How is the world prepared for the future of construction? Well, we have experienced immense shifts in what we need from buildings, from changing work-life patterns to the movement of retail activity further online.
At the same time, however, this ‘change point’ represents an opportunity for the buildings sector to make the real change towards delivering an environment that is fit for the future.
There are a few things to look out for in the coming year as those changes start happening. Firstly, old buildings will find new life.
The pandemic had a big impact on the buildings sector, as public health measures turned homes into offices and left office buildings empty. While some of these effects may have receded, the way we use buildings has changed for good: office attendance will not return to pre-Covid levels, advances in remote and hybrid working will not be rolled back, and physical retail will never fully recover the ground it lost to e-commerce.
At the same time, the greater demands are now being placed on residential property – to meet many more needs than previously. We face a situation where some types of property, such as office buildings, are over-abundant, while pressure increases for more homes and buildings that cater for logistical tasks, such as parcel processing and collection.
We should therefore expect to see businesses making real efforts to tackle the challenges of repurposing buildings with significant opportunities to meet our changing property needs.
Secondly, power will be at the heart of rethinking building usage in the current times. The changes we have seen in how buildings are used over the last two years came at a time when we were already experiencing changes in property usage, for example as a result of the shift to online shopping, coupled with a regulatory and societal push for greater energy efficiency in response to climate change.
The urgent action needed better approaches to building efficiency, in terms of designing and retrofitting buildings for reduced energy usage, and this tends to mean changes to a building’s power management system.
The growing adoption of EVs will replace fossil fuels in vehicles, while electric cooking and heating offer significant efficiency gains but introduce yet greater demand for electrical power. At the same time, the increasingly persuasive economic case for small-scale renewables will see rooftop solar deployments become common, leading to buildings becoming more complex consumers and producers of electricity.
The term’ prosumers’ is often used to describe the way building owners will manage this new relationship with power, so expect to see and hear more references to prosumers in the year ahead. How buildings interact with energy infrastructure has long been a vital consideration, but as they are developed and redeveloped in response to changing needs in the coming years, that consideration will rise higher up the agenda.
We can expect the basic processes of the industry, such as tenders for contracts and construction standards, to become increasingly focused on questions of power management.
Thirdly, digitization will become an essential enabler. For major changes in how buildings interact with electrical infrastructure to be viable, we cannot rely on traditional technologies and approaches. Smart technologies including smart meters will become essential to provide buildings with the capability to feed power back to the grid and provide insight to network operators about how and why each building is using power.
Additionally, safety in buildings will be redefined. The safety of buildings has been a central question over the last two years, as public health authorities have raced to understand the dynamics of viral transmission and the impact of interventions like increased ventilation on how building management systems work. Clearly, there is a balance to strike between keeping people safe and keeping day-to-day activities going.
While these questions will continue to influence the way that buildings are developed, they are not the only safety question that must be ‘top of mind’ for the buildings sector in 2022. Changing how buildings are used, will have a very fundamental effect on how risk has been assessed.
A residential context has very different safety needs to an office environment, and these risk factors will also be influenced by increased electrical demand which comes with electrified approaches to heating and transport.
Alongside this, there will be a growing need to identify the cybersecurity risk profile of buildings, as smart systems come to occupy vital failure points in a building’s structure, such as power distribution, heat, ventilation, and air conditioning equipment.
These need to be seen as part of a complex and cohesive overall system, not separate issues which can be treated in isolation, so it seems likely that new defaults and standards for building safety will develop over the coming years.
Lastly, ties between buildings and other sectors will deepen. Changes in the buildings sector will arrive in a shifting regulatory environment, complex considerations around climate and emissions, public pressure to fulfill changing needs, difficult financial limitations as the global economy recover from the pandemic, and the need to involve a wider set of stakeholders facing their own business transformation challenges.
This year we should focus on learning the lessons of the past and carefully plan a route towards real change in the buildings sector over the next decade.
The author is Parag Mendiratta, the Eastern Africa Regional Manager at Eaton Electric Ltd