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Overcoming Three Roadblocks to Creating Better Buildings

Rachel Carey, Senior Digital Content Marketer, Asite

Overcoming Three Roadblocks to Creating Better Buildings

Posted: September 16, 2022 | Project Management

t’s a fact: Pressure is mounting on the construction industry to operate more sustainably in the wake of the UN’s “code red” climate alert.

Accounting for 38% of carbon emissions — the largest amount — the built environment clearly has a role to play. However, the focus of the industry’s decarbonization efforts should not just be on new buildings and structures; there is much work for the construction industry when it comes to existing ones.

Of the more than 135 million dwellings in the United States, 59% were constructed before the 1980s and over 76% before 1989. Similar trends are also observed for U.S. commercial buildings, with about 54% constructed pre-1980 and 71% pre-1989.

As these older buildings predate the widespread adoption of model energy codes governing construction, they contribute to exceptionally high energy demands and high levels of greenhouse gases by burning fossil fuels for space and water heating and electricity generation.

Energy inefficiency is also an issue. The Electric Power Research Institute reports energy and energy-related expenditures cost U.S. companies $800 billion annually, and roughly 42% of the energy used to heat and cool space is wasted. Accelerating efficiency retrofits will ensure that our future building stock is suitable for a zero-carbon economy.

So, when it comes to creating better buildings through renovation or smaller improvements based on user requirements, retrofitting to improve the building’s energy consumption and output needs to be on the radar.

However, like everything in the construction industry, there are persistent obstacles. Let’s look at three roadblocks slowing down progress and how the industry can overcome them:

1. Getting Trillions in Buy-In

A hefty initial investment is required to successfully renovate and improve a building, or any structure, for that matter.

Despite long-term savings, the Rocky Mountain Institute estimates the U.S. can reduce at least 38% (up to 69%) of energy consumption in buildings by 2050 for a $1.4 trillion profit. However, the return on investment (ROI) is often not as immediate as desired.

Instead, ROI is often a cumulative process over many years. This is in sharp contrast to owners’ expectations, who, according to research, expect to see ROI within three to seven years.

Financial institutions also play a role here. According to CREDS, the UK-based Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions, financial institutions remain reluctant to invest due to unfamiliar technologies, regulatory risk, short investment horizons, high transaction costs, and a lack of suitable finance mechanisms.

This is set to change.

Sustainable building investment represents one of the next decade’s most significant global investment opportunities — an estimated $24.7 trillion by 2030.

As part of President Biden’s $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Bill, in March 2022, the Biden administration announced new plans to spend $3.16 billion to retrofit hundreds of thousands of homes in low income areas. The program aims to retrofit about 450,000 homes, an increase from the roughly 38,000 homes it serves annually.

This program of works will bolster the federal government’s Weatherization Assistance Program, which seeks to upgrade homes by installing insulation, updating heating and cooling systems, and switching to new electrical appliances.

These retrofits and upgrades will ultimately reduce monthly energy bills for families and improve the environment.

2. Upskilling to Beat Capacity Issues

As we are all too aware, the construction industry is experiencing a skilled labor shortage.

According to a Deloitte 2021 Engineering and Construction Industry Outlook, this skills gap is creating a negative impact. The USG + U.S. Chamber of Commerce reports that 92% of contractors are moderately concerned about their workers having adequate skill levels.

Simply put, the supply chain cannot complete the desperately needed widescale building improvements and renovation. Unique skills are required to complete this work, which unfortunately is lacking.

As part of the Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan, jobs will be created to carry out the vast amount of necessary renovation and retrofitting. As the plan states, “President Biden’s plan will create good jobs building, rehabilitating, and retrofitting affordable, accessible, energy efficient, and resilient housing, commercial buildings, schools, and childcare facilities all over the country.”

3. Reducing the Disruption Factor

When considering residential and commercial buildings, retrofitting and renovation work is often undertaken in conjunction with a building’s routine operation — windows and heating systems get replaced while people live or work in a building.

This process raises many logistical and technical obstacles. For example, you can’t replace a heating system in the depths of winter; workers can’t sit at their desks while windows are being removed and put back in.

According to a European Commission-supported research and innovation program, the “disruption factor” refers to the disturbances linked to refurbishment work, which can impact a resident or building owner’s decision to renovate.

For homes, research suggests an incremental approach is the most effective. This allows homes to be upgraded over time while inhabited, and helps to incorporate the inhabitants’ everyday practices into the planning.

For commercial buildings, work needs to be done during quiet periods and within a quicker timeframe. This helps minimize disturbances. 

Speaking at the Construction News “Decarbonizing Construction 2020” conference, Sonal Jain, Sustainability Director at JLL, spoke about her company’s recent refurbishment of the Empire State Building in New York. She noted how the company had to work around the building’s operational schedule to achieve its goals.

The team retrofitted 6,514 windows at night, with the assembly line working within the building to save time. Sustainability and efficiency were implemented in every part of retrofitting, resulting in a 38% reduction in energy consumption.

Does the Answer Lie in Technology?

For building improvements to really have an impact and become future-ready, existing buildings and structures need to become more energy efficient.

Internal systems need to be updated and issues identified and resolved. Operational managers need a better understanding of how buildings work and are used to make the improvements necessary to have a beneficial long-term impact.

With barriers blocking progression, how do we overcome them? Digital transformation and construction technology could be our answer.

Discover how construction technology can help you unlock greater value across your projects and overcome obstacles standing in the way of creating better buildings. Find out how Asite can help.

About the Author: Rachel Carey is a Senior Digital Content Marketer at Asite, the leading digital transformation platform. 

Image by Grooveland Designs from Pixabay