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Sustainability key to future proofing Australia’s built environment

Sydney, photo: Abhiroop Vngala
Sydney, photo: Abhiroop Vngala

Following is an extract from a presentation at this year’s CoreNet Global annual conference in Sydney on 5 September, based on a six minutes TED style presentation on sustainability and the built environment.

Sustainability is no longer niche, a “nice to have” or optional – it’s the key to future proofing fixed assets in rapidly evolving world.

The theme of this year’s CoreNet conference was “real estate re-imagined”. For me, the first thing that came to mind about the built environment of the future was no longer paying energy bills.

But that’s not the future – that’s something you can have right now.

So let’s exercise our imaginations a little. Let’s imagine a building that generates more energy than it needs and becomes a powerhouse for clean energy exports. Let’s also have that building harvest all its own water, process all its own waste, and become a place where people are healthy and happy. This is what a net positive building looks like.

Now imagine if that building could also talk to you. A building that told you when it fired up and when it wound down, and strived to impress you by outdoing its performance from the previous day. This is the future of smart, connected buildings that do more than shelter its occupants.

Let’s take a step back and take stock of the global reality. The human population is 7.6 billion, and is projected to increase by 2.5 billion by 2050. Globally, buildings and construction account for nearly 40 per cent of energy related CO2 emissions, and we know we need to bring that down to net zero by 2050 if we are to meet the two degree temperature rise limit agreed at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.

built environment

As an industry, the property sector is at the centre of competing demands: how are we are going to meet the needs of an increasing population while also positively contributing towards achieving the net zero goal?

What if there wasn’t a trade-off between these two objectives?

The good news is there isn’t. Buildings offer some of the quickest and low-cost opportunities to reduce emissions. We can eliminate all emissions from the building industry by 2050, and we can do it using technologies that exist today.

Net zero has been a hot topic this year. As a young professional, I have the ambition to do more. I would like to see buildings give back more than they take out. I would like to see the industry raise the scale of its ambition and think beyond net zero – to net positive.

net zero built environment

In the hierarchy of buildings, the journey from the bottom of the pyramid to net positive is about shifting the focus beyond code compliance, minimum ratings, and setting incremental reduction target. We need to set absolute, systemic and regenerative goals.

Net positive is about shifting the focus from doing less bad to more good. While net zero is our must-have position, net positive needs to be what we’re striving for.

Smart technology and renewable energy can help us get there. With solar prices dropping, the business case for sourcing clean energy is more compelling than ever before.

Power Purchasing Agreements are some of the most attractive energy investments in the market. Going 100 per cent renewable is a real and tangible goal, providing both clean and secure energy supply.

Janaki Dhagat built environment

Janaki Dhagat speaking at CoreNet Global’s annual conference about sustainability and the built environment

Buildings now have the ability to talk to us, but are we really listening? The power of data, machine learning and artificial Intelligence is changing the way we operate buildings. We need to make the most of the exponential power of technology to make our buildings as efficient as possible.

There is also a lot we can learn from looking out the window at nature. Biomimicry is a big opportunity; an example that comes to mind is a building in Zimbabwe that drew inspiration from termites to design its ventilation system. This resulted in large energy savings.

Adopting these approaches will not only see buildings become net positive but also create aesthetically beautiful, resilient and innovative buildings.

building environment

Research also tells us that people in green buildings have fewer negative health symptoms, higher cognitive function, less sick days, and are more productive overall. Most importantly, the human experience of coming to work every day is found to be overwhelmingly positive – and we all know that’s what Millennials are after.

As we embrace smart buildings, let’s not forget it’s us and our ingenuity that makes them smart.

Collectively as investors, builders and tenants, the property sector owns or occupies a very big part of the planet. It’s time to raise the scale of our ambition. We have the technology, the intellectual nous and the genius of nature that has benefitted from a 3.8 billion year R&D period. Let’s rise to the challenge. Let’s go beyond net zero.

It’s an exciting time to be working in the built environment, as we take purposeful steps towards a better future and a better planet.

Janaki Dhagat is the Sustainability Manager at BGIS. She has over 7 years of experience working with organisations in the public and private sector. Contact Janaki: Janaki.Dhagat@apac.bgis.com

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