Tech-forward solutions in real estate can help us tackle the climate crisis
By Chris Dietz, President of Global Operations, Leading Real Estate Companies of the World
Buildings use a lot of concrete – and this material is responsible for 7-8% of global Greenhouse Gas emissions. It also accounts for around 25% of the embodied carbon of construction. There are several different ways new tech-forward, innovative companies are looking to tackle this problem. Concrete is made from water, cement, and aggregate. A carbon negative aggregate has now been created alongside carbon zero blockwork using plastic waste (which cannot be recycled and is usually burnt). Some new solutions can remove the need for cement all together. For example, Earth Friendly Concrete uses a unique binder system that can result in up to 87% embodied carbons savings and BioConcrete uses biotechnology to create zero carbon concrete that requires no cement.
Beyond reducing the embodied carbon of concrete itself, another approach is to reduce the amount required in the first instance. For example, software to optimise structural designs for 3D printing of low carbon concrete, resulting in minimal material usage, and AI to eliminate any over-design.
Apart from concrete, other industry trailblazers are seeking to use waste streams to create new materials such as making panels from waste cardboard packaging and hard-to-recycle plastic. New construction systems are also being developed from waste streams. For example, a modular building system from plastic waste that can be used as flood defence, disaster relief shelter, semi-permanent homeless shelter or work from home office space. There are also Greenbricks, which can slot together mechanically and are made from otherwise non-recyclable materials.
Bio-based materials such as hemp, mycelium and timber are another key area of accelerated innovation – they are renewable, healthy, breathable and absorb carbon during cultivation. Companies are developing multiple new materials in this area, including high-performing building insulation made from mycelium, and a board material made from food waste.
The array of choices in this space can make deciding on materials and comparing their relative benefits tricky. And it is worth noting here that local reused materials and structures should ideally be prioritised, to minimise the need for raw materials extraction and associated processing and manufacture impacts.
Tackling energy usage is also a vital contribution achieving the zero ambitions. Innovations to help facilitate home retrofit exist and are emerging, such as robotic underfloor insulation and smart air bricks to reduce heat loss. Solutions like Tallarna are joining up the retrofit value chain by using AI to identify the best sustainable options for a building, and then calculating the risk of underperformance enabling projects to be insured and therefore financial outcomes guaranteed.
Large commercial real estate and multinational corporations are also feeling the impact of rising energy costs and mounting pressure to decarbonise their real estate assets. Digital platforms are aiming to make information on entire portfolios more easily accessible and transparent, enabling the prioritisation of retrofitting measures including risks and financial impacts. To help companies with large portfolios identify assets with the least thermally inefficient building envelopes they are turning to new innovators such as Sattelite Vu which will be launching the first of its constellation of satellites in 2023 to measure the thermal efficiency of every building on Earth.
As we move to a grid with a higher proportion of renewables, we need to consider how we can make our buildings flexible to match their demand to when zero carbon energy is available and avoid peak times of consumption when the carbon intensity of the grid and cost of electricity is higher. Demand can be balanced by utilising energy storage or timing non-essential uses to during off-peak periods.
While reaching net zero is critical, it is also important that we acknowledge and prepare for the climate changes we are already experiencing. Investors, developers and end-users have a responsibility to take it seriously.