The pandemic has upended way of life around the world—and the impact on the future of buildings, building performance and building use is in many ways still unknown.
Danfoss recently convened a virtual EnVisioneering Workshop to explore the pandemic’s impact and how it might reset building markets and energy-performance strategy—whether new building use patterns will slow or accelerate energy decarbonization and electrification, and what their significance will be on indoor air quality solutions.
“Pre-pandemic, building design was already experiencing early waves of transformation,” says Lisa Tryson, director of corporate communications at Danfoss. “Now, a shaken world economy, new public health priorities, evolving standards, and a possible shift in the way we go to work are pointing toward a market reset. Moving forward, we see opportunities emerging around healthy and carbon-neutral buildings—but the industry will need scale and speed to reach these ambitious and evolving targets.”
Defining the ‘new normal’ in buildings
Remote work and “retail cannibalization” sending consumers to virtual platforms for shopping and entertainment lead the list of notable trends impacting the built environment. Rich Overmoyer, president and CEO of Fourth Economy, suggested to workshop participants that both trends are impacting the urbanization of the past decade. Flexible work arrangements are allowing people to move away from major cities to more idyllic suburban and rural communities, leading building owners to consider reconfiguring space use for both health and profitability.
New opportunities, Overmoyer indicated, include innovations on home ownership finance—particularly as population shifts drive home costs and an emerging affordability crisis—and in construction models that can encourage commercial building renovation and rehabilitation.
Scott Foster, director of sustainable energy at the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) in Geneva, Switzerland, maintained that high-performance building design addresses many of the challenges the pandemic has brought to the world of buildings, including the need for healthy indoor environments, new and expanded technology integration, and long-term cost reduction. Moreover, deploying high-performance buildings would drive an economic restart, boost social equity in the built environment, improve quality of life in the broadest terms, and attenuate the global climate crisis through reduced energy consumption and carbon emissions.
In brief, rather than being derailed by the pandemic, a move to high-performance buildings would create an improved “new normal” in buildings and establish a new trajectory for truly sustainable development.
Cities set a new direction for sustainable development
Jenna Cramer, executive director of Pittsburgh’s Green Building Alliance, outlined how the city of Pittsburgh has developed a track record and useful experience base in how to act on the new possibilities that Foster highlighted. Pittsburgh was the second city in the United States, after New York, to adopt the UN Sustainable Development Goals and its 2030 Agenda. The city has a well-established 2030 District, which in 2019 already had 86.3 million square feet and 556 buildings committed, achieving an array of performance improvements for the district: 23.1 percent energy-use reduction; 19.8 percent water-use reduction; 122 individual buildings providing indoor air quality (IAQ) data; and 26 percent cut in carbon emissions from transit (2018 data). Drilling down on IAQ, 2030 District Property Partners are monitoring CO2 and odors in the reporting buildings, establishing “no idling” zones outside them and moving on several other interventions. Pittsburgh’s work to make the UN’s vision of sustainability in and by buildings a reality is showing important results.
The task now, Cramer suggested, is to organize the building community across the country to establish and sustain a new direction for buildings that can meet the demands of sustainable development broadly defined—which embraces the specific challenges to which the pandemic has given rise. Pittsburgh is proving what can be done. Building owners need to be incentivized to commit to that new building future.
Emerging standards and high-performance design
Drake Erbe, vice president for market development at Airxchange—who has served in senior positions supporting an array of standard creating organizations, nationally and internationally—reported on trends in emerging standards that he expects will further strengthen the high-performance tide in the U.S. and abroad.
He noted the development of data as a key element in the evolution of building design through Building Information Modeling for construction and how maturing data capacity is now empowering other players in the building marketplace. Utilities, power generators, local jurisdictions, financial institutions, and others are able to harness the same capacity for better performance reporting requirements, operation management, and determining asset financial value. In Europe, that has meant the emergence of Smart Standards development that can leverage data capabilities to achieve and maintain wholly new levels of building energy performance requirements. Through the international cooperation on standards and the mounting of global market forces, the U.S. can expect to be under growing pressure to move in the same direction.
Thought leadership in the standards arena, then, is adding to global and local aspirations and demonstrated performance capabilities to drive the shift to high performance despite the pandemic. Richard Lord, a senior fellow at Carrier, however, expressed concern that several forces are slowing the implementation and impact of high-performance standards. He pointed to action being taken by leading cities, on the other hand, as successful efforts to work around standards to achieve aspirational building performance levels. The emergence of the Healthy Building movement, which focuses on the physical, psychological, and social health of building inhabitants, he suggested, is becoming a potent force driving building performance.
Overall, Lord sees the impact of currently emerging standards being perhaps superseded by reactions to market forces, policy demands, and “MaxTech,” as the demands for energy performance lie adjacent to the physical properties and the science of cooling and heating. The turn to a holistic approach to buildings is, consequently, gaining a momentum of its own—a holistic, or systemic, approach positing that all building-related energy uses, and both outdoor and indoor climatic requirements, are considered in integrated design and management of an individual building or cluster of buildings.
Health, climate and economic impacts
Urban Green CEO John Mandyck saw the future in similar terms and offered the New York City experience as an illustration. The risks of climate change are simply too great for city government to turn a blind eye, and, as a consequence, the city is moving ahead forcefully on implementation of performance requirements set in motion pre-pandemic. In addition, health and climate have shown themselves to be inseparable. Finally, the transition to a high-performance building stock would rely on retrofit-based strategies with the potential to create more than 140,000 new jobs. High-performance buildings are required not only by rising aspirations for building quality, but also as a response to a pandemic battered economic future.
The workshop was part of Danfoss’ EnVisioneering Symposia Series, which for more than 15 years, has sought to drive conversation and engagement on the urgent and emerging trends challenging the HVACR industry.