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Digital Technology Greening the Built Environment

Digital Technology Greening the Built Environment

Decades of human activity in the natural environment have given birth to the concept of “built environment”. The term incorporates almost everything constructed by humans using brick, mortar and steel other than the natural landscapes. As such, the buildings, public parks and the infrastructure that supports human activity, including transportation networks, utilities networks, flood defenses, telecommunications and so on, would all fall under the purview of the “built environment”.

As the population grows, the size of the built environment is also bound to grow. By 2050, two out of every three people are likely to be living in cities or other urban centers, according to the United Nations. The international organization’s findings also estimate that by 2030, the world could have 43 so-called megacities, most of them in developing countries.

Cities already consume 75% of the world’s natural resources. The environmental impact of urban areas is has been palpable, and as they grow, the case for focusing on sustainability and reducing carbon emissions has become ever stronger.

How Has It Impacted Climate?

The 2020 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction, from the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction (GlobalABC), found that while global building energy consumption remained steady year on year, energy-related CO2 emissions increased to 9.95 GtCO2 in 2019. The increase was attributable to the use of fossil fuels with higher carbon content for electricity generation. Furthermore, adding emissions from the building construction industry on this accounted for 38% of total global energy-related CO2 emissions.

To achieve net-zero carbon emission by 2050 to limit global warming to 1.5°C, the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that by 2030, direct building CO2 emissions need to fall by 50% and indirect building sector emissions by 60%. This equates to building sector emissions falling by around 6% per year until 2030, close to the 7% decrease in 2020 global energy sector CO2 emissions due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Achieving net-zero carbon buildings at a substantial level will require changes to every building element, including materials, thermal envelopes, passive heating and cooling design, active heating and cooling (HVAC), appliances, lighting and electricity generation.

What Role Can Digital Technology Play?

Digitalization is transforming every industry vertical in some form or the other. The buildings and urban development sector is not an exception.

CRTKL, a global cultural agency specializing in architecture, planning and design, introduced an

open-source platform, CLIMATESCOUT, which helps users design buildings that uniquely respond to a site by providing climate-specific design advice at the building scale. It connects architectural responses and expressions with the climate in real-time and aids in the ability to interact through a diagram between sustainable design strategies and climate conditions. CLIMATESCOUT pairs the Köppen-Geiger climate classification and building design strategies from Architecture 2030’s Palette – a database of sustainable data strategies. The web-based application uses a combination of images and data to enable the visualization of low carbon, regenerative, resilient and adaptive buildings.

Another technology gaining recognition in the sector is the digital twin technology – a virtual replica of a physical object that mirrors accurate functionality details with the use of sensors attached to the object. The digital twin can process the nuances of the construction design, including the components and materials used. The data is then relayed to a processing system and applied to the digital copy. Digital twins are also being used to monitor the quality of air within a building, maintain optimum temperature, schedule maintenance and predict the flow of inhabitants to reduce the risk of potential overcrowding.

Also, a regular feature in building development is Artificial Intelligence (AI) supported by advanced sensing and controls, systems integration, data analytics and energy optimization that are collectively improving energy efficiency and demand flexibility in buildings. Integrating these digital capabilities in “smart” equipment and appliances can provide additional benefits including improved reliability and remote management in addition to energy and emissions reductions. Additionally, such technologies are also used to improve the safety of buildings. The data harnessed from the buildings is      being analyzed to predict emergencies such as natural disasters and fires so that engineers can plan the most effective emergency exit design.

Rooting for Green Buildings

Policies that introduce minimum efficiency performance standards and energy-consumption labeling on appliances and equipment have led to reduced power consumption, lower carbon emissions and cost savings for consumers, according to an analysis published by the IEA and the 4E Technology Collaboration Programme (4E TCP).

It further states that in countries with long-running policies, appliances are now typically consuming 30% less energy than they would have done otherwise. A case in point can be the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) who have been successfully implementing intelligent technology for energy-efficient utility operations which are benefitting both the environment and the end-users of their services.

Globally, green building best practices are being applied from the design through the construction stages, including retrofitting residential as well as commercial buildings. The goal of improving the efficiency of existing buildings and reducing the carbon footprint of the built environment should be a game-changing move. And digital technology can play a vital role in this trajectory.