Buildings are essential – they are where we live, where we rest, and where we work.
However, they are also responsible for nearly 40% of global emissions. In the US alone, commercial buildings account for 20% of all the energy used, and as much as 30% of that goes to waste. This means if we are going to successfully transition to a low-carbon future it is absolutely critical that we improve the energy efficiency of buildings. In order to achieve this, companies are going to have to reduce the energy used on things like heating, lighting and indoor air quality.
However, in this new hybrid-working world, wellbeing and employee experience have both been brought to the forefront. This in turn creates tensions between climate and comfort, also known as the E and S of ESG. When we’re focused on getting our temperature and the air quality right for tenants and employees, what impact does this have on our energy consumption?
Let’s imagine a situation: you’re using a building efficiency software such as Metrikus, and you get an alert that the CO2 levels are too high, so you adjust your HVAC system to deliver filtered air to the offending area. Naturally, your energy consumption will begin to rise. The question is, where does the line get drawn between a company prioritizing the wellbeing of their employees versus energy consumption, and can they prioritize both?
I think you can. While there are tensions between E and S factors when it comes to buildings, there is a symbiotic relationship, too. For example, you can overlay your occupancy data with your energy data to reduce your consumption at times when tenants aren’t in the building. This means our customers are able to reduce energy consumption with minimal disruption to tenants.
As well as this, with real-time, accurate data you can make better-informed decisions – for example, if only 30% of staff are in the office you could ask that people move to one floor and turn the lights and air filtration off on the others. You can even use trends to make this a policy: after a certain time, all floors bar one are closed, but the one that remains open is kept at ideal working conditions for the employees’ comfort and wellbeing.
You can also enable preset parameters so that you don’t have the conflict in the office between some people finding it too hot and some people finding it too cold. You can have preset temperatures, and let everyone know what those temperatures are (men tend to prefer cooler temperatures to women which means women are often colder in the office).
Other extraneous factors are going to have an increasingly serious effect on the energy consumption of urban buildings, such as local climate change and urban overheating. We’ve already seen this with several heat waves here where I’m based in London, as well as across Europe and the US. As a result of the climate crisis, we are going to have hotter summers, requiring buildings to be cooled even more.
Here in the UK, where homes aren’t equipped for high temperatures, we’ve already seen a trend of people going into the office that have better aircon on days where they would typically work from home.
But then we return to the problem: how are people then going to reach a net zero goal if they’re having to put their aircon on? Unfortunately, we’re in a vicious cycle. In light of the complexities, it’s clear that renewable energy will have a pivotal role to play. To be able to keep people happy, comfortable and productive at work, even in the face of things like rising temperatures, but not increase energy consumption massively; it’s a very tricky situation.
Reporting on your businesses’ sustainability is always going to be complicated because there are so many aspects to consider – both social and environmental. There is simply never going to be a one-size-fits all answer, as every company and every building is completely different.
To achieve the right balance between comfort and climate, we can’t shy away from these tensions and difficulties. We need to embrace a more holistic, data-driven approach to buildings that considers people and the planet in tandem. That way, we can make healthy and sustainable buildings that are truly fit for the future.