A core theme for this year’s Conference of Parties (COP28) is fast-tracking the world’s energy transition, and slashing emissions by 2030.

Key to achieving this goal will be addressing the buildings sector which, according to the World Green Building Council, is currently responsible for 39% of global energy-related carbon emissions: 28% from operational emissions, from energy needed to heat, cool and power them, and the remaining 11% from materials and construction.

While there are innumerable solutions entering the market each year, the processes and methods that are the most significant contributors to emissions require a deep understanding of not only how buildings work, but what solutions are viable for building owners, operators, and occupiers.

Designing for decarbonisation

Towards the middle of the century, as the world’s predicted population approaches 10 billion, the global building stock is expected to double in size. Carbon emissions released before the building is used, known as ‘upfront carbon’, will be responsible for half of the entire carbon footprint of new construction between now and 2050. Therefore, addressing upfront carbon is a critical and urgent focus at COP28.

“How the design of buildings is approached must change,” says Scott Smith, Technical Director – Sustainable Buildings at Beca. “The ideal design process integrates specialist experience before a designer’s pen hits the paper to help capture carbon reduction opportunities early on.” 

“You also need clear targets,” Smith continues. “We have the knowledge and ability to design low carbon buildings, but there is very little consensus on what is ‘good enough’ in the built environment. With Government’s commitment, a whole-of-life carbon perspective, an integrated design process, and clear emissions targets, we can deliver the change that New Zealand needs.” 

Retrofitting the existing building stock 

Carl Elefante, Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, is well-known for saying ‘the most sustainable building is the one that’s already built.’ This idea encapsulates the concept that demolishing and rebuilding new, more efficient structures often results in a huge net addition of energy consumption and emissions. By comparison, retrofitting an existing building with energy-efficient upgrades can result in significant efficiencies that reduce total energy costs. 

Located in the heart of Wellington’s CBD, 22 The Terrace is proof that older office towers can demonstrate market-leading green credentials with some smart design and clever thinking. Challenged to deliver a highly sustainable retrofit with a build period of just over a year, Beca implemented structural upgrades that have brought the 1980s office block up to 100% New Building Standard, with the building now ready for the next 50 years.  

At the University of Auckland, the 50-year-old former Social Sciences Building (B201) on Symonds Street has been refurbished in a sustainable, adaptive reuse project with a design described as ‘world-leading’ by the New Zealand Green Building Council. The building cut its carbon emissions in half by reusing and strengthening the existing structure rather than starting from scratch. 

Energy efficiency via building tuning

The Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) system consumes 40-60% of the energy in the typical large commercial building and is responsible for 40-75% of the total building emissions, depending on fuel types. What’s more, studies show that up to 50% of that energy is wasted due to inefficient operation.

It is estimated that wasted energy from the HVAC systems in large U.S. buildings alone create $12B in wasted energy costs and 48MM tons of excess carbon emissions every single year, which is nearly equal to the net annual carbon emissions for the entire country of New Zealand.

Understanding the technical and operational barriers and limitations of traditional HVAC optimisation, that were preventing building owners and operators from undertaking efficiency projects, was central to the development of BTune. BTune is an in-house Beca solution to automatically optimise HVAC systems to industry best practice energy efficiency standards. 

Technology has enabled the automation of processes that traditionally required significant human effort. This automation can not only reduce costs, it can also deliver faster and better results.

BTune is among only a handful of known solutions in the world leveraging Automated System Optimisation technology. This supervisory control technology dynamically changes HVAC Building Automation System (BAS) settings to optimise system performance in real-time. It not only detects, but automatically corrects control issues, running a continuous loop of monitoring, diagnostics, and correction to sustain performance. This automation not only helps deliver better efficiency, but it also enables this solution to be offered on a no-upfront-cost model, making sustainability both easier to achieve and good for business. 

Decarbonising buildings is a somewhat unique challenge from other global sectors in that these are most often spaces designed for human beings to occupy. And yet, with buildings responsible for a significant portion of global carbon emissions, addressing upfront carbon and retrofitting existing structures is a critical part of the climate change solution.

As we navigate these complex challenges together with our clients and partners in the buildings sector, we look forward to the insights and learnings from COP28, and to helping shape a sustainable future for generations to come.

About the Author
Shaan Cory

Associate - Building Science

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