Building sustainability: a smart solution


02 November 2021

Jamie Cameron, director of digital solutions at Johnson Controls UK&I, believes an intelligent structured approach is needed to reduce the environmental impact of HVAC systems.
Our buildings aren’t just bricks and mortar. They’re the places where we spend most of our time. Where we eat and sleep. Where we sit down and catch up with friends and family, they are at the heart of our lives, whether we like to admit it or not. But, unfortunately, they are also the biggest challenge in our pursuit to be sustainable. 

We can no longer ignore the impact climate change is having on our planet. Despite our conscious efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the earth continues to warm. Almost 40 per cent of carbon emissions1 come from our existing buildings and the construction of new ones. 

It doesn’t need to be this way. Technology is now on hand to make our homes, places of work, schools, hospitals and factories a part of the solution, not the problem. We have the ability to be smart enough and ensure our buildings promise us a cleaner, greener future. And ‘smart buildings’ with intelligent HVAC systems that take a holistic approach are just what we need to achieve our goals. 

Budgets, or lack of

And yet, budget constraints are holding progress back. Two-thirds of building decision-makers in the UK and Ireland said this was the main barrier preventing their adoption of smart technologies.2 

While almost all of the organisations surveyed agreed there was value to be had with smart building design, only a third reported having a smart setup already in place. An equally dismal proportion, just 35 per cent, said that their current premises were considered sustainable. 

Realise the value 

If this is a problem now — which it indeed is — it threatens to be an even greater one in the future. With ever-mounting costs and the need to meet increasingly stringent sustainability targets, it’s a case of act now, or prepare to stump up for urgent improvements in the years to come. 

That’s why, hemmed in by budget restrictions, companies must be clever – using what funds they have in the most cost-efficient manner and investing in the right technology at the right time to create the greatest value. Some sectors, including public sector organisations, were found to be less hampered by budgetary constraints, allowing for greater uptake of smart solutions. However, others, like commercial office space, face huge deficits – up to 50 per cent of their existing budget, making it difficult to realise the benefit they want from their smart investments. 

These investments can take many shapes. It might mean festooning the walls with flow sensors — little devices that can detect, for example, when the fourth floor is empty, prompting a second smart system to turn off the lights, and then a third to lower the central heating, so energy isn’t wasted. In an era of hybrid and home-working, when buildings will likely be at reduced capacity for the foreseeable future, such a setup could create huge savings — financially and environmentally. 

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This sort of tech has a bright future. Though the short-term priority for most building owners is occupant health and safety (a consequence, no doubt, of heightened COVID-awareness), over the next five years, their focus will move onto energy efficiency. By 2030, when several major companies hope to hit net zero carbon emissions, including Rolls-Royce, AstraZeneca, and Legal and General, sustainability and achieving net zero targets will be the prime concern for the majority.  

This, in part, is a result of ever-tightening government regulations. For example, from 2025, gas boilers will be banned in all new-build homes, while non-domestic buildings will face increasingly strict energy efficiency standards. In addition, the UK itself has set the target of being net zero by 2050, adding a recent target of 78 per cent reduction in emissions by 2035. 

The knock-on effect on building owners and occupiers varies depending on the type of industry or business – but it’s safe to assume every organisation is under pressure to deliver on eco-targets. More than simply hitting incremental energy saving goals, making bold strokes on sustainability is more important than ever to keep employees happy. Younger generations, in particular, have come to expect it, if not demand it from their current and future employers. As a result, many businesses must now ramp up what their workplace offers its staff to rival the most comfortable and personal working environment of all: home. 

Happier, healthier, greener 

HVAC systems have always been critical to keeping employees happy and healthy at work, but this has had a negative impact on the planet for a long time. Inefficient HVAC systems can give a building a much bigger carbon footprint than it would ideally have. 

Last year, our Energy Efficiency Indicator survey found that 75 per cent of organisations plan to increase their investment in energy efficiency and smart building technologies3. The opportunity, then, to overhaul HVAC systems to limit the spread of COVID-19 is also an opportunity to invest in more efficient, greener HVAC technologies built for the future. 

Taking a holistic approach to your HVAC equipment is the best way to do this, to ensure efficiency gains can be made across an entire building or estate by connecting intelligent systems. Chillers, for example, with efficiency and intelligence built in as standard, can reduce energy use and carbon emissions for a building or collection of buildings, helping FMs meet energy targets and keeping costs low. 

A smart solutions guide

Specialist expertise will be required to see success — especially with tight budgets, questioning boardrooms, and unclear return on investment calculations. A methodical approach is needed. First, weak areas in a building’s operationality need to be identified. For instance, are your HVAC systems measuring the optimum occupancy levels of an area, taking air ventilation and air change rates into account?

Next, formulate a clear idea of the needs and expectations. Occupant comfort plus efficiency is an excellent place to start. After that, assess the effectiveness and flaws of any pre-existing smart tech and how it might integrate with a future setup. Fourth, draw up a concrete plan to present to the wider organisation, sharing how smart technologies can help reach the objectives of the business. And finally, deliver on the plan: this is a defining moment in the evolution of smart building technologies. Now is the time to take our buildings seriously and install solutions that can positively impact lives and help change the world around us.