Smart Cities

The Building Retrofit Revolution?

Today, the number of efficient buildings in the world barely represents 1% of total building stock, and the percentage of new buildings built today to high-efficiency standards is barely above 10%. When you consider that the average building is operational for 60 years, you quickly realize it would take centuries to decarbonize all building stock through rebuilding, even if every new building is smart. At the same time, climate change continues to threaten our societies and increase pressure on real estate to reduce its 40% share of energy consumption via increasing regulation and market forces. If we are to reduce the environmental impact of buildings enough to meet science’s 2050 climate change deadline, then we will need to start an unprecedented building retrofit revolution very soon. “80% of the buildings we will use in 2050 have already been built. Retrofitting existing stock by 2050 will be a challenge, leaving many wondering whether it’s really possible,” says […]

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Today, the number of efficient buildings in the world barely represents 1% of total building stock, and the percentage of new buildings built today to high-efficiency standards is barely above 10%. When you consider that the average building is operational for 60 years, you quickly realize it would take centuries to decarbonize all building stock through rebuilding, even if every new building is smart. At the same time, climate change continues to threaten our societies and increase pressure on real estate to reduce its 40% share of energy consumption via increasing regulation and market forces. If we are to reduce the environmental impact of buildings enough to meet science’s 2050 climate change deadline, then we will need to start an unprecedented building retrofit revolution very soon.

“80% of the buildings we will use in 2050 have already been built. Retrofitting existing stock by 2050 will be a challenge, leaving many wondering whether it’s really possible,” says Nik Flytzanis, Head of Supply Chain at Plentific. “Technology and smart buildings present the best opportunity yet, to turn this historic challenge into a possibility. Smart building technology brings hardware and software together to generate granular data on building performance. However, once you add the IoT to the mix, you can harness live data from buildings to monitor assets that are carbon emission contributors. This can help individuals and organizations also take a more predictive - rather than reactive - approach to maintaining and retrofitting these assets.”

Smart building technology not only makes building’s greener, it provides the intelligence to make retrofitting more efficient and effective, thereby reducing cost and risk to the buyer, and driving adoption. Retrofitting without that deep insight into the building and its usage looks like an expensive trial-and-error process in comparison. Furthermore, in this age of remote and hybrid work, experts expect consolidation of commercial real estate, office buildings in particular, and smart technology again provides the intelligence to make that downsizing efficient and effective. We need to make buildings a bit smarter before we can effectively downsize workspaces or deeply retrofit older buildings for energy efficiency.

Any sufficiently large player in a sufficiently large industry will have tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of square feet of space. At that scale, there is simply no way that you can see how all of it is used in real-time, anecdotally,” Andrew Farah, CEO of occupancy analytics firm Density Inc., told Memoori. “You just can’t make decisions about 75 million square feet of space without actual data on its usage. So, if you’re going to make a consequential decision, like shedding 15 million square feet of space or 40% of your real estate, you’ll need a system that measures usage.”

A decade ago, many of these decisions would have been made based on anecdotal information on internal building usage or with cumbersome and error-prone manual occupant monitoring processes. Traditional building management systems relied on hard-wired connections that were too expensive for most buildings to consider for pre-retrofit usage data gathering. However, many modern sensors can be connected wirelessly, allowing limited but effective IoT monitoring systems to be set up at relatively low cost. These systems then provide the data foundation for initial efficiency gains and begin to develop the insight required for major retrofits.

"Simply put, the retrofit revolution cannot be completed without first addressing, then plugging the gaps we have in data and building information. I can see this playing a key role in each of the six stages of a standard retrofit - whether that’s harnessing sensors and smart tech for inspections in stage one or visualizing data to design and coordinate the projects in stage four,” continues Flytzanis in an article for TwinFM. “The additional investment of widespread smart technology will be negligible when set against the savings made in the long term. And as a bonus, we also get to save our planet.”

Wireless IoT sensor networks are not the only way to gather accurate digital information on an older building seeking to retrofit for decarbonization, however. A variety of innovative technologies are now emerging to provide insights that can facilitate fast, affordable, and effective retrofits. One German start-up, Ecoworks, has developed the technology to take a 3D scan of a building, which provides a digital twin of the building from inside and out. This 3D digital snapshot of the building is sent to their factory where customized parts can be prefabricated and sent to the site for rapid installation.

One of Ecoworks’ first projects was a 1930s apartment complex that used 450 kilowatt-hours of energy per square meter, making it one of the least efficient buildings in Germany. Ecoworks scanned the building and began using the digital twin to produce wooden panels designed with windows, ventilation, and channels for pipes specifically for the building’s facade. A modular roof with built-in solar panels was also produced in sections and sent to the building. 

On site, construction workers were able to install each facade panel in as little as 20 minutes. This meant that the entire building retrofit, including replacing fossil-powered heat, took just weeks, where you might expect months in a project using traditional construction methods. After the retrofit, the building achieves negative emissions, even selling excess electricity back to the grid on a regular basis. Ecoworks was able to take the least green building and make it environmentally positive in just a matter of weeks, and that is the kind of turnaround the real estate industry requires to do its part in the fight against climate change.

“If you have a digital twin, you can actually automate planning, which, in a normal renovation, would take months and a lot of engineers and architects,” says Ecoworks founder Emanuel Heisenberg in an article for Fast Company. “There’s no way to meet the global challenge in time without moving away from traditional construction but the industry doesn’t embrace innovation. At the core of the problem is the construction industry invests less than 1% in R&D, but you really need technology to solve that problem.”

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