Tech killed the green star

20130227-201142.jpgAs someone who runs a very successful green building design consultancy in Australia, an article titled “sorry green, its over” on dezeen.com got my attention straight away. Marcus Fairs founding editor of Dezeen, posed in a recent article that he thought “tech has killed green” and that green design is over.

Is it true, has tech killed the green star

Marcus defines the green that he believes is dead as the design movement that happened just after the financial crisis, a movement that was frugal and resourceful. It brought us things like cardboard furniture, domestic sized wind turbines on buildings, growing organic food on our balconies. We used adjectives like “sustainable” and “eco”.

He goes on to say that the dream of the arts and craft movement turned out to be a chimera, and “The dream of early twenty-first century design writers- that architects and designers can help solve the problems of climate change and resource depletion by making beautiful green objects that are affordable only to a fortunate few- will turn out to be a chimera.”

I think there maybe some truth in this.

When I think about how those statements relate to building design we are starting to see a trend of truth and big data is enabling that to happen. Big data in buildings is allowing us to see the impact of different elements of building design – let’s just take energy consumption as one example. We spend a lot of time on facades of office buildings – we use biomimicry to design new shading systems, new glass types to make the building more efficient but all they do is improve the total energy consumption of a large office building by 1-2%. We know what works in facades now and have minimum compliance that covers it.

There have been elaborate thermal stacks to mimic ant hill design, they may work in smaller one off buildings but getting them to provide any reasonable relative amount of energy savings in an office building is difficult. They save at best 1% of total office energy consumption and take a lot of embodied energy to create them.

It’s not that these solutions don’t have their place, they do and we love making them work in the right building type. But is tech killing the romanticism that these designs are the solution to a sustainable future? Architects are often disappointed when we tell them that a particularly solution is having a less than 5% benefit in energy efficiency, we don’t enjoy doing it and would much rather first help understand where the energy consumption will be in a building before finding design solutions.

Tech is the solution, not the antitheses – plus some examples

Tech has enabled an understanding of energy use not just in buildings but in all aspects of our lives. Smart meters tell us where our energy consumption in our house goes, yes the ‘green design’ houses use 50% less cooling and heating but 70% of our energy consumption in our homes is from appliances.

The energy simulation work we do can show in an early stage of design that in office buildings 70% of the total energy consumption of an office building is from uses that are not impacted by our ‘green designs’ – lifts, escalators, tenant equipment like PCs, servers, data rooms etc. Only 20-30% is impacted by the design of the office building itself.

And this is where tech becomes the solution rather than the antithesis.

Here are some tech solutions that could tackle the other 70% of the energy consumption in our built environment.

Smart Grids – the ability for the electricity network to determine how much energy goes where, connected to smart appliances

Smart Appliances – the ability for appliances to draw their energy from the grid at night or learn from your useage patterns

Social Media – the online connection of individuals to create sharing of resources, commuting transport, local food groups etc

Transparent Data – the collection of real time energy use data, used to help individuals be aware of and reduce their appliance energy consumption

National Broadband Network – the rapid increase of data speeds allow less commuting

The Cloud – allows centralisation of our data storage, the greater efficiency of data centres out weigh the inefficiencies of per building server rooms

Smart Phones – online all the time, the 9 to 5 has been blurred and it has the potential to greatly reduce our energy use.

Renewable energy – not forgetting the most important tech – wind, PV, micrp-hydro, algae….

So yes, tech may have killed the romantic notion of green design. But it hasn’t killed the green movement. We are just getting more nerdy – go the nerds.

3 Comments on “Tech killed the green star

  1. Simon,
    Great post, I tend to agree that the romantic design of “Green” is yesterday’s hero. For me, the key focus is the understanding of the small % changes against the full building lifecycle. This really drives an understanding of cost of “romantic” green.
    I think this will have interesting implication for the skills and training of the next generation of sustainability professionals. Does the environmental engineer of the future understand waste and energy flows, or information systems. Hopefully both, but that may be allot to ask…

  2. Thanks Hilary and yes agree with you that it needs to be both. Information systems are the key to big data, and without understanding those as environmental engineers we won’t be able to properly assess the full building lifecycle. The age of doing static calculations using 20 year average data is dead, data is updated every minute now and we should be taking advantage of that.

  3. Pingback: Is sustainability dead in the property industry? « SIMON WILD

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