COVER STORY: Building sector accelerates sustainable transformation

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The building and construction sector is one of the largest energy guzzlers in the world, and is widely reported as responsible for approximately 40 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

While the materials used, as well as heating, cooling and lighting of buildings and infrastructure, are all key drivers of emissions in the sector, there is an accelerated movement towards renewable energies and the adoption of technologies, working to make the industry more sustainable.

In a minidocumentary Digital Nation spoke to Sam Donaldson, national sustainability leader Australia at Laing O’Rourke, Ed Horton owner of sustainable property developer Stable Properties, Monica Graham, general manager origination, podium services, at Lendlease and David Walsh founder and CEO of analytics software solution CIM.

According to Donaldson, the transition to renewable energy “is a big reason why we're starting to see significant reductions and shift in carbon emissions associated with the operation of buildings.”

Donaldson highlights the focus on driving down embodied carbon emissions as another trend towards improving the sustainability of the sector.

Despite describing the pace of change as “too slow”, Donaldson says that reducing the carbon intensity of building materials such as concrete and steel has become a critical focus for suppliers, who are investing heavily in R&D efforts or improving the sustainability of their products.

He said investors are also drivers of sustainability in the sector.

“Investors are now starting to place higher value and incentives towards sustainable projects or green projects. There's certainly an increase, sign up and commitment to voluntary reporting frameworks and commitments to science-based targets initiatives, Task Force on Climate Related Disclosures, all those types of frameworks, a lot of businesses are signing up to those,” says Donaldson.

“There's a significant rise in sustainability design rating schemes, so NABERS, Green Star Infrastructure Sustainability Rating Tool, they're pretty much on every single building and infrastructure project in Australia. And that's really just showing a signal that sustainability is certainly escalating and having a higher level of focus in the construction sector.”

The biggest drivers of electricity consumption in the sector, are also the key areas of focus for driving down costs in property development.

Donaldson says that 80 per cent of emissions are related to building operations.

According to Stable properties' Ed Horton, “The biggest cost area is going to be your air conditioning and heating, that's in your private spaces and in your common areas. And there have been moves amongst the manufacturers of that technology to make them more energy-efficient, but nonetheless, they still the greatest cost burden in commercial energy in residential buildings is air conditioning.”

Stable Properties utilises passive design engineering techniques to reduce reliance on the grid and drive down energy costs.

In one of their 28 story Melbourne towers, Horton says that the building management system meant that no electricity was required to heat or cool the building.

“Heating in those spaces was hydronic heating, then we used a cogeneration system to generate electricity for the common area,” says Horton.

“The exhaust byproduct of generating electricity, we would capture and reuse for heating. So effectively, the cost to heat and cool common areas in that building was zero.”

Lendlease’s flagship development, Barangaroo, is widely applauded for being one of the world’s most sustainable precincts.

The organisation has set both net-zero carbon and zero carbon targets, which it aims to achieve by 2025 and 2040.

According to Monica Graham, Lendlease’s “Big hairy audacious goals around sustainability and ESG” are on track to being achieved.

These not only concern emissions reduction but also goals around waste and water usage.

“We basically have 80 per cent of our waste is diverted from landfill,” she says.

“We also have net positive water as well. So about almost 190,000 litres of water is actually recycled on-site.”

While Graham believes that Lendlease is a leader in the industry, she concedes that the sector is moving in the right direction in setting net zero targets.

When it comes to zero-carbon targets, however, they still have a way to go she believes.

“I think the focus really needs to get to zero, because net zero, you can put in place offsets as an example, but zero carbon is really what all organisations need to be going for, to enable us all to drive down the climate change and responses that the environment is having.”

While it is heartening to see businesses, and more recently governments, setting sustainability targets, what is more important is how they plan to achieve them.

WePower CTO Kaspar Kaarlep calls sustainability a “big data problem.”

“We actually cannot be filtering out our data and simplifying it into models which are untrackable, three, four, five years in the future, because they will get caught out and these long term commitments which people are making, you know, companies say 'we're going to go achieve X by 2030, or by 2035', these are public commitments, and you will have to face them.”

When it comes to meeting such commitments, Donaldson says data is crucial in every sector, not least in construction.

“Quantifying and measuring sustainability emissions is really important for a number of reasons, it helps you set informed targets. Firstly, it allows you to understand the value of solutions that you're testing and trialling. It gives you a good understanding of what of those solutions are providing value, and also allows you to do things like such as understand what are some of those changes that might be behavioural about the technical, to improve performance?” says Donaldson.

SaaS-based analytics platform CIM is one organisation assisting the building sector to run at peak performance and improve operational efficiency through data.

According to Walsh, “The reason that buildings don't run at their peak performance is, firstly, within a building, there are often legacy systems, control systems and different types of equipment don't always talk to each other correctly. And the data that they produce is very unstructured.”

Normalising datasets allows the data to be “analytics ready”, says Walsh, and enables businesses to not only deliver transparency around their sustainability commitments but can improve collaboration across their assets, he says.

“If you take Charter Hall, for example, they use our technology across nearly 50 of their large commercial buildings. And the outcomes aren't just improved electricity consumption and emissions reduction and environmental ratings. It actually allows them better collaboration between the owner, Charter Hall and then the facility management companies and the contractors,” says Walsh.

“And that's what's missing in the industry is the ability to get transparency across your 50 assets, for example, and then to be able to help everybody within that sector to collaborate more efficiently to get the issues fixed.”

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