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Going digital: data is making buildings more sustainable

The construction and real estate industries have not historically been at the forefront of digital innovation. The push for a more sustainable built environment, combined with a shifting political and economic landscape, is changing this, and smarter technology is having an increasingly positive impact. 

Brendan Wallace, Co-Founder and Managing Partner at Fifth Wall, Henrik Ahnström, Director of Innovation at Skanska Commercial Development Nordic, and Stacy Smedley, Executive Director at Building Transparency, are all leaders in innovation, finding ways to make use of the latest digital solutions. Each, in their own unique way, using technology to tackle our modern climate challenges head-on.


Driving technology innovation


While the real estate industry makes up a substantial part of the global economy — real estate assets around the world have a total value of $325 trillion — it’s an industry that has often been slow to adopt new technology. Now, however, the tides are beginning to turn. Fifth Wall’s Brendan Wallace has some insight into forces that are driving change in his industry’s historic aversion to digital solutions.


First, the changing landscape of regulation is forcing technological innovation that will allow buildings to meet local ordinance requirements. In the United States, real estate regulation is largely local, not federal. Even while the federal political landscape can shift, many US cities and urban centers have local leadership that consistently prioritizes climate sustainability. Building codes and city ordinances have been progressively moving toward reducing carbon emissions. Meeting these new standards requires digital tools that make energy efficiency, sustainable construction and climate resilience easier for developers to plan for and pursue.


Economic factors are also driving technology adoption in development, construction and real estate. Customers are demonstrating an increasing preference for sustainable products and services. These customers can be tenants and home-buyers, businesses leasing commercial space or investors in commercial developments. Growing demand for sustainable properties and features is a powerful financial incentive for adopting technology that helps the construction and real estate industries more effectively meet those needs.


The combined effect of these regulatory and economic changes is stimulating the more widespread adoption of technology. Proptech – with solutions simplifying and optimizing real estate transactions – was an early breakthrough area. It served as a proof of concept that digital innovation was a profitable pursuit and created a more open-minded industry that has since become increasingly willing to utilize technology as data procurement and analytics tools. Proptech laid the groundwork that gave the real estate industry both the willingness and the ability to capitalize on climate tech as it, too, gained popularity with regulators and consumers.


Information is power


Much of climate technology’s value lies in its ability to gather, analyze and utilize data. While Proptech has been improving the real estate industry’s ability to leverage operational efficiency, digital analytics tools developed alongside it have also been streamlining the planning and construction process.


Stacy Smedley and her team at Building Transparency offer an example of just that sort of tool, by way of EC3. The Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator, EC3 allows developers to analyze the embodied carbon emissions throughout the entire construction process and building life cycle. Embodied carbon refers to the carbon emissions produced by the materials and processes used during building construction. This includes manufacturing, transport, installation, maintenance and disposal.


While EC3 is an important piece of climate technology in itself, it also aids in the development of future technology. The information that EC3 provides about the embodied carbon emissions of any given material, process or technique allows manufacturers to develop low-carbon alternatives more effectively. Concrete, for example, is one of the leading embodied carbon emitters, but understanding how concrete contributes large volumes of CO2 into the atmosphere throughout its life cycle has led to innovations in concrete manufacturing that reduce its negative impact on the environment.


Because of the aforementioned economic benefits of pursuing sustainability, incorporating a tool like EC3 into an existing Proptech suite has allowed companies like Microsoft to positively impact the built environment without negative financial effects. In addition, the analytics provided by EC3 streamline the ability of organizations to set and meet sustainability goals and regulatory requirements. The open-source nature of Building Transparency’s EC3 tool creates space for collaboration between city leaders, regulators, developers, manufacturers and commercial tenants. Shared information and cooperative digital solutions allow us all to work together to create a more sustainable built environment.


The future of climate tech


Such tools represent a steadily growing enthusiasm for pursuing digital innovations in development and construction. As Henrik Ahnström explains, climate tech trends in the industry now include practical design solutions as well as data collection tools.


For example, in the planning process, Building Information Modeling allows developers to use data to see the way different building systems interact with each other before beginning construction. This includes areas such as energy usage and embodied carbon emissions. That data can be turned into a real-time model of a building called a digital twin, which allows developers to explore the 3D space inside a building and run simulations relating to its structural makeup throughout the construction phase, as well as consumption and movement patterns in a building once it is in operation.


Developers are also increasingly prioritizing climate tech that improves the health and wellness of building occupiers. Building automation monitors air quality, for instance, to improve efficiency and create a healthier environment. These smart buildings are a next step in tech implementation in the built environment, and they pave the way for more widespread adoption of technological innovations to create more sustainable buildings and development best practices.


Foundation for progress


PropTech marked a significant step forward in the real estate industry’s ability to modernize its systems and techniques. It proved the value of data analytics to industry leaders and has since evolved to include climate-focused solutions that emphasize the health and sustainability of the built environment.


The path is laid to further innovate climate technologies that will reduce the carbon emissions of construction materials, building processes and the usage phase of buildings. The momentum of innovation that the industry now has carries exciting possibilities for the future of the built environment as a digital leader in climate-focused solutions that make a positive environmental impact.


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