Building for sustainability - how Seattle City Council and DPD are taking a lead on smart buildings to counter CO₂ emissions

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett February 23, 2024
Summary:
Seattle City Council’s new law requires building owners to monitor and reduce their climate impact

carbon reduction

The building sector has a key role to play in tackling climate change. Buildings are currently responsible for 39% of global energy-related carbon emissions. This includes 28% from the energy needed to heat, cool and power them, and 11% from materials and construction.

The high level of emissions means the sector has huge potential for reducing the overall amount of CO₂ in the atmosphere. 

There’s now much more awareness around building design regarding the need for lower emissions, but that hasn’t always been the case. According to research from Brivo, the top three priorities for architects and building designers today are sustainability, safety, and security. But a decade ago, safety, materials used, and reliability made up the top three, with no place for climate impact in the top priority list.  

Seattle initiative

To counter this lack of emphasis on sustainability in older buildings, Seattle City Council passed a building emissions law in December, which requires owners of existing buildings to take new steps to reduce their building's greenhouse gas emissions.

The new Building Performance Emissions Performance Standard (BEPS) requires owners of existing buildings larger than 20,000 square feet to incrementally reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. According to Seattle City Council, the policy will reduce emissions from buildings by 27% and reduce the city’s total core emissions by about 10%. Today, buildings account for 37% of total emissions across Seattle. 

Building owners have a few years to ensure they comply with the upcoming legislation. They will need to start disclosing emission data, building equipment, and planned actions to achieve mandatory greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity targets from 2027 onwards; the actual targets will have to be met from 2031 onwards. 

In the meantime, Seattle City Council will have to develop a robust digital system to track this information, ideally via collaboration with utility providers and self-disclosure from building owners, advises Dr Jens Hirsch, Chief Scientific Officer at BuildingMinds

Hirsch notes that several other cities, such as New York City, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Boston and St. Louis, have all introduced or are planning to implement similar building emissions laws, indicating a growing trend to address building emissions and promote sustainable development in urban centers.

It’s expected that 80% of today’s building stock will still be standing in 2050, so the focus of these cities on retrofitting buildings is no surprise. Retrofitting current buildings can reduce their life-cycle carbon emissions by up to 83%. 

For organizations that need to start complying with these rules, efficiency and cutting demand to a minimum should be a top priority. Hirsch adds:

Reducing demand to a minimum can be achieved through highly efficient systems operated by smart control systems and sensors, as well as by improving a building's thermal envelope to minimize energy losses. 

The first step in taking appropriate measures to reduce a building's emissions is to gain a comprehensive understanding of its current energy consumption and the main drivers of emissions. With this data in hand, building owners can identify the most effective strategies for reducing emissions. For owners of large portfolios, this task cannot be managed using traditional methods and instead requires smart digital systems to collect and analyze data.

Technology plays a vital role in turning existing buildings into energy-efficient ones, by integrating advanced systems and sensors to control and optimize energy consumption. Smart software and data platforms can be used to analyze energy usage, identify inefficiencies and implement targeted improvements. Hirsch says:

By combining innovative technologies within the buildings and leveraging data analysis, companies can develop comprehensive strategies to reduce emissions and turn their properties into smart, sustainable buildings.

DPD delivers

Olly Craughan, Head of Sustainability at DPD UK, agrees that the first step to reducing the emissions of any building should be an accurate measurement of current emissions.  DPD UK already uses 100% renewable electricity throughout its sites by either purchasing it or generating it via the company’s solar network. Craughan adds:

We monitor our energy usage closely per site and have smart systems fitted in many of our sites to ensure that our gas heating switches off when warehouse doors are open, reducing gas usage by 34% YoY. We also have Energy Champions in each site and they monitor energy usage and raise awareness to ensure our employees understand the impact.

Cutting-edge technologies like automation, artificial intelligence and IoT-enabled monitoring systems offer real-time data analysis and predictive maintenance, vital for firms wanting to improve their buildings’ energy efficiency. Digital systems have the potential to reduce 20% of global emissions, according to the World Economic Forum. Ionut Farcas, Senior Vice President, Europe & International Hub, Power Products Division at Schneider Electric, notes:

These innovations empower companies to address safety concerns and monitor building occupancy rates to regulate temperatures, turn off lights when not in use, and much more - all designed to optimise energy use.

A rise in sensors should make this easier for organizations to manage. Farcas notes that by 2030, there will be triple the number of IoT devices in buildings compared to 2020.

Deploying a Building Management System (BMS) is a useful way to turn any existing building into a smart building, while also reducing emissions generated. A BMS manages and monitors heating, ventilation, air conditioning, lighting, security, fire prevention and energy supply via a mesh network. 

According to Brian Bishop, President of the Open Connectivity Foundation (OCF), a comprehensive BMS provides significant reductions in energy consumption, maintenance costs and environmental impact:

This is achieved by reducing excess energy usage through adjusting the settings of building systems in real-time using data collected by sensors and meters. A BMS will also provide real-time information and alerts to building operators and managers, allowing them to control and optimise the performance of the building.

There’s also the added benefit of providing detailed reporting metrics that let companies demonstrate regulatory compliance. 

Bishop maintains that for a building to become truly smart, it’s essential to make all systems open protocol, managed via a single platform solution and breaking down silos even within a building. He adds:

This makes the role of your facilities management team so much easier, delivering even greater efficiency.

Existing BMS pilot projects suggest cost savings of up to 80%, with ROI achieved within eight months, Bishop says. This is on top of reduced emissions as well as providing validated data that can be used to enhance business operations.

Legislative challenges

Even with the availability of technology that can help businesses assess, manage and reduce energy use, there are likely to be challenges in delivering legislation around building emissions, including Seattle’s new law. Verification is one of these challenges, as Giles Clifford, Partner, Gowling WLG, notes: 

It's easy to spot someone driving too fast or on the wrong side of the road; far harder to enforce a law in respect of a building's contribution to the emission of invisible gases. Much of the control needs to be done by way of proxy – physical or other verifiable measures that will be expected to have the necessary GHG impacts. A simple prohibition is too often only effective if coupled with a genuine threat of being caught and punished. Even without corruption, which cannot be discounted, if the lawmaker doesn't also have access to robust and well-resourced enforcement, the chances of success will be limited.

DPD’s Craughan says any legislation to lower emissions is a useful opportunity to reduce our impact on the climate. But he noted that the local government's ability to implement the law is dependent on the resources available to monitor and enforce it. Craughan says:

“Making the law more attractive by providing subsidies and initiatives to modernise the buildings - solar and wind energy systems, and bio gas - and reduce emissions would help gain support for such a law, and could potentially boost the local economy due to the workforce needed to make these adjustments to the buildings.”

My take

Hopefully Seattle City Council will find the means to monitor and enforce its new legislation, and similar rules will be widely rolled out, as this is a major aspect of tackling climate change. As buildings are currently responsible for almost 40% of carbon emissions, smart buildings is an area where tech can make a real difference to our planet.

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