A Wicked Problem: How Do We Make Existing Buildings Smarter?

December 11, 2019 | Rory Gahagan
People overlooking the city while sitting on lawn.
Image: Pexels

Climate change is a “wicked problem”—an issue so large and complex that there is no single, silver-bullet solution to solve it. Historically, human society hasn’t responded well to complex, looming problems. Emotions, cognitive biases, social pressures, and a general lack of willpower can thwart otherwise-straightforward and cohesive attempts to solve large-scale issues. Perhaps, then, some answers lie in the systems that people rely on, rather than peoples’ behaviors alone.

Now more than ever, analyzing and defining the quickest and best ways to reduce carbon emissions from our buildings—some of the world’s largest energy users and emitters—is imperative for revolutionizing our energy system. Many local governments have committed to leading this effort through a variety of municipal actions, leveraging advantages of modern technology and data analysis to refine courses of action. For example, Washington, D.C. continues to build on its Clean and Affordable Energy Act (CAEA) of 2008 , which required all large private buildings in the District over 50,000 square feet to benchmark and disclose their energy use data. The District’s OpenData website shares this collected data with the public. When cities such as the District provide access to complete and accurate building energy consumption data, it gives both the public and private sectors an opportunity to use technology and data to target efficiency improvements and it enables building decision makers to respond more flexibly to human and environmental demand; as well as comply with new laws such as the District’s Building Energy Performance Standard.

Do “smart buildings” need to be new buildings?

For buildings to become smarter, we can use today’s technology to respond better to human-environment interactions. According to the World Resources Institute, “smart buildings” are structures designed with “intelligence” to optimize occupant productivity—via improved air quality, optimal lighting, and greater comfort—at the lowest cost and environmental impact. Smart buildings, in theory, work with machine-to-machine communication to connect building operating systems to optimize for HVAC demands, occupancy, and power consumption, with the potential to live-stream data and connect to the power grid.

This definition is somewhat limiting, as most of the buildings in U.S. cities that will exist 100 years from now have already been built. The best, most immediate solutions to optimizing our human-building-environment interaction should not require completely new structures. Smart buildings can be wasteful solutions, especially if we consider the costs of embodied carbon in construction. When we account for embodied carbon, smart buildings could easily do more harm than good. To alleviate this, new tools such as the free, open-access Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3) tool should be used more widely to help builders make more informed decisions on materials and operations.

Catalyzing Action on Efficiency Across Building Stakeholders

The costs and benefits of building improvements across different roles in a building prompted IMT to ask the question: how can we catalyze change across stakeholders to create high-performance buildings? Since people are central to buildings, energy efficiency technology improvements happen when roles are tapped for their wants and needs. A building engineer wanting to make energy-efficient changes may be constrained by what the building owner prioritizes. Or, a building owner may be limited by their capital constraints, or have already budgeted for their building improvements in the last capital budget cycle.

How do we address these hurdles? People are more likely to buy into change when it has an immediate impact on their own priorities, and energy savings through financing tools like green leases can spread the impacts of improvement costs and benefits equitably among different parties. Efficient HVAC units, well-insulated building envelopes, and LED lighting with networked lighting controls are some products that can save energy, money, and improve indoor conditions that make tenants happier, more likely to stay, or more productive. Mechanical improvements that adjust for better air quality have an immediate effect on the health and wellness of a tenants’ employees or an apartment’s occupants. Ultimately, I believe truly flexible, “smart” buildings incorporate technology that addresses a variety of wants and needs so that all parties are well-informed and empowered to implement positive, impactful solutions.

How data and technology can help take the burden off individuals

Data and technology can help change our approach to the world’s “wicked problems.” With increasing data collection and analysis by cities and energy service professionals, we can begin to address these problems with focused solutions for a spectrum of inefficiencies. When we incorporate a “smart” mindset into our buildings and systems of governance, we start to literally and figuratively build a society that optimizes holistic solutions. Since technology’s imperatives aren’t likely to shift our dynamic with buildings, we must ask ourselves, how can we rethink our relationship with buildings, through technology, to work with human behavior? With smarter resources at our disposal, we can work to make existing buildings more efficient so that humans can breathe a little easier.

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