By William Cowell de Gruchy
From the June 2022 Issue
The push for businesses to go green keeps getting stronger. Case in point: 78% of businesses plan to attain carbon neutrality.
Clearly there’s urgency all around when it comes to making ESG (environmental, social and governance issues) progress for businesses. To start, business owners and operators can establish their ESG goals by looking at their buildings. For some, a startling fact is that building operations account for 28%¹ of total global carbon emissions—nearly as much as industrial output. Building space worldwide increases at the rate of adding one entire New York City every month, and that pace will likely continue past 2050.
This is why every business needs to get serious about reducing their carbon output. Facilities managers and building owners, you can step up now and make an impact in the near term.
The good news about ESG is that boosting efficiency (energy and water conservation, cleaning, and office usage) can be your No. 1 ESG contribution and can deliver other benefits, such as lower costs and better workplace health and safety.
The path forward is to take a strategic and holistic look at what to measure, what systems (sensors and data) you need—in order to derive maximum ROI on all counts: sustainability, efficiency, and healthiness. A systematic framework that covers most measures mentioned here is LEED, the most widely used green building rating system worldwide. There are many complementary and competing ESG and green building standards, and which ones predominate is largely determined by which country, state, and city a business operates in.
The Benefits Of ESG
Until the pandemic, most office settings were sealed, air conditioned, occupied every day, and cleaned completely at night. Things have changed. Here are a few examples of steps you can take, and the benefits they can bring.
Many offices will remain sporadically occupied post-pandemic, in the U.S. and elsewhere. For each office building, a sensor-to-data-device controller platform can provide office usage recommendations and adjust window shades to lower energy consumption and pollutants. At the same time, it can recommend separation between people and control humidity, to minimize virus transmission. Keeping office employees at a toasty 72 degrees in mid-winter can dry them out, increase sick time, and make them fall asleep after lunch. Some homework and a dialogue with the workforce can clear the path to significant savings and protect the climate, as you spend less against seasonal temperatures.
Benefit: Longer useful life of heating and cooling systems, and healthier employees.
Retrofitting with windows that open can help conserve energy, but there are tradeoffs to balance. The urban air outside could be dangerous, but the air in your colleague’s lungs could make you very sick indeed. Snapshot measurements don’t do; Facilities managers need ongoing data on public health (viral infections) as COVID keeps dropping new variants, and outdoor pollution and allergens fluctuate significantly.
Benefit: Work-at-home policies can be dynamically adjusted in light of COVID infection rates in a community and energy prices. Increased cases of infections, and higher AC costs, would lead organizations to adjust by reducing infection opportunities, by scheduling fewer employees for work days in the office.
Cleaning surfaces is necessary, of course, but it’s not free to have them cleaned often. Usage data lets a business clean more intelligently. An unused office needs less cleaning than a busy zone, and a sensor-to-data platform can map out which offices and toilets need cleaning, without infringing on personal privacy.
Benefit: Cleaning agents can be bad for employee health and actually impair mental function, cutting productivity. Employees are now highly aware of air dilution and replacement, and understand the link between particulate matter (PM) and their own health. Bathrooms will still be clean, but cleaning bills for unused facilities will drop.
Water conservation matters and it pays. Water used in office buildings accounts for 9% of all water used in commercial and institutional facilities in the U.S.² Only a quarter of that is for landscaping, according to the EPA. Conserving water in office complexes also saves energy (used to heat water). A water-conserving outdoor irrigation system can pay for itself in 18 months—or even faster, if water costs keep climbing.
Benefit: Sensors to monitor pipes, water flow, and detect leaks can also monitor temperature, helping to spot conditions that allow growth of the Legionella pathogen.
Putting Your ESG Plan To Work
Pursuing ESG goals in business quickly highlights the need for collaboration. Whoever runs ESG should strike a close partnership with the facilities management team. It also requires a balanced ESG plan that is holistic—meaning it considers all the ESG factors and how they interrelate, in offices and warehouses, not just factories. You’ll see quickly that IoT and data-platform investment for ESG will also improve building health and lower costs.
Depending on your goals, you may need data on humidity and temperature, occupancy/ space usage and foot traffic, toilet flushes, water flow, air quality, CO2, pipes / water usage and water temperature.
In planning how to achieve ESG goals, you’ll quickly see the need to “platform” the data from sensors—and platform is used as a verb here. That’s because a splatter of unconnected data could send you in the wrong direction by overlooking water conservation or the benefits of fresh-air ventilation. Ongoing, organized delivery of data from multiple types of sensors can reduce costs. You want sensor data feeding into a platform, not into separate siloes, providing you with alerts, trends, and analysis that combine findings from different types of sensors to allow more multifaceted paths to ESG goals.
Looking To The Future
Carbon neutrality is a powerful goal and will become a legal requirement in time. It belongs among your top priorities in strategic planning. You can get there with conservation, efficiency, and balancing the many tradeoffs of smart building operations. Practical steps today can move you ahead on all these fronts.
Your ESG plan will probably include monitoring and improving energy use and carbon emissions, water usage, cleaning resources, air quality and humidity, virus and allergy management, and even physical security.
Whether your building is highly intelligent or relatively Neanderthal, it can become a lot smarter, save money, and get you closer to your ESG goals. Serious improvements require IoT connected sensors, the volumes of data they generate, and systems to analyze, alert, and report.
Cowell de Gruchy is the Founder of Infogrid, a smart building platform that combines IoT sensors with powerful AI to automate and optimize facilities and building management. Prior to this, he attended Oxford University and had a varied career —from finance, to cage fighting in Thailand to Tank Commander in the British Army.
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