Five Takeaways from Green Cities

4 min read
March 13 2017

The Green Building Council of Australia’s (GBCA) Green Cities Conference is always one of the highlights of the year for the green building industry. This year leaned forward with an emphasis on the future and the emerging role of data and technology. A big part of this story is the evolution of green building from episodic certification events toward recognition for real-world performance based on continuous measurement. This evolution requires new skills, and I had the opportunity to share some of the scientific and technical foundations for performance-based green building with our first-ever Master Class on Environmental Sensing for Health & Well-being. Hosted at the beautiful GBCA headquarters overlooking Hyde Park, green building practitioners learned about the science and technology of environmental sensing and discussed the future of the industry. Here are my five key takeaways:

1. Standards are changing. Leaders from GBCA and NABERS joined the Master Class to talk about the future of rating systems. Jorge Chapa from GBCA described their work on a new Green Star Innovation Challenge. The Challenge will recognize project teams using continuous, distributed measurement in pursuit of Green Star Performance certification. Similarly, Dennis Lee from NABERS talked about their focus on including continuous measurement in future versions of their Indoor Environment rating tool. Taken together, these developments point toward the increasingly important role for operational measurement in green building practice.

Master Class panel, including Dennis Lee (NABERS), Chris Nunn (AMP Capital), Lane Burt (Buildings Alive), Graham Carter (Lendlease), and Jorge Chapa (GBCA).

2. Sensing is more than sensors. Sometimes there is a temptation to reduce environmental sensing to a set of sensor specifications, e.g., “out of the box” capabilities to detect specific substances or factors. However, our discussion made it clear that specifications are only a small piece of the sensing challenge. Fundamentally, sensors allow us to “see” things that would otherwise not be visible, such as temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide(CO2), and volatile organic compounds. This information is represented as electrical signals. We discussed how these signals must be carried through a chain of communication systems and analytical tools to ensure data quality and, ultimately, provide timely and relevant insights. For Aclima, this integrated system is the Environmental Intelligence platform — a combination of sensors, communications, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, interfaces, and training.

3. No trade-offs between energy efficiency and indoor environmental quality.
According to GRESB, the Australian property market consistently leads the world in environmental, social, and governance performance. This includes a long-standing and widely-held commitment to energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions reduction. Consequently, leaders in the Australian green building industry are interested in the relationship between energy performance and indoor environmental quality (IEQ). Dennis Lee, title with GRESB, showed the attendees new data illustrating a positive correlation between energy efficiency and IEQ. In other words, more energy efficiency properties as measured by NABERS also have high scores on the new NABERS Indoor Environment rating system. This sample of buildings shows no signs of a fundamental trade-off between energy and IEQ.

4. Turn data into insights.
We talked a lot about data during the Master Class. We talked about what we can measure and, equally importantly, what we can’t. In this context, it’s easy to put an emphasis on graphs, time series, and heat maps. These are great tools; however, it is important to remember that our purpose is not academic. We need to quickly digest and interpret these data to provide actionable insights. This means shifting the focus from single modalities (e.g., temperature, particulates, etc.) to specific issues facing owners, managers, and occupiers. For example, sensors can provide a time series of CO2 concentration. We can see peaks and troughs over time. Yet, the real issue is whether a facility provides a combination of indoor environmental conditions that supports cognitive function and human performance. According to new research, this involves a combination of factors including temperature, acoustics, indoor emissions, ventilation rates, and more. We can measure many of these factors and provide a composite estimate of the fraction of operating hours when conditions are favorable for cognitive performance. Shifting focus from streams of data about single modalities to integrated measures directly related to health and human performance will yield more relevant insights.

5. Making insights actionable.
One of the participants in the class made an important observation and asked a challenging question. He observed that sometimes investments in energy monitoring systems are wasted when building owners and managers don’t use the information. How do we ensure time and money spent on measuring IEQ does not suffer the same fate? First, I think that this problem is the exception not the rule. Most owners and managers are using energy information to inform action. Those that don’t are falling behind their peers, especially in the competitive Australian property market. Consequently, I think part of the problem lies in the technology. Owners and managers want to create and run better buildings, but they may be put off by complicated tools that don’t fit their routines or preferences. We can make it easier to access timely and relevant information. For example, we heard that some facility managers aren’t interested in logging into dedicated energy management systems. They prefer emails that present key information without the need to log in to a separate portal. The bottomline is that we should spend more time thinking about how both energy and IEQ information can be part of daily decision-making that informs worker wellbeing.

These five highlights only scratch the surface of a great day in Sydney. We appreciate the chance to engage with a large group of industry leaders and, hopefully, share some insights about the science and technology of measurement for health and well-being. We are looking forward to more of these opportunities as we work together to build the skills and expertise needed to create truly high-performance buildings and communities.

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