Buildings can be key to a sustainable future – but first, business models need to change

We have been given an opportunity to
rebuild in a better way post-pandemic.

The World Economic Forum was right to say in a post this month that buildings could be the key to building a sustainable society post-pandemic.

The built world is, after all, responsible for 40% of all global energy consumption and 33% of greenhouse gas emissions. But, says Tom Harmsworth, managing director UK at WeMaintain, this demands a shift in how we think about buildings and how we allocate capital in the sector. Real evolution of this kind demands that everyone involved plays their part.

Discussion has changed since Covid

First, it’s worth considering the urgency of the climate crisis and how the discussion has changed following the events of last year. Confined to our homes, largely unable to travel, the air became cleaner, natural life flourished, and there was a general appreciation of the natural world which, despite much discussion of the climate in recent years, has never felt so profound.

Now the question on everyone’s lips is whether we fall back into old habits or try to do things differently as regards sustainability. All crises are opportunities, and as restrictions are lifted and lockdowns end, there is a chance to re-evaluate our behaviour and build back ‘greener’.

In Europe, more than 220 million buildings three-quarters of all buildings are energy-inefficient. One reason this persists is because there is a serious problem with the dominant sector business model. Opex and Capex are geared towards increasing the lifespan of equipment.

Planned obsolescence, of the kind seen in washing machines and smartphones, applies in this space, too. It is a side effect of what is an inherent flaw with capitalism, the belief that consumption is an unqualified good. But this is in conflict, to say the least, with our green ambitions, which demand that we use less.

Though the prevailing Opex and Capex approach does go a long way to keeping the quality of equipment high, the commercial and environmental cost is impossible to ignore. Building owners may upgrade their physical assets, rather than replace them, but we still have the same problem. And it is a stubborn problem. Like all cultural problem, it is deeply entrenched in the sector: It is simply traditional in the built world for building owners to do things this way.

Increasing efficiency

There is a solution, however, which is to focus on increasing efficiency. The Internet of Things (IoT) enables building managers to gather massive amounts of data such as temperature, humidity, motion and contact sensors knowledge about the property and make adjustments right away, in real time. A truly smart building can make those adjustments itself, bringing down the temperature, decreasing the humidity, turning lights on and off according to occupancy and motion, and crucially predicting when things go wrong.

Every doctor knows prevention is better than cure. IoT tells building owners when and in what way something is in disrepair. This gives us a sense of what a new, greener kind of culture in the built world might look like one of constant maintenance informed by the rich data, gathered using IoT.

Tom Harmsworth

Lifts need not break down. They may deteriorate somewhat, but the building owner will know of this as it happens, and engineers can address any problem before it intensifies. Building managers and workers can be confident that the entire building system will work smoothly and its occupants will have a seamless experience from the moment they enter the building to the moment they leave. This approach is cheaper in the long run, even if it inconveniences those attached to historic business models in the short term.

Making the change is not easy. In fact, there is an argument that state intervention in the market, in the form of tax breaks for maintenance companies, might be the fastest and most effective way of encouraging the right behaviour. But the reality of the moment is that we do need to make changes, some of them dramatic, to mitigate the worst effects of the climate crisis.

And it is not just about sustainability: it is about leaning into the future towards which we are inexorably headed, giving those who work and live in buildings in other words, almost everyone a better and more reliable experience, (which has economic benefits), and giving building owners knowledge and, in the long run, massive cost savings. We have been given an opportunity to rebuild in a better way post-pandemic. Let’s take it.

The author is Tom Harmsworth, managing director UK at WeMaintain.

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