Technology and Sustainability

October 5, 2021 | By: Nancy Larson, LEED AP O+M

Technological innovations have made it possible to advance sustainability in building operations through features such as systems monitoring and energy performance tracking, but the term technology has always been a bit nebulous. How does it involve us personally; particularly in the buildings that are our workplaces? Until recently, building automation and energy management systems seemed to be run by “the man behind the curtain,” with the building’s systems being hidden behind the walls, unseen by the building’s occupants. As the focus of building performance has shifted to include not only energy efficiency, but also occupant wellbeing, so has access and engagement with building technology for the occupants. A greater awareness of building ventilation systems and its role of curbing the spread of infectious disease with the COVID-19 pandemic has created more of a demand for personal engagement with the building’s technology.

At a recent U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) Conference, “Better Buildings, Better Lives,” Luke Dorna, product manager with Healthy Building Solutions at Carrier, spoke about the company’s Center for Intelligent Buildings, a customer experience center that brings building systems into view and makes them interactive. The experience gives visitors a better understanding of the space where people spend their time.

He noted that a few years ago, that just showing people an airhandling unit (AHU) in their customer experience center was an eye opener. Following the advent of the pandemic, he said news anchors are now talking about ventilation rates, and the general populace has a better understanding that there are hidden systems handling invisible air quality issues. The type of question being asked has gone from “What is a filter?” to “How well is that filter working?” Dorna believes that’s where smart solutions providing performance transparency that enable higher indoor air quality (IAQ) with minimal impacts to energy conservation goals meet to create the once-in-ageneration opportunity to tackle these problems holistically. Carrier’s Healthy Buildings Program was created to offer enhanced solutions with the goal of balancing imperatives for healthy, smart, and sustainable indoor environments. Dorna said that tech as an enabler is a key point. He also commented that systems integration has been driven without a deep understanding of the systems, and that the focus should not just be on the equipment but viewing technology as a tool that improves lives, health, and comfort. This shift in focus results in a different set of outcomes.

New technologies such as microscopic filtration systems and touchless building controls are now being viewed as essential rather than as extras, or “nice-to-haves.” While standard features for monitoring indoor environmental quality in the past have been focused on temperature, CO2, and humidity, the current focus includes air pollution and particulate control. Controls and sensors could comply with the capacity of your system, targeting the areas of highest risk in the building, and delivering more fresh air to where it is needed the most. Mobile apps have enabled tenants to become more connected with their work environment and to provide feedback on their comfort levels. Health and safety, in addition to features such as comfort, space usage and wayfinding, have become part of this equation. These apps enable people working in the building to engage in a proactive way and allow the building to respond without compromising energy efficiency. As an example, Carrier’s MyWay app offers building occupants in open office spaces the ability “vote” for comfort preferences.

A challenge here in the South historically has been to provide ample fresh air to our buildings without tipping the balance of energy performance and humidity control. Now with current recommendations for increasing outdoor air delivery to the building and using better filtration, how do we accomplish this? Advances in monitoring technology can help here, too. As studies from Carrier have found, more fresh air can be provided to a building in this region “for the cost of an office party to double the ventilation rate.” Third-party certifications such as LEED, WELL —including the WELL Health Safety Rating launched in 2020 —and Fitwel are gaining traction with the renewed focus of occupant well-being and safety. The LEED rating systems has offered several new “Safety First” pilot credits for the design, management, and maintenance of indoor air quality and HVAC systems during COVID-19 and for protection from infectious diseases in the future. Verification of healthy building practices will give people more confidence in returning to their indoor work environments, with innovations in technology supporting these programs and helping property owner and managers to reach overarching sustainability goals.

Results of this year’s USGBC member community survey, published on Earth Day, indicated that respondents see many opportunities stemming from the challenges of 2020, including the focus on health. Members are seeing more of a demand for buildings to promote a healthy environment for occupants, with more people understanding the link between building systems and human systems, and how this connection impacts individual health and wellness.

Another recent USGBC program focused on data interpretation and how the Internet of Things (IoT) and a growing ecosystem of connected devices allows us to measure energy, waste, IAQ, occupancy, space utilization, occupant satisfaction and more in real time. However, the way we collect, interpret, and apply insights gained from data is still up to us. When these insights are applied, connected and sustainable buildings are more resilient, healthier and environmentally friendly. Now that data has become an integral part of our everyday lives, as well as a valuable resource, considering the human side of the equation is coming closer into view.

As tenants return to their workspaces, building owners and managers will need to have good answers to questions like, “Do I have a high level of filtration in my office?” Healthy buildings will continue to have a growing impact on the bottom line for businesses. Recent innovations in some of these technologies can help to enhance the occupant experience on a more personalized level. These advances can help guide maintenance of indoor environmental quality to leverage a building’s overall sustainability, meeting energy efficiency goals while taking care of the people in the space.


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