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BSRIA climate briefing warns of urgent need for built environment disruption

BSRIA warns that ongoing changes to our climate and living conditions will require drastic new approaches in building design, waste management and how heat is delivered as a service

This year’s BSRIA Annual Briefing has warned that inevitable change to the climate and a rise in global temperatures will exacerbate existing challenges to adapt how buildings are designed, operated and maintained.

The title of this year’s event, held late last week (November 15) in London, was ‘a climate of change’. The event focused on the challenges to adapting buildings and their key services to try and limit and eventually mitigate the impacts of homes and workplaces on the environment. It also considered the barriers and opportunities to realising buildings able to ensure comfort and wellbeing, while withstanding the impacts of more frequent adverse weather conditions.

The briefing looked at how emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, as well as new management approaches around the circular economy and heat as a service can become a viable approach to safe, efficient and effective buildings.

Julia Evans OBE, chief executive of BSRIA, discussed how recent flooding across the UK and in Venice served to highlight how adverse weather patterns once seen as being extraordinary were becoming much more commonplace.

An end to ’business as usual’

The comments were tied to the notion that the entire building, construction and HVACR sectors can no longer rely on a business as usual approach.

Ms Evans said other key themes of the event were that although built environment specialists didn’t know everything about how best to adapt the design of buildings, there was sufficient understanding in construction and heating about the severity of the challenges posed by global temperature change.

She said, “The thought I would like to take with you is what role you and your companies are going to play in this equation?”

Mike Smith, a former engineering director with BSRIA, said during the event that industry must ask important questions of whether enough was being doing enough to rethink carbon emissions and a range of alternative business models.

Mr Smith said that potential solutions to ensure a new approach to buildings and management at the required scale to help realise a 30-year decarbonisation agenda could include embracing the circular economy concept, AI. He also noted the potential delivery of heat and other building functions as a service, as opposed to a company solely providing an appliance or piece of technology.

He said, “These will require new ways of working and dealing with your staff, as well as the associated cost. We will still also have to remember the old-fashioned cases of energy efficiency and sustainability.”

The circular economy

Paul Quinn, who is in charge of large-scale regeneration projects with the Clarion Housing Group, said that his organisation was not the only major body involved in UK building management that was already putting increasing importance on the concept of the circular economy.

He said that the concept, which was focused on taking a much wider approach to standardisation and driving out waste throughout a project and its supply chain, was expected to be adopted by bodies such as the Greater London Authority as a major requirement for future contracts. This would also look at the options for expanding the amount of recyclable material being included in new build properties.

Mr Quinn said that he foresaw a massive shift occurring by the mid-2020s for industry requiring some form of statement or strategy on realising a circular economy on major projects as standard. Mr Quinn said the shift would be comparable to the changes seen over the last decade with regards to sustainability planning on contracts.

He added, “Now you would never bid for any work without a significant element of sustainability in your project. It has just become part and parcel of how we do business.”

“Now I believe the circular economy is going to be the equivalent of that in the next five, six or seven years.”

Mr Quinn said that Clarion, in its position as one of the UK’s largest landlords in the UK – the company currently manages about 125,000 homes - was actively looking already for circular economy proposals and planning from contractors it looks to hire on projects.

He said that a growing number of support documents from bodies such as the Green Building Council were good resources to begin looking at options on transforming business with regard to the circular economy.

Another key panellist at the event was Marylis Ramos, a director with PRP Architects who specialises in the development of sustainability strategies for building projects. She is also charged with advising on more environmentally friendly and passive design techniques.

Ms Ramos touched upon the ongoing evolution of digital technology and its role in buildings, specifically concerning the nation of smart buildings.

She pointed to an industry shift that was already happening to embrace ‘smarter than smart technologies’ that not only made increasing use of efficient sensors, but also utilised artificial intelligence to optimise overall performance and even limit wasted energy, heat and cold.

The presentation noted that an abundance of technologies were now in homes that make use of the term ‘smart’, whether in the form of washing machines, ovens, coffee makers or heating appliances. But the definition and understanding of smart functions would continue to evolve, according to Ms Ramos.

She said that in the future, the term smart will be associated and defined by assisted technologies that can act on data and other sensor inputs to determine wellness and energy use. It is expected this better meet the needs of an individual resident or end user on an automated basis.

Ms Ramos said, “We have a lot more data nowadays at our disposal, so that should mean we design better buildings, because we know exactly what is there and we have a world of different sensors out there and AI to analyse it.”

Potential opportunities identified during the session for change were not only identified in energy management for key building functions in order to minimise demand on the grid and other networks, but also potentially in labelling of construction products.

Ms Ramos said that concepts such as the circular economy could be supported through a data-led approach that mimics systems already in use by major supermarket retailers to understand the supply chain and potential issues.

She said, “One of the thoughts that drives the circular economy is that the materials we use in our buildings are just borrowed and do not belong to us. They should be able to be taken out at the end of the building’s life and be returned to an owner.”

“One of the enablers to that will be to use data and cloud computing to create material passports where you declare how the material should be disposed of at the end of its life from the beginning and make that achievable for anyone that retrieves that information.”

Heat as a service

Eszter Gulacsy, a technical director with Mott MacDonald, meanwhile discussed the concept of specialists such as HVAC manufacturers moving towards delivering a service such as heating, as opposed to an appliance or single piece of technology.

She said that the facilities management industry was a good example of a service model approach that was already established in UK construction to some level.

This move to service models tied in with a concept known as ‘industry 4.0’. The term was first identified in 2011 as part of a German government project to reflect how industry is expected to entering a new era driven by innovations in data, machine learning, AI and sensor technology to better meet individual end user needs.

She said, “You can really see the relevance of this in the construction sector, such as in facilities management where remote sensing can be used to monitor environmental conditions and signal when systems are not working properly.”

Ms Gulacsy said that realising the potential for moving over to a heating as a service style model had significant challenges in moving away from s more siloed approach to thinking and design that is still used in buildings, maintenance and retrofit work.

She said that in the case of buildings, built environment professionals were required to focus on component, rather than a building as a whole with its interlinked systems. This could pose a challenge to a service-focused built environment approach.

Ms Gulacsy said, “On a component level it all works really well, but the overall responsibility is not there.”

The complication of designing radical new approaches to deliver functions such as heat would likely require a number of specialists such as legal experts, engineers and architects to all collaborate together to ensure potential benefits were not derailed.

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