SPIE UK: Can a building become its own ecosystem?
SPIE UK’s George Adams discusses the major impact commercial buildings can have by changing the way they use energy – not just on climate change, but on health and wellbeing too...
From optimising concept and design right through to implementation and operation, SPIE UK provides smart engineering and technology-driven solutions for the built environment. Employing more than 3,000 people, the business is comprised of experts on design, electrical, mechanical and HVAC engineering, energy and communications and more.
Now, among its wider operations, a particular mission for SPIE UK is to help make commercial buildings – and by extension whole cities – function in a more sustainable, autonomous way in order to combat climate change and positively influence the health and wellbeing of employees.
“Design thinking is about a holistic view of what we need to do as engineers to improve the built environment,” comments Energy and Engineering Director George Adams. “SPIE UK recognises that we have to constantly respond to changes, and equally create change through design, engineering, maintenance, operations and energy efficiency.”
Adams has been concerned with climate change throughout his career, and has long been fascinated by the way buildings and the built environment can impact factors like carbon emissions. The full potential, he argues, has not yet been recognised. “I was embracing design for energy all the way back into the late 1980s – my eyes were opened up to the fact buildings need to focus on efficiency and sustainability, though back then we used to talk more about buildings being ‘autonomous’,” he recalls.
Central to SPIE UK’s corporate strategy is the smart city: a concept bringing together technology, energy, health and wellbeing to create better, more connected environments for people to live, work and learn in. Simply reducing carbon emissions, while vital, seems increasingly simplistic nowadays as wellness and a positive work environment take centre stage among the benefits of a more sustainable city.
Among several climate action and engineering groups, Adams leads the UK’s Resilient Cities Group, heads up the Construction Industry Council’s Green Construction Panel and is a member of the Trees and Design Action Group. “In London, we like to think we’re a green city,” he says, “but there’s actually only one tree per person in the whole city. We need to bring together the hardware of engineering, the functionality of making buildings more sustainable through energy conservation, and green infrastructure to help create a better environment.
“Globally, about 7mn people die per year because of poor air quality and a lot of that comes from cities. In addition, from a financial point of view, over $4bn is lost in productivity because of air pollution.”
While ‘sustainability’ reflects cutting down energy usage and waste, Adams’ overarching term of ‘autonomous’ also encapsulates health and wellbeing within a building that essentially becomes its own ecosystem. “Autonomous buildings can create the right air quality in order that people working in cities can get really good air quality, while outside the building we need to clean our act up,” he says.
In this way, Adams argues, buildings have the potential to be ‘mediators of climate’. “Buildings have a great opportunity to create an environment people can work in.” SPIE UK leverages technologies like IoT and data analytics, as well as smart FM platforms, to find out just how much more efficient a building can be made and to ensure a bespoke solution is found for each space.
“We get the data from a building, analyse it, and can see not only that the building can perform better in terms of energy efficiency, but also the levels and type of lighting, ventilation, air quality etc… we can also explain to the client how and why the environment isn’t conducive to people working as efficiently as they can,” says Adams.
SPIE UK can look at everything from the overall engineering infrastructure to individual pieces of equipment to pinpoint what isn’t working and what needs to be updated. “We can give a solution which doesn’t involve throwing the plant away – this recycling is important for us,” Adams adds. “We can show clients how to enhance existing equipment, make it work more efficiently, and save money over time in terms of life cycle cost, whereas eventually replacing the building would cost four or five times as much as an upgrade.”
Recycling and retrofitting are a keen focus. “We look at how the existing building can be improved in terms of fit-out, fabric and engineering content – how modifications can be made to not only reduce energy use, but improve quality of environment. We’ve done this for several clients.”
A key change most commercial buildings can benefit from pertains to lighting. “From a global point of view, lighting contributes to about 20% of global energy consumption created by human beings. If we can reduce lighting energy by 60-70% across the globe, we’ve made a significant contribution to reducing carbon emissions.
“LED light requires so much less energy than traditional fluorescent lighting and equally gives a brighter, cleaner and clearer light. Lighting’s a very dynamic area that has massive potential to help us reduce carbon emissions.
“We are now also recognising the impact types of lighting can have on people – for example, lighting with a blue tinge can make staff more energetic. If lighting is poor, it can affect people’s emotions and attention to detail, causing them to make mistakes.”
It’s all very well to explain to a company their building needs an upgrade to have a more positive impact on people and planet, but at the end of the day the financial angle will always be top of mind. How can a CFO be persuaded to drive sustainability? “Something we’re driving at SPIE UK is return on investment – when they will cover capital costs, and then the life cycle savings, as well as added benefits of health, wellbeing and productivity,” Adams explains.
While many would balk at the prospect of bringing up these ‘softer’ benefits to the financially driven, Adams says this is becoming easier. “A lot of research has been carried out over the years in the industry to demonstrate that poor temperature control, humidity, air quality or lighting does directly affect the way people work.”
Wider economic impact must also be considered, with Adams citing that £1 of investment in the UK construction industry can contribute £2.60 of GDP. “Clearly the more efficient we make buildings, then that RoI for the whole construction industry becomes greater.”
