A re-imagining of the built environment, for the better

A re-imagining of the built environment, for the better

Lev Radin / Shutterstock

Editor's note: To learn more about the convergence of technologies and the built environment, be sure to check out [email protected] November 12-13.

A building just isn’t a building anymore if it can’t think for itself.  That’s a slight exaggeration, but only slight.

As technology has grown more and more sophisticated, the convergence of energy, information, building and transportation technologies has led to a reimagining and restructuring of the built environment. This convergence (dubbed VERGE by Greenbiz) coupled with the rapid growth of information and communications technology (ICT), has changed the office and building landscape dramatically, altering how the workspace functions and how buildings are managed, according to a new report by GreenBiz Group.

The report, called VERGE and the Built Environment, found that the intersection of these powerful technologies is altering the way in which communities are organized, pointing towards a new approach to how people work, play and live.

“Ultimately VERGE is place-based, that is, it happens somewhere,” said Joel Makower, executive editor of the GreenBiz, during the company's Tuesday webcast. “A building, campus, a neighborhood, a city, or a region.”

The 34-page report highlighted the impact of information and communications technology on the traditional workspace and the way in which buildings are managed.

The sophistication of broadband and its ability to handle large amounts of data has led to a reimagining of the traditional office, allowing a more efficient use of space as more employees work remotely, said Robert Watson, author of the report and CEO and chief scientist at EchoTech International Group, during Tuesday’s webcast. This allows companies to cut down or eliminate permanent space per employee, he said.And as organizations slowly start to trust teleworking, questions of how best to utilize office space will come into play.

“How do we re-engineer the workspace to match the needs of today’s worker?” said Melissa O’Mara, vice president of education/government solutions & high performance green buildings at Schneider Electric, during the webcast.

But there still exists a prejudice that workers who aren’t in the office are not as hardworking as their deskbound colleagues, said Watson.

“Rightly or wrongly, people who work in the office do tend to be promoted,” he said.

But the issue is generational, said Jennifer Layke, executive director of Johnson Controls Institute for Building Efficiency. Today’s young workers are more focusedon productivity and engagement, she said, and will likely want a balance between working in an office and working remotely.

“Today’s young workforce is going to look at acceleration in ways that are meaningful to them,” she said.

Photo of summer streets in New York provided by Lev Radin / Shutterstock.com. 

ICT has also led to real-time building management, said Watson. Technology has the ability to process data and make it available, even via smartphones and remote computers.

“Problems can be quickly identified and dealt with,” he said.

Although technology and access to information has improved significantly, there’s a mistaken belief that technology can solve everything, said Watson, when in fact it has its limitations. For example, technology may alert a building manager that a fan is broken, but an individual will have to go in and fix it. 

“There’s no doubt that growing awareness about information technology enables actions to be taken but it doesn’t guarantee it,” he said.

There are still improvements to be made relating to ICT and buildings, said O’Mara. The majority of existing green building standards are related to design, said O’Mara, but these standards need to shift, and fast, to the actual energy performance of buildings. Employees and managers need to be given real time data on how the building is performing, and how much that is costing a building owner or company per day, she said.

It’s about showing people “here are some faults and by the way, it’s costing you ‘x’ amount of money a day,” O’Mara said. “[The information] can’t just sit in a dashboard.”

Another challenge is the significant gap between the skillset needed to manage the highly technical information of today’s buildings, and what is actually out there in the market.

“We’ve got a bunch of folks that are good with the physical but not electronic things,” Watson said. “It’s like we have telephone operators being asked to maintain digital switching equipment.”

Layke said the interest in energy and the desire to improve building performance has never been higher, yet technology has outstripped human managing capabilities.

“We have a gap in performance from where we could be and where we want to be,” Layke said.

Some solutions include putting strong energy management practices in place, drawing up a longterm energy reduction plan, and engaging people, such as tenants, Layke said. 

“If one of your goals is to ensure you have very strong tenant engagement and optimizing behavior, you’re going to want to provide information to the tenant on their performance,” she said.

Another interesting development according to the report is a renewed focus on urban centers. In the 1960s and 1970s, many large American cities were gutted as millions of people moved out to the suburbs. Now, corporations are reversing the trend, investing in infrastructure and amenities in downtown city centers. For example, the financial district in New York City has experienced a boom in new multi-family housing. Young people, particularly 18 to 34 year olds – known as Gen Y’ers – along with retired baby boomers, are flocking back to these urban centers, which offer a host of readily available perks.

“[They have] more access to commerce, retail goods, access to friends and family, access to jobs, culture, all that they can get to without having to jump in a car,” Watson said.

It’s not only individuals migrating back to the country’s urban environments. Corporations are recognizing the financial and environmental benefits of lowering their corporate real estate footprint. Zappos, for instance, plans to move 1,200 of its employees to downtown Las Vegas next year, from Henderson, a nearby suburb. And United Airlines has leased 830,000 square feet in the Willis Tower, one of the largest leases in Chicago real estate history. A reduced floor area means companies can make maximum use of the space and still keep their real estate bill the same as what it was or even reduce it, said Watson.

Transportation is experiencing a similar shift: In 2011, Gen Yers bought 30 percent fewer cars than were sold to the same age group four years ago, rather opting for more sustainable modes of transport such as public transit, walking, biking or using cars in their social network. Cars that are rarely used are now being loaned to family, friends or even strangers through car sharing networks. This means that existing cars are being used far more effectively, said Watson.

“We’re seeing an ownership culture being replaced by a usership culture,” he said. “Younger people are opting for access to a vehicle and not necessarily requiring that to be in their driveway.”

This shift away from driving means a lot of economic growth is going to occur in “walkable urban places” – central business districts and denser urban environments that are centered round mass transit systems like subways and trains, said Watson.Taken a step further, the idea of creating a mixed-use space where people “live, work and play” is taking root throughout the world, particularly in Europe and China. These communities, often located in downtown areas, give people the chance to walk to their everyday activities, such as work, shopping or visiting friends. Leading to healthier communities, and a much healthier environment.

“The eco-district is an area where we’re going to see a lot more focus,” said Layke. The challenge here will be renewing and rebuilding existing communities but Layke said there’s evidence that it is possible. “There are examples across the United States where that is happening very successfully.”