After struggling for years to capture the attention of owners, developers and investors, the green building movement has taken off and no longer needs to work as hard to convince industry stakeholders of the benefits of sustainable construction. But as the movement seeks to tackle trillions of square feet of global real estate assets, decision-makers are turning their attention to the hard data associated with building green.
In the past, sustainable construction advocates had to rely largely on anecdotal and case-by-case evidence of the benefits of green building. Today, certification organizations and improving technology are contributing to the next, more sophisticated stage of the movement — one driven by data and the ability to share it with project stakeholders.
During the 2016 Greenbuild International Conference & Expo in Los Angeles this week, experts explored how their companies approach sustainability through data-driven insights, and how they use those insights to add value to projects.
How data can transform the life-cycle costs of a building
Although certification and sustainability tracking programs like LEED, BREEAM and GRESB have existed for years, data collection is now beginning to take a front seat in the construction and management process. "We’re sitting at the juncture now where data is beginning to transform how we design, build and operate buildings," said Vladi Shunturov, president and co-founder of software platform Lucid.
Building maintenance and operations — often an overlooked but crucial part of a building's lifecycle — can track several data sets, such as air quality, lighting, utility data, leasing data, thermal comfort, HVAC, weather, waste and recycling, security and occupancy.
Gathering this kind of information can lead to smarter business decisions, according to Shuntorov. He said that if gathered and used effectively, insights gained from building data can reduce energy costs by approximately 17%. "It’s hard to answer business questions without data," Shunturov said. "We have no idea how buildings perform after we build them, and that’s the journey organizations are beginning to embark on."
One major roadblock to wider implementation of building data tracking technology has been the complex nature of many software systems. However, new technologies are now hitting the market that simplify the data and make it applicable to users. "If you don’t create something actionable, then you will fail at using data to impact change," Shunturov said. "Data itself doesn’t make business flow easier unless you have adoption. You need people."
Where certification organizations come into play
The push for more sustainable buildings isn't new, but recent events have accelerated the movement. For example, the Paris Climate Agreement in December 2015 sent "a very clear signal that regulation and minimum energy efficiency standards will come to the market," said Ulrich Scharf, who works for GRESB on product and infrastructure development, including its scoring algorithm.
Investors have also sparked activity in the green building space, as they have urged leaders across the world to adhere to stricter carbon emission standards. Investors are also concerned with their own portfolio, and they want their properties to meet potential new regulations and set a high standard for sustainability.
GRESB, which assesses the performance of global real estate assets, tracks company data for real estate portfolios and infrastructure assets. "Our job at the end of the day is to get the data, validate the data and benchmark the data," Scharf said. "For investors, this is important because it allows them to understand what happened to their portfolios and set clear targets on improvements."
Through programs like GRESB, companies can track the performance of their buildings and make improvements when necessary. They can also be recognized as sustainable leaders in their industries, therefore attracting greater investor interest and the best new talent. It "creates a form of accountability," Scharf said. "It takes sustainability from the periphery of the organization to its core."
What's next for building data and sustainable construction
Michael Knapp, CEO of software design and development company Green River, offered his vision of where the Internet of Things for buildings is headed. "It's more than automated data collection, and it’s more than freeing us up from forms," he said. "We can drive innovation and drive social sensitivity into the built environment."
He advised companies looking to implement new technologies for building data tracking to make sure they use a user-friendly approach. Firms should ensure that social and environmental responsibility are core values, he said, as they can make businesses more competitive.
Certifications and different approaches for utilizing data to improve building performance shouldn't be the end goal, Knapp added. Industry stakeholders should share what they learn with their peers and contribute to the broader movement for a more sustainable built environment. "This isn’t about a ratings system," he said. "This is about our goals and strategies for success."