Emerging Technologies

How AI can help cut real estate carbon emissions

AI can help retrofit buildings to cut real estate's carbon emissions

AI can help retrofit buildings to cut real estate's carbon emissions Image: Photo by Chris Dack on Unsplash

Yao Morin
Chief Technology Officer, JLL
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Emerging Technologies

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • Many of the world's buildings are decades old; some are even older and are huge carbon emitters.
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) has the potential to help significantly reduce real estate carbon emissions, which is responsible for roughly 60% of global emissions in major cities.
  • We have a long way to go if we are to reach net zero carbon in real estate, but with more tools emerging all the time, we now have solutions available to get us started on the path.

The adoption of technology to help solve climate issues is now a given. The majority (85%) of commercial real estate leaders expect that their business will increase their real estate technology budget over the next three years, according to JLL's recent survey. Investments in artificial intelligence (AI) and sustainability solutions are expected to have the biggest impact.

But while AI’s potential to transform the global economy has captured the world’s imagination, less talked about is how the adoption of AI will help tackle carbon emissions in real estate, which is responsible for roughly 60% of global emissions in major cities. The new technologies can enable public and private organizations to create effective sustainability strategies for single buildings and entire portfolios.

A major area where we will see this unfold, and one that is underestimated, will come amid efforts to retrofit buildings. This is no small task. Globally, over 1 billion square metres of office space require retrofitting by the middle of this century. That means retrofitting rates must rise significantly from around 1% of stock per year today to at least 3% of stock per year to meet the target.

Achieving this will take more than just installing new heating and air conditioning control systems or putting solar panels on rooftops. The solutions needed are far more complex. They involve systematically examining the current state of buildings, their structures, materials, energy and utility systems and operations. Essentially, it’s about absorbing and analyzing vast amounts of data at scale and speed, making AI perfect for the job.

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AI at work

To effectively retrofit buildings, large amounts of information must be scrutinized. And, as no two buildings are the same, each property needs its own approach.

This is where the speed of AI and large language models (LLMs) comes into play. For instance, going through construction documents and maintenance records can help limit the need for new equipment and materials, thereby reducing waste. Examining engineering systems can help identify easy solutions, such as whether a simple sensor add-on could solve the problem instead of a more extensive overhaul.

Net-zero coefficient interventions need to be strategically planned
Net-zero coefficient interventions need to be strategically planned Image: JLL

This work, when done manually, is complex and time-consuming. But AI can do it faster and more efficiently by digesting the documents, extracting the necessary information and quickly organizing it into a standard format that’s ready to use.

Take, for instance, plans to retrofit the World Trade Centre in Brussels, which, when completed, is set to be the most energy-efficient building in the European Union’s capital. During its construction, almost 95% of all the materials and existing equipment will be recovered, reused or recycled, with 65% of the existing buildings maintained. About 30,000 tonnes of concrete from selective demolition will be reused on-site. Another 1,000 tonnes of products and materials, including wood panelling, carpets and insulation, will be reused on-site or in other locations.

A project of this scale would benefit hugely from using AI to help streamline efforts allowing valuable human resources to be deployed elsewhere.

Monitoring in real-time

Project planning and real-time monitoring of construction sites are also areas where AI can add tremendous value. AI can use photos to generate 3D models of sites and layer them into a construction plan, helping developers build faster and with less risk by tracking project progress and optimizing construction schedules. Combining existing site data and images with generative AI capabilities can also be particularly helpful for visualizing how new structures will fit into existing surroundings.

Then, there’s supply chain tracking. Real estate must consider supply chain carbon emissions, which are notoriously hard to track. This is where AI can help assess the pros and cons of different retrofitting options, rapidly analyzing the entire supply chain impact and total carbon involved while standardizing reporting and documentation.

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To be sure, there are still major challenges ahead. Retrofitting processes are complicated and AI can’t solve it overnight. In many cases, we’re also talking about old buildings, where less data may be readily available to feed into AI models, thereby requiring more human investigation and effort before AI can be of actual use.

Yet, while AI doesn’t necessarily simplify the entire process, it can undoubtedly help complete each task more efficiently, delivering better outcomes in the process. We have a long way to go to reach net zero carbon in real estate, but with more emerging tools, we now have solutions available to get us started.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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