Smarter, Greener Buildings Pave the Way to Sustainable Cities

If the world is set to keep urbanising, then the future of sustainable, productive living lies in the creation of interconnected smart cities. But exactly how and where does the smart city start? What does a smart building have to offer beyond its own walls when connected up to those surrounding it?

The concept of building smarter by harnessing current and emerging technology has been spurring on urban planners, architects and engineers for decades, and the true potential of this approach is yet to be fully unlocked. Already, during the past 10 years we have seen the world’s leading cities create buildings capable of fully self-regulating their heat, lighting and environmental controls, carbon-neutral buildings, buildings that are net providers of renewable energy, and more.

While exponential gains in the overall sustainability and everyday practically of the individual building are to be desired and applauded, the really exciting thought is the potential of interconnected smart buildings to improve their cities as a whole. From reducing carbon emissions and wasted electricity, to boosting citywide resilience and productivity, examples emerging from around the world of smart buildings’ capabilities are showing what our future society might look like.

Finland: Boosting productivity and sustainability

The beginning of April saw leading elements of Finland’s technology industry, including Nokia and KONE, announce their intention to create a building data ecosystem through a project known as KEKO. The project’s aim is to generate over 100 new use cases for the data generated by smart buildings, enabling new innovations for improving the lives and servicing the needs of building occupants as well as everyone in wider urban society. Areas of focus for the companies involved include improving HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Ai Conditioning) technology applications, smart environmental controls, fire safety and suppression advances, water and sewerage sustainability solutions and more.

China: Sharpening pandemic response times and capabilities

The increasingly interconnected nature of our society cuts both ways in terms of boosting various efficiencies while at the same time increasing certain vulnerabilities. The rapid spread of viral illnesses is a prime example, which has prompted China to experiment more widely with utilising smart buildings to fight viral incidents. Chinese epidemic prevention capabilities have been improved markedly in recent months by the deployment of temperature sensing and imaging equipment that integrates intelligent video and artificial intelligence. These systems are being utilised anywhere where the public might congregate, such as airports and railway stations, to begin testing to see if they might provide a faster and more efficient alternative to manual testing.

Further experimentation initiatives based around supporting the medical and daily needs of people who are practising social distancing are finding support in China, such as the “I need” app currently being used in Guangzhou. This app has proved essential in helping people in self-isolation get the daily essentials and medications that they need to survive. Critically, the analytic and diagnostics capabilities of smart building AI and building automation could eventually allow for entirely self-supporting and remote operations. This would be an invaluable aid during any pandemic, as it shortens the time taken to make requests for aid, as well as response times, while protecting key workers along the way by shortening and simplifying the distribution chain.

Global: Cutting down wasted energy

One of the biggest barriers to societal sustainability is the inherent wastefulness of modern society among higher and middle-income urban dwellers who practise needless consumption of electricity on a daily basis. Industry analysts widely agree that currently 30-50% of all energy supplied to buildings is wasted, due to unoccupied rooms being heated/cooled/lit unnecessarily. This represents a vast market opportunity for smart building environmental controls solution providers to step in and offer a way to cut needless energy consumption while at the same time reducing the end user’s electricity and heating bills. While the concept has already been thoroughly proven, what is needed now is a scaling up of such controls in buildings across major cities worldwide.

UAE: Retrofitting buildings to further reduce energy and water consumption

Alongside the introduction of smart environmental controls, other key measurement and sustainability technologies need to be deployed en masse to start moving the needle away from global overconsumption and towards a more viable balance. In the UAE, the beginning of 2020 saw the Abu Dhabi Department of Energy announce the completion of a pilot project to retrofit eight government buildings in accordance with its emirate-wide Building Retrofit programme.

The initiative itself has set the target of achieving a 22% reduction in energy consumption and a 32% reduction in water consumption before 2030. This will be done through the implementation of smart energy saving solutions designed to significantly improve buildings’ ability to track, measure and control their heating, cooling, lighting and water provision capabilities. Solutions used in the government building pilot project include solar rooftop PV installations; smart meters and thermostats; LED lighting; efficient chillers and Variable Frequency Drive (VFD) controlled chilled water pumps and other emerging green technologies.

These efforts have produced an average energy saving of 38% across the eight buildings to date, and the success of this initial push has prompted the Abu Dhabi Government to identify another 150 of its departmental buildings for the same kind of rapid retrofitting treatment.

Building the better tomorrow

While diverse in nature and country of origin, all of these initiatives (and the specific technologies they utilise) have a common goal – to improve the efficiency of our homes and places of work in every way possible. Whether this is done by making better use of consumption data to fuel smarter usage, or by directly improving the component parts that turn buildings into functional spaces, this is an essential front in the ongoing battle to create a sustainable society. As such, the continuing innovation around creating smarter and greener buildings will continue at pace.