo while chomping at the bit to be part of the solution. Release this passion across the market and amazing progress will be made.

Understand the current building pressurization

For mechanical systems, one of the first things we do is conduct pre-test and balance (TAB) measurements of all outside intake and exhaust, as building pressurization can often drift to negative over time. When that happens, every opening in the building pulls in raw, unconditioned air, which can cause catastrophic effects, like condensation on tiled floors, resulting in people slipping and falling.

Untreated air is terrible for a building; it causes mold issues, messes with electronics, and creates uncomfortable conditions for occupants. It can also compromise the whole building management system, fooling sensors into triggering a vicious circle of overheating or overcooling.

Therefore, it’s essential we check the building pressurization balance so we can really gauge the performance of the system.

Betting on and building our future

Without stakeholder driven solutions and a collective call to action that results in rapid implementation, our chances of reversing or even decelerating climate change are bleak. With them, however, we can achieve Net Zero and bring about far reaching improvements in the sustainable built environment and the way we live and work while we’re at it. When crafted carefully there is an economy here that creates wins on all sides while suspending climate change – let’s do that together.

Talk to people

Talking to the people who use the building gives an additional layer of insight that helps to inform decision making. For example, an HVAC unit could be running perfectly according to its spec, but if the building occupants are having to wear hats and coats, it’s not doing what it needs to do.

Gathering user feedback gives us clues as to whether a system is having the intended and desired effects.

Do you want to reduce your building’s climate change impact? 

Get in touch today!

We’re a team of project developers, engineers and expert field technicians across the US, who are passionate about and specialize in making buildings perform optimally.

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