City buildings near Green Grass

How Building Coalition and Collaboration can be Transformative for the Environment

With globally managed square footage in the billions, improvements achieved through collaboration have the potential to yield major results for indoor spaces.

Innovation comes in two ways: inventing something new or improving what you have. In the building industry, big, bold innovation happens all the time. But I believe the real opportunity is in systemic changes implemented holistically. For many reasons, ours is a fragmented industry, with little collaboration across organizations. Because many of us don’t even see ourselves as a single industry, no one is in charge of the overall picture and we are missing the opportunity to translate even incremental innovations into real transformation.

As the host of our podcast, “Healthy Spaces with Trane Technologies,” and leader of our Center for Healthy and Efficient Spaces (CHES), I have had a number of conversations with environmental and building experts about innovation specifically around air quality and sustainability. From academia to government to the private sector, one theme is common: a comprehensive “building industry” and associated standards, doesn’t exist…yet.

I believe this is actually great news, for those of us in the industry and consumers alike. With billions of square feet represented across all types of indoor spaces, a few incremental improvements achieved through collaboration and system-wide integration have the potential to yield major results in terms of costs, environmental efficiency and the overall quality of our building spaces.

An incandescent opportunity

One of the best stories to illustrate the value of collaboration comes from CHES External Advisory Council member, Bill Sisson, Executive Director of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development in North America. I spoke with him on Episode 5 of our Healthy Spaces podcast, where he shared a story about the transition from incandescent light bulbs to LEDs.

For a hundred years, our society used incandescent bulbs to light our homes and buildings, but these bulbs were incredibly inefficient at converting electrons to light. Roughly 90% of the energy from an incandescent bulb is converted to heat, whereas 90% of the energy from LED bulbs is used for light.

As Bill explained, a study in Europe showed that fossil fuel emissions actually went up during this transition because the removal of incandescent bulbs required more energy from the HVAC system to keep houses warm. “When you think of something as a system-wide approach, you have to account for these things. You have to account for the energy and emissions impact of systems and the interplay that they’ll have,” Bill said.

A marginal revolution in building systems

Jim Freihaut, associate professor of architectural engineering at Penn State University, agrees. When I spoke with him for Episode 4 of the podcast, he noted that buildings are not typically constructed and operated as whole systems like automobiles, aircrafts and other manufactured systems.

“It’s very difficult to look at a building as a whole integrated system and simultaneously optimize its performance in terms of energy efficiency and indoor air quality and comfort performance,” he said.

LED lighting may be one system, whereas air conditioning and ventilation are separate systems. “The industry as a whole is very fragmented in terms of architectural design, architectural engineering, design of equipment to meet the needs of a building’s operational footprint — all those are very different players, and they don’t really talk together in an integrated fashion to come up with an optimal design for a building,” Jim commented.

One solution may lie in what is known as “building information modeling,” or BIM, which is a process for creating a digital version of all of a building’s systems and subsystems. A simulation model could show you how all the systems interact, so that when you change the lighting from incandescent bulbs to LEDs, you can predict what the winter heating system will do.  This can be a very powerful tool when you understand and can really model a system made up of other systems.  With today’s digital capabilities, this goal of a digital twin for a building is closer than ever before.

Finding efficiencies from this system-wide approach could make a tremendous impact on our world. Buildings account for about 40% of all U.S. energy consumption and a similar proportion of greenhouse gas emissions, so if we can find a way to integrate a building’s systems, marginal improvements for energy efficiency could be revolutionary.

Creating the ‘building sector’

If buildings are systems, yet all the players are fragmented into separate organizations, where do we start making these connections to create a system-wide approach? And who oversees it?

Russ Carnahan, former U.S. Congressman and co-founder of the Building Action Coalition, has been working to integrate different players — including the policy space. In Episode 6 of “Healthy Spaces,” Russ outlined all of the potential players in the building sector, from manufacturers to builders to various environmental groups to educators.

“It’s very diverse,” he said, yet there’s not been a good, broad, connected coalition of experts to work with regulators and policy makers on issues the industry faces. In Congress, he observed that policy makers would want to ‘engage with the building sector,’ but no one knew where to go. The Building Action Coalition is designed to be that resource. “It really boils down to being a credible resource for policy makers,” Russ said.

This matters because the building industry plays such a large role in the American economy, in terms of jobs, economic growth and energy usage. Being able to connect different players, to create a cohesive “building sector,” gives all of us in this industry a way to sing from the same song sheet.

With one collective voice, we can inform policy around the environment and energy, which will allow us all to think about buildings as systems, and how these systems can create a powerful legacy for the next generation. Partnership and innovation today could mean bold transformation tomorrow. And we’re excited about what’s possible in that landscape.

Listen as Trane Technologies EVP and Chief Technology and Strategy Officer, Paul Camuti speaks with leaders from key U.S. government agencies about the opportunity to drive sustainable economic growth by decarbonizing buildings at the Better Buildings Summit 2021.

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