Updated: May 21
As we navigate a world where technology plays an increasingly significant role in our lives, it's crucial to maintain control over how we use it, rather than being controlled by it. However, the fine line between usage and subservience isn't always clear. This ambiguity raises fundamental questions about our interaction with technology. How can we ensure that we're implementing technologies successfully and effectively? What are our objectives and goals? How can technology help us move closer to our envisioned future? What is our relationship with technology?
At JOS, our focus is on sustainability and coaching in the built environment. We aim to delve into our relationship with technology in the construction industry, spanning architecture, interior design, engineering, building materials/products, and construction methodologies. In this article, we aim to share our perspectives on technology's role in buildings, but we also encourage you to persistently question the issues we raise.
Before delving into the specifics, it's crucial to understand the 'why'. Buildings are an integral part of our lives, as we interact with them daily, particularly in highly urbanised environments such as Singapore. Buildings directly influence 9 out of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) and indirectly impact nearly all the others. The SDGs are a unified set of 17 interconnected goals aimed at eradicating poverty, safeguarding the planet, and ensuring peace and prosperity for all by 2030. In developed nations, buildings play a crucial role in achieving the Sustainable Development Agenda, particularly the aspects related to the 'Planet' and 'Prosperity'.
We are committed to safeguarding our planet from degradation by endorsing sustainable consumption and production methods, managing its natural resources responsibly, and taking immediate action on climate change. This is to ensure that the planet can sustain the needs of both current and future generations.
Our commitment extends to ensuring that every individual can lead a prosperous and fulfilling life. We strive to foster economic, social, and technological progress that harmoniously coexists with nature.
Here are how buildings are directly related to UN SDGs.
Our discussion is guided by the aim to protect our planet while promoting shared prosperity. The objective for the construction sector is to achieve net-zero carbon emissions or carbon neutrality. Additionally, we seek to enhance the functionality of buildings in ways that improve the health and well-being of occupants, foster a sense of community inclusivity, and bolster both climate and social resilience, among other things. These are ambitious and challenging goals, but they are essential if we are to move forward towards a better future. More about why carbon neutrality is at the heart of discussions for this decade leading up to 2050 can be found here.
But how are we progressing towards this goal of zero-carbon by 2050?
EA, Global CO2 emissions from building operations in the Net Zero Scenario, 2010-2030, IEA, Paris
Direct and indirect emissions from building operations fell to around 9 Gt in 2020, largely due to the effects of the pandemic. However, this trend is somewhat misleading as emissions had been increasing at an average rate of 1% per year since 2010 before the onset of the pandemic. The decrease in CO2 emissions from the buildings sector in 2020 was primarily due to a slowdown in the services sector and is likely not indicative of a new trend. As operations resume, we expect energy consumption and emissions to bounce back in 2021.
While minimum performance standards are becoming stricter, with a growing deployment of energy recovery and renewable equipment and ongoing efforts to decarbonize the power sector, buildings are still not on track to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. To reach this goal, all new buildings and 20% of existing buildings would need to be prepared for zero carbon emissions as soon as 2030.
Referring to the diagram above, even if we account for all the carbon reduction pledges made by governments and global companies, and assume that these commitments will be met, we will still fall significantly short of the net zero targets (the grey bars illustrate the gap between the pledged scenario and the desired scenario of achieving Net Zero by 2050). It's possible that our efforts towards net zero are still in a 'developmental' phase, and that as we move into the 'production' phase, we can expect reduced costs and broader adoption. However, when it comes to climate change, it would be reasonable to aim for these targets to be achieved sooner rather than later. This brings us back to our main discussion: how can we manage our relationship with technology to leverage it in achieving our goals?
Technology is multifaceted. From an intellectual standpoint, technologies may seem like mere code and appear 'cold'. Yet, through daily interaction, we personify technology. We label them as 'smart', and we expect them to understand and interact with us. We put our trust in technology, expecting it to aid us in reaching higher achievements. We often describe great technologies as 'cool', 'sexy', 'innovative', and 'cutting-edge'. However, just as we strive for meaningful relationships with people, if we seek a meaningful interaction with technology (and of course, the providers of this technology), then other terms such as 'mindfulness', 'caring', and 'conscientiousness' become increasingly relevant.
We contend that the utilization of technology to achieve sustainable buildings is just as much about engaging hearts and minds as it is about functionality, maintainability, and cost-effectiveness. We've summarized the approach to successfully implementing these technologies using a straightforward acronym: Go GREEN!
G - Goal
R - Result
E - Embrace
E - Empower
N - Next
Imagine for a moment that you're on a quest to find your forever home. Ideally, you'd want it to be spacious enough for your family, in close proximity to public transportation, near your and your partner's workplaces, and surrounded by excellent schools as well as dining and shopping options, all with a price tag that doesn't break the bank. Realistically, unless you possess boundless resources, it can seem like an insurmountable task to meet all, or even most, of these requirements.
