By Marc Gaunt, Segment Manager for Commercial Buildings at power management company Eaton.
Few areas of business were impacted by the pandemic in such a profound way as buildings. The immense shifts in what we need from buildings, from changing work-life patterns to the movement of retail activity further online, may take years to fully come to fruition. At the same time, however, this ‘change point’ represents an opportunity for the buildings sector to make real change towards delivering a built environment which is fit for the future.
Here are five key things to look out for in the coming year as those changes start happening.
1: Old Buildings Will Find New Life
The pandemic had a big impact on the buildings sector, as public health measures turned homes into offices and left office buildings empty. While some of these effects may have receded, the way we use buildings has changed for good: office attendance will not return to pre-Covid levels, advances in remote and hybrid working will not be rolled back, and physical retail will never fully recover the ground it lost to e-commerce.
At the same time, the greater demands now being placed on residential property – to meet many more needs than previously – are arriving at a time when we are also experiencing a housing shortage. A lack of sufficient materials, labour, and land means that new development cannot currently plug the gap between demand for homes and existing housing stock.
In short, we face a situation where some types of property, such as office buildings, are over-abundant, while pressure increases for more homes and buildings that cater for logistical tasks, such as parcel processing and collection. We should therefore expect to see businesses making real efforts to tackle the challenges of repurposing buildings here are significant opportunities in meeting our changing property needs.
2: Power Will Be At The Heart Of Rethinking Building Usage
The changes we have seen in how buildings are used over the last two years came at a time when we were already experiencing changes in property usage, for example as a result of the shift to online shopping, coupled with a regulatory and societal push for greater energy efficiency in response to climate change. The urgent action needed demands better approaches to building efficiency, in terms of designing and retrofitting buildings for reduced energy usage, and this tends to mean changes to a building’s power management system.
The growing adoption of EVs will replace fossil fuels in vehicles, while electric cooking and heating offer significant efficiency gains but introduce yet greater demand for electrical power. At the same time, the increasingly persuasive economic case for small-scale renewables will see rooftop solar deployments become common, leading to buildings becoming more complex consumers and producers of electricity. The term’ prosumers’ is often used to describe the way building owners will manage this new relationship with power, so expect to see and hear more reference to prosumers in the year ahead. How buildings interact with energy infrastructure has long been a vital consideration, but as they are developed and redeveloped in response to changing needs in the coming years, that consideration will rise higher up the agenda. We can expect the basic processes of the industry, such as tenders for contracts and construction standards, to become increasingly focused on questions of power management.
3: Digitalisation Will Become An Essential Enabler
For major changes in how buildings interact with electrical infrastructure to be viable, we cannot rely on traditional technologies and approaches. Smart technologies including smart meters, will become essential to provide buildings with the capability to feed power back to the grid, and provide insight to network operators about how and why each building is using power.
The Buildings as a Grid approach, that we launched recently, makes the microgrid of an individual building more versatile and flexible through digital technology. On-site and remote monitoring capabilities, provided as part of a Buildings as a Grid approach, offer more granular, real-time insight into how and where power is being used in ways that help the building owner to manage power more efficiently, and usually more cost-effectively, as well as helping to balance the grid. Smarter power systems in buildings are able to react to conditions on the grid, for example by charging EVs at times of lower demand. As the overall power system continues to transform, digital systems will offer much-needed flexibility and adaptability at every stage of energy production and usage.
All of this equates to a different relationship between buildings and infrastructure, which is smarter, more responsive, and built for two-way transmission. Projects demonstrating the value of this kind of approach are already underway, and this year smarter power management will become increasingly recognised as an essential part of our response to the climate crisis.
4: Safety In Buildings Will Be Redefined
The safety of buildings has been a central question over the last two years, as public health authorities have raced to understand the dynamics of viral transmission and the impact of interventions like increased ventilation on how building management systems work. Clearly, there is a balance to strike between keeping people safe and keeping day-to-day activities going.
While these questions will continue to influence the way that buildings are developed, they are not the only safety question that must be ‘top of mind’ for the buildings sector in 2022. Changing how buildings are used, will have a very fundamental effect on how risk has been assessed. A residential context has very different safety needs to an office environment, and these risk factors will also be influenced by increased electrical demand which come with electrified approaches to heating and transport.
Alongside this, there will be a growing need to identify the cybersecurity risk profile of buildings, as smart systems come to occupy vital failure points in a building’s structure, such as power distribution boards and HVAC equipment. These need to be seen as part of a complex and cohesive overall system, not separate issues which can be treated in isolation, so it seems likely that new defaults and standards for building safety will develop over the coming years.
5: Ties Between Buildings And Other Sectors Will Deepen
Changes in the buildings sector will arrive in the context of a nuanced and shifting regulatory environment, complex considerations around climate and emissions, public pressure to fulfil changing needs, difficult financial limitations as the global economy recovers from the pandemic, and the need to involve a wider set of stakeholders facing their own business transformation challenges.
We can find a lesson in Norway of how making change in one sector (in this case, transport) can have a knock-on effect elsewhere in the economy, A long-time leader in EV adoption, Norway went through a period where EV sales levelled off significantly because EV charging infrastructure needed to be built to keep up with demand.
The Norwegian experience demonstrates why we will see more formal efforts made to connect industries in a process known as ‘sector coupling’. The ‘big-picture’ view is vital when it comes to energy transition. For buildings, that will mean more communication with energy network operators, more collaboration with suppliers on digitalisation, and expect to see the building sector seeking more engagement with legislators and regulators to ensure appropriate regulatory frameworks are implemented for the built environment.
Getting sector coupling right in the buildings sector will support and accelerate decarbonisation through a more resilient grid, decentralised generation, and smart energy usage which flexes with supply. This is critical to energy transformation – and the shift in building usage offers a vital opportunity for the buildings sector to be part of that process.
This year we should focus on learning the lessons of the past and carefully plan a route towards real change in the buildings sector over the next decade.
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