For SPIE UK, this also involves working with schools to educate young people. “I prefer to talk about the built environment as a whole – this brings on board a range of skillsets such as ecologists, economists, architects, engineers… we give students a broader view; it’s not just about building a building.”
This education aspect is something SPIE UK believes should be at the forefront in developing the autonomous buildings and smart cities of tomorrow. “It’s all about transparency and knowledge sharing,” says Adams. “The fact is that the world, technology and challenges for society are all moving so fast that more and more people are realising if you have a piece of knowledge, keeping it to yourself is probably not the best thing to do.”
Carbon dioxide removal revenues worth £2bn a year by 2030
Carbon dioxide removal revenues could reach £2bn a year by 2030 in the UK with costs per megatonne totalling up to £400 million, according to the National Infrastructure Commission.
Engineered greenhouse gas removals will become "a major new infrastructure sector" in the coming decades - although costs are uncertain given removal technologies are in their infancy - and revenues could match that of the UK’s water sector by 2050. The Commission’s analysis suggests engineered removals technologies need to have capacity to remove five to ten megatonnes of carbon dioxide no later than 2030, and between 40 and 100 megatonnes by 2050.
The Commission states technologies fit into two categories: extracting carbon dioxide directly out of the air; and bioenergy with carbon capture technology – processing biomass to recapture carbon dioxide absorbed as the fuel grew. In both cases, the captured CO2 is then stored permanently out of the atmosphere, typically under the seabed.
The report sets out how the engineered removal and storage of carbon dioxide offers the most realistic way to mitigate the final slice of emissions expected to remain by the 2040s from sources that don’t currently have a decarbonisation solution, like aviation and agriculture.
It stresses that the potential of these technologies is “not an excuse to delay necessary action elsewhere” and cannot replace efforts to reduce emissions from sectors like road transport or power, where removals would be a more expensive alternative.
The critical role these technologies will play in meeting climate targets means government must rapidly kick start the sector so that it becomes viable by the 2030s, according to the report, which was commissioned by government in November 2020.
Early movement by the UK to develop the expertise and capacity in greenhouse gas removal technologies could create a comparative advantage, with the prospect of other countries needing to procure the knowledge and skills the UK develops.
The Commission recommends that government should support the development of this new sector in the short term with policies that drive delivery of these technologies and create demand through obligations on polluting industries, which will over time enable a competitive market to develop. Robust independent regulation must also be put in place from the start to help build public and investor confidence.
While the burden of these costs could be shared by different parts of industries required to pay for removals or in part shared with government, the report acknowledges that, over the longer term, the aim should be to have polluting sectors pay for removals they need to reach carbon targets.
Polluting industries are likely to pass a proportion of the costs onto consumers. While those with bigger household expenditures will pay more than those on lower incomes, the report underlines that government will need to identify ways of protecting vulnerable consumers and to decide where in relevant industry supply chains the costs should fall.
Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, Sir John Armitt, said taking steps to clean our air is something we’re going to have to get used to, just as we already manage our wastewater and household refuse.
"While engineered removals will not be everyone’s favourite device in the toolkit, they are there for the hardest jobs. And in the overall project of mitigating our impact on the planet for the sake of generations to come, we need every tool we can find," he said.
“But to get close to having the sector operating where and when we need it to, the government needs to get ahead of the game now. The adaptive approach to market building we recommend will create the best environment for emerging technologies to develop quickly and show their worth, avoiding the need for government to pick winners. We know from the dramatic fall in the cost of renewables that this approach works and we must apply the lessons learned to this novel, but necessary, technology.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and International Energy Agency estimate a global capacity for engineered removals of 2,000 to 16,000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide each year by 2050 will be needed in order to meet global reduction targets.
Yesterday Summit Carbon Solutions received "a strategic investment" from John Deere to advance a major CCUS project (click here). The project will accelerate decarbonisation efforts across the agriculture industry by enabling the production of low carbon ethanol, resulting in the production of more sustainable food, feed, and fuel. Summit Carbon Solutions has partnered with 31 biorefineries across the Midwest United States to capture and permanently sequester their CO2 emissions.
Cory Reed, President, Agriculture & Turf Division of John Deere, said: "Carbon neutral ethanol would have a positive impact on the environment and bolster the long-term sustainability of the agriculture industry. The work Summit Carbon Solutions is doing will be critical in delivering on these goals."
McKinsey highlights a number of CCUS methods which can drive CO2 to net zero:
- Today’s leader: Enhanced oil recovery Among CO2 uses by industry, enhanced oil recovery leads the field. It accounts for around 90 percent of all CO2 usage today
- Cementing in CO2 for the ages New processes could lock up CO2 permanently in concrete, “storing” CO2 in buildings, sidewalks, or anywhere else concrete is used
- Carbon neutral fuel for jets Technically, CO2 could be used to create virtually any type of fuel. Through a chemical reaction, CO2 captured from industry can be combined with hydrogen to create synthetic gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel
- Capturing CO2 from ambient air - anywhere Direct air capture (DAC) could push CO2 emissions into negative territory in a big way
- The biomass-energy cycle: CO2 neutral or even negative Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage relies on nature to remove CO2 from the atmosphere for use elsewhere