This analogy applies to sustainable buildings too. We often set a generic "sustainability" target for our buildings and aim for the moon. While this aspiration is praiseworthy, it can also be a double-edged sword. Being overly broad and ambitious can actually hinder the project's sustainability progress. Perhaps we're demanding too much and our goals aren't pragmatic, given the inevitable trade-offs between carbon footprint, biodiversity, thermal comfort, indoor air quality, and user control. It's nearly impossible to perfectly fulfill all these aspects simultaneously. Depending on the goal, adjustments will be necessary to maintain a focused approach. For instance, you might have to sacrifice some rooftop garden space for solar panels to achieve net-zero status, or you might need to strike a balance between energy consumption and high indoor air quality standards.
Therefore, it's crucial that the defined goal is distinct and precise. Ideally, a green project should have one paramount goal that should not be compromised. All other objectives should be aligned with this main goal and contribute to its achievement.
Here are some frequently stated goals for Green Buildings (though they may not always be achieved or verified, a point we will delve into later in the article):
1. Achieving net-zero status (including both operational and embodied carbon).
2. Reducing energy consumption by a specific percentage.
3. Attaining exceptional indoor air quality, in line with a particular standard.
4. Achieving a green rating certification (for example, Green Mark Platinum or Super Low Energy).
5. Being a pioneering project of its kind.
6. Possessing a distinctive and appealing innovation statement.
A well-defined goal establishes the agenda and trajectory, shapes the team's dynamics, and aids in envisioning the course of action. Moreover, it can mitigate misunderstandings and foster accountability within the team.
Case Study 1: International Towers Sydney
The client demonstrated a clear vision for what must be done, and it stems from a strong corporate sustainability mindset and culture. We can see how the goal cascades through the project in terms of design strategies and the recognition they achieved.
Roots and Aspirations
Lendlease (client) takes pride in being the most sustainable office fund in the world
Set environmental benchmarks in Australia
Buildings achieve 100% carbon neutrality
Solar shading, glass technology specific to the site context
6000 sqm of solar panels
District cooling plant (DCP uses water from Sydney Harbour as opposed to drinking water for cost-effective and energy-efficient air conditioning to all buildings in Barangaroo South. This saves approximately 1 Megalitre of drinking water per day)
Electricity use was offset by REC generated by regional facilities
6 star Green Star Performance
Platinum WELL core & shell
5.5 Star NABERS Energy
100% carbon neutral (certified yearly)
GRESB resilience score of 100%
Results serve as the yardstick that determines whether the set goal has been successfully attained. While goals guide you in the right direction, results outline the finish line. They should be quantifiable, measurable, and universally applicable whenever possible. Speaking of universality, it's important to note that, due to varying climate, infrastructure, and socio-cultural nuances, it's not always possible to draw comparisons among different green building ratings. However, we are witnessing a rise in 'game-changing' sustainable buildings securing certifications from multiple rating systems, suggesting the industry is converging on a shared understanding of 'green building'.
Here are some questions that can guide your team towards identifying quantifiable results:
How will you know if the technologies have been implemented successfully?
What indicators or data do you need to confirm the success?
What might go wrong, and how can you prevent it?
What is the best method for presenting data/information to make it easily understandable by a broad audience or layperson?
Data has been at the heart of our decision-making process in recent decades. With the aid of robust visualization tools, data has become a language we use for communication and message dissemination. Clear communication of data can reinforce the project team culture and foster shared understanding. It also provides transparency about how technology is being used, how results are measured, and how data is processed. Trust in the integrity of the data underpins its collection purpose and aligns it with the achievement of the goal.
Here are some frequently used data measurement forms:
EUI (Energy Utilisation Index, kWh/m2/year): Use iterative simulations to evaluate energy-saving features individually and collectively.
Renewable generation capacity: What is the potential for on-site renewable energy generation?
Green tenancy rate: Encourages shared responsibility and stakeholder involvement.
LCA (Life Cycle Assessment): What is the project's lifetime carbon footprint, including scopes 1, 2, and 3?
Energy cost savings: Sustainability can align with financial gains.
Number of shares/training conducted: Gauge the extent of the organization's efforts in sustainability.
Number of community events held and attendance rate.
In the building industry, if you can’t measure, it may not even exist (5).
A green building should be a harmonious integration of nature, culture, people, and the future. Each of these elements complements and supports the others in a spirit of mutual embracement.
Designs that embrace nature are characterized by passive and biophilic design principles. Incorporating natural materials can enhance the aesthetic and emotional appeal of the building, thereby fostering an inclusive and unified atmosphere for its occupants.
