Nature and Biodiversity

Why a digital and AI-first approach is the fastest path to net-zero buildings

A construction worker on a building site, illustrating the need for net-zero buildings

Net-zero buildings need to become the new norm. Image: Photo by Josh Olalde on Unsplash

John Rhoads
Managing Director, Built Environment Sustainability and OT Global Lead, Accenture
Mike Kazmierczak
Vice-President, Decarbonization Office, Schneider Electric
Will Cavendish
Global Digital Services Leader, Arup Group
Tobias Huber
Sustainability Officer at Siemens Smart Infrastructure, Siemens
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Climate and Nature

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • The building sector is currently not sustainable, accounting for up to 37% of energy-related CO2 emissions.
  • To meet 2030 decarbonization goals, existing buildings must be upgraded.
  • Using the latest digital technology, existing buildings can become a lot more sustainable.

Sustainably speaking, buildings present a problem. The building sector accounts for up to 37% of energy-related CO2 emissions and half of existing building stock will still be in use in 2050. To meet 2030 decarbonization goals, we must do more to upgrade existing buildings. It's a big ask, but luckily we have the best solution: digital.

Maybe you've heard the term 'digital maturity.' It's a measure of a building’s or portfolio's readiness to apply digital capabilities to reduce energy, carbon intensity and operational costs — and it's vital. Buildings that lack digital maturity are on a path to becoming obsolete. More to the point, they conceal the potential to diminish value for companies owning, operating and occupying them. Digital can be the critical missing component to avoiding this risk and achieving widespread decarbonization. It guides and complements related investments in capital equipment and clean energy.

Where we are and where we should be

Some might point out that the building industry is already investing heavily in upgrading equipment, which is positive, but the rate of building renovation needs to ramp up dramatically to meet decarbonization targets. Without increasing digital maturity, capital equipment-based upgrades will deliver fewer decarbonization benefits for the same cost. Digital automation and control can provide insights to better guide investments to realize the greatest impact.

Decarbonization solution components:

1. Purchasing 100% clean electricity.

2. Electrifying combustion processes or decarbonizing the fuel source.

3. Energy efficiency through capital investment.

4. Energy efficiency through operational improvements.

So why digital?

Modern building systems encompass thousands or millions of physical machines and digital components. Each space within a building needs to be precisely conditioned based on its use, ideally consuming the minimum energy possible. It's nearly impossible to do this manually and bringing digital into the mix is generally faster and cheaper than traditional, capital-intensive retrofits — and it can optimize indoor climate as well. Consider the domino effect the failure of even a small component can have on a system. With digital, once an issue is diagnosed, operational changes can be implemented rapidly and at scale. System reprogramming and directed physical interventions can address small root-cause problems and be implemented quickly at a low cost.

A digital-first strategy optimizes existing building equipment, delivering benefits beyond just decarbonization, including reducing failures, extending equipment life and — most importantly — improving the overall occupancy experience. These spaces will be healthier, safer, more reliable and more resilient, ultimately increasing the productivity of their occupants.

Accenture, for example, has deployed more than 3,000 submeters across more than 25 locations globally, demonstrating how energy management can be accomplished on a unified global platform applied to a wide mix of leased offices.

From an operations perspective, digital solutions can be implemented with comparatively minimal disruption and are broadly applicable across building types. Estimates of digital and electric technologies claim up to a 70% reduction in CO2 emissions from existing buildings, with a global market for potential retrofits reaching $1 trillion annually by 2035.

Have you read?

Why digital maturity matters

No buildings are 100% optimized when commissioned. They evolve, change and degrade over time, which affects their efficiency. Across any portfolio, buildings will vary widely in digital maturity. Digitally mature buildings can be optimized in real-time by applying data-driven diagnosis and optimization that compares actual function to optimal. Digital maturity also enables building insight and optimization at an enterprise level, with the potential to unify and centralize building control and management.

Arup's new London office space, for example, includes extensive, integrated digital systems supporting low-carbon operations. Plus, there are additional benefits, such as good air quality, flexible desk locations for staff aligning to thermal comfort preferences and optimizing the use of meeting rooms.

digital mature model for building decarbonization
digital mature model for building decarbonization

Once the level of digital maturity is established, it can — and should — be increased. This begins with measurement because you can't improve what you don't know. From there, the next step is monitoring energy and carbon usage with cloud-based analytics. Then you're in place to use building and power management solutions, check your space utilization and optimize equipment performance through AI-driven predictive maintenance — all enhancing your building's performance.

If you're building new (as opposed to retrofitting), digital can enter the picture from the outset, using digital twin solutions, such as building information modelling. For existing buildings, all major equipment should be monitored and controlled, with closed-loop and pneumatic controls replaced. Additionally, localized systems should become interoperable using gateways, interfaces and APIs. IoT edge devices can enable operational information collection, making it available to advanced, rules-based analytic tools and AI.

Digital maturity can further scale monitoring and benefits. Using the cloud-based Smart Building Suite, Siemens deployed a global utility (energy and water) monitoring and carbon reporting solution at more than 200 sites of one of its clients. This data transparency was the foundation enabling the client to gain operational efficiency and benefits, whilst reducing emissions and increasing renewable sources.

The digital key to unlocking decarbonization

By leveraging advanced analytics, automation and control systems, buildings can optimize energy usage, reduce carbon emissions and enhance operational efficiency. Investing in digital technologies accelerates decarbonization and offers additional benefits, including improved occupant comfort, increased productivity, higher resilience and cost savings. Embracing a digital-first strategy empowers building owners, operators and occupants to create the sustainable, resilient future we need.

The Schneider Electric IntenCity, for example, features EcoStruxure™ solutions and an end-to-end digital architecture. IntenCity is a smart building that supports world-class innovation and the well-being of employees, all while using 37 kWh per square metre per year – 10 times more efficient than existing European buildings.

Want to stay engaged on the topic of digital paths to net-zero buildings?

If you have a building that you'd like featured on the WEF website as a 'Lighthouse Building' for digital decarbonization, visit the programme webpage.

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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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