Smart buildings that benefit the city, people and the environment

Smart buildings that benefit the city, people and the environment

Wed 24 Mar 2021

While there is a consensus about the smart building concept, there are still challenges to overcome if tomorrow’s buildings are enhanced to benefit the environment, cities and people. Starting with their design and throughout their useful lives, buildings have a huge impact on the environment and the quality of life of their users. So how can we end decades of polluting practices?

Concrete is the second most widely used material on building sites and is the most polluting. In addition to consuming a lot of water and having a particularly slow rate of degradation over time, its hugely widespread use makes a very active contribution to air pollution due to the fine particles released during construction work. Hence the need for those involved in the building and public works sector to use materials with lower emissions, such as timber frames, which are increasingly chosen due to incentives for using renewable materials. Or, where concrete is indispensable, to opt for the emerging 3D printing solutions.

Mitigating climate risks

Setting aside their construction, heating methods and insulation quality can also increase the climate risks posed by buildings. It is precisely because it is so damaging that gas heating will be banned in new individual homes in France in the summer of 2021 and collective housing from 2024. Successive regulations, which are powerful levers for change, have driven and accelerated virtuous shifts in the construction and real estate sector towards meeting carbon neutrality targets. With the ban on fuel oil and gas, the State is doing all it can to promote renewables in the energy mix. These changes contribute to the 90% carbon-free production of electricity in France1 – unlike the fossil fuels formerly employed. Greening our heat sources is pointless, however, without high-performance insulation. Hence the importance of thermal rehabilitation in public and private buildings, the oldest of which sometimes resemble real energy sieves.

Taking a comprehensive approach to urban planning

A final factor is how buildings are used, given that most of them were designed and built when users’ needs and the importance attached to global warming were very different. Nowadays, people2 want access to work, shops, schools, and leisure activities within a 10 km radius: a desire that has been confirmed by the health crisis, which has acted as a catalyst for pre-existing trends. In short, being smart means rethinking every aspect of the building’s design and use throughout its life. More than ever, the many challenges identified need to be considered as part of a comprehensive approach to urban planning. Smart buildings form only one of the six interdependent pillars3 of the smart city.

Levers for change

If the crisis has strengthened environmental awareness, remote working has paradoxically increased their desire for more living space, in a more horizontal and hence less responsible way.  For that reason, expanding the city vertically – which is one real answer to energy optimisation issues – will only appeal to people if it meets their demands. In this sense, rethinking how people use the city and its buildings is a priority, especially since the vacancy rate has increased dramatically in recent months. It is, therefore, now a question of thinking about more intelligent, versatile and shared uses to meet the new needs of residents. This could take the form, for example, of shared remote working spaces in a building or district to limit travel while encouraging social contacts. This modular and reversible approach to the existing stock – whether residential, office, logistics, commercial or leisure property – will benefit everyone. From users, who will be able to access additional living space without having to buy bigger; to developers, who, thanks to a more iterative approach to management, will maintain satisfactory margins while continuing to sustainably reduce the carbon footprint of these buildings throughout their use.

A powerful and inseparable driver of the smart building concept, technologies will play a central role in these changes, enhancing and adding value to the building in its design stage and throughout its life. Automatic adjustment of lighting and reduced heating at appropriate times, for example, thanks to intelligent sensors and connected objects (IoT), allows public and private buildings equipped with these systems to collect – for virtuous purposes – the data needed to anticipate and optimise energy consumption, by working with energy companies4 and cities. 

Saving raw materials, reducing the environmental footprint and lowering bills are significant contributions, which nevertheless raise two issues. Firstly, when connected solutions and tools are multiplying at a frantic pace, it is essential that the use of building and home automation systems is consistent with a rational energy consumption policy to ensure that it is not counterproductive. Some equipment and gadgets are particularly energy-intensive and can be difficult to recycle. Secondly, the use of this data is still a source of anxiety, reluctance or even outright opposition despite its direct and proven benefits. Engaging every user in this virtuous transformation of the building and the city calls for education and demystification, which can only be achieved effectively with State support.

Rehabilitation and accessibility, two complex challenges

More than ever, property developers who are global champions in this area are putting their ingenuity and innovation to work to benefit the climate; by designing new programmes that respect the various environmental and sustainability issues, but also by rethinking the uses of old buildings. These players have also set ambitious targets and made firm commitments, such as indexing their managers’ variable remuneration to measuring the energy performance of buildings. However, this raises the question of the rehabilitation or renovation of existing buildings, which have particularly high emissions. While new buildings are much more likely than old to have a significant positive impact on their environment, transforming old buildings would at least limit their effects, some of which can be devastating. However, this is a large-scale project that, despite the support of regulations and tax measures, raises several problems beyond its financing, such as the shortage of skilled labour to implement the latest energy efficiency techniques.

Finally, a smart building will not be totally smart unless it is accessible. Because ultimately, how do a smart city and its people benefit from a growth in ultra-sophisticated, intelligent and hyperconnected housing in which only the elite can invest? It’s quite clear that a balance between the quality and accessibility of housing remains to be found. However, given soaring property prices in many parts of the world, home ownership problems could find answers in new models such as grouped, shared or rotational home ownership, some of which are still waiting to be imagined. Now ready to consider these options5, countries may well take an increasing interest in them in future years, benefiting the climate and society but above all improving the quality of life for their users.

1 EDF shares the data — Open Data EDF; 2, 5 Baromètre « Immobilier & société : vivre et travailler en ville » (Mazars, juillet 2020) (in French); The six pillars of the smart city: smart environment, smart mobility, smart living, smart governance, smart economy, smart people; 4 Producing a climate-friendly energy | EDF Group