Designs that embrace culture respect and include diverse cultural histories and meanings. Such designs are sensitive to the cultural context and incorporate elements of local culture into the building's design.
Designs that embrace people place human needs and experiences at the center. A design that embraces people takes into account positive psychology and behavioral science to create spaces that positively impact the occupants.
Designs that embrace the future are forward-thinking and innovative. We can't foresee the future, but we can certainly shape it! The ability to envision and shape the future is a key trait of leaders. A building offers an ideal platform to dream, create, and showcase the future!
Society is growing rapidly. This means we need to be more conscious to build the most thoughtful and meaningful building today for the future generation.
Case Study 2: Victoria Dockside: Hong Kong
Resonating being selective about the most important goal mentioned above, this project’s key focus lies in cultural heritage and occupant wellness due to its space programming consisting of hotel, serviced apartments, retail and offices. Heritage wise, the site was a global freight and logistics hub that helped Hong Kong became a gateway to the far east since a century ago. This project embraced the culture, nature and people both in terms of future users and the project team since it was a collaboration of over 100 international designers and consultants.
Our surroundings have a significant influence on our development and character. The environments we've lived in, the people we've interacted with, all these contribute to who we are today. Our present environment also plays a crucial role in shaping our personality and guiding our life's purpose and meaning. Thus, we should consciously choose spaces that empower us, thereby enhancing our metacognitive abilities.
Picture a place where you've felt empowered. A location that imbued you with positive energy, stirred your soul, and broadened your mind. That's the feeling an empowering building should evoke.
Our environment is a major influencer on our mental state. Therefore, a building should be designed in a way that positively impacts its occupants. An empowering building expands your viewpoint and self-awareness. It aids you in understanding the space, your thoughts, your identity, and ultimately, your place in the world.
Empowerment can come in simple, dynamic forms, and numerous factors can influence a building's ability to create such a space:
- The quality of air
- The ambient sound
- The natural light
- The temperature
- The color scheme
- The texture of materials
- The smell
- The spatial dimensions
- The size of the rooms
- The design elements
- The experiences it offers
- The activities it facilitates
... and much more
Many of these empowering factors can be found in the principles of biophilic design. Further information and case studies are available here.
Considering the influencing factor, we imagine people entering an empowering space and being nurtured, inspired and motivated! - The empowering experience.
N - Next
The success of sustainable buildings or impressive technologies is often gauged by the following criteria:
- Increased revenue
- Enhanced visibility and branding
- Improved efficiency and convenience
- Reduced labor costs
- And many more tangible outcomes
But what else can technology do to make a building superior and offer benefits beyond these financial gains?
A building's life truly begins after it's built, yet many designers consider this point the end of a project. Buildings are designed to endure, holding memories of multiple generations. They mirror a city's aesthetic preferences and embody its identity. Buildings also carry the promise of the future, needing to adapt to innovations and be prepared for what's to come.
In this respect, a mindful and purposeful design approach should always consider the entire lifecycle of the building: operation, repurpose/refurbishment, and demolition. We can encapsulate the final two steps in the GREEN acronym, 'Empowerment' and 'Next', with another acronym: 'SEEN' - Share, Expand, and Engage. 'Engage' refers primarily to interaction during the operational phase with occupants and nearby residents, through initiatives like sustainability-themed seminars, flea markets, or even simple fitness sessions. If all preceding steps are met, the project will undoubtedly have valuable lessons that can be shared with the industry. 'SEEN' is about sharing these lessons to expedite the entire industry's journey towards net-zero, to stimulate public awareness, and to acknowledge the project team's contributions.
'Next' requires the most conscientious effort as it could span the building's entire lifespan, but it's also crucial since it validates the 'results' and thus substantiates the accomplishment of any goal. An article from 2004, although somewhat dated, examined six high-performance buildings and compared their actual performance to their design targets. While each green building performed better than conventional ones, they all fell short of expectations. More insights from this article, and what we should learn from it, can be found here.
We do not end this article with a conclusion. Instead, we open a new space for everyone’s reflection:
After implemented the technologies successfully, how can technologies continue to support the building, so that the building will continue serving its purpose and learning from the process?
EA, Global CO2 emissions from building operations in the Net Zero Scenario, 2010-2030, IEA, Paris
Torcellini, P, Deru, M, Griffith, B, Long, N, Pless, S, Judkoff, R, & Crawley, D B. Lessons Learned from Field Evaluation of Six High-Performance Buildings: Preprint. United States.
Daniel P. Brown - Attachment Disturbance in Adults, Treatment for Comprehensive Repair.
Brené Brown - Dare to lead.