Digital buy-in needed to address climate emergency

Carbon emissions, climate change, climate emergency

How can construction mitigate carbon emissions, address climate change and close the building performance gap? The answer could be to go digital, says Peter Barker, managing director of BIM Academy

In June 2019, Parliament passed legislation requiring the UK government to reduce net carbon emissions of greenhouse gases by 100%, by 2050, in doing so this would make the UK a ‘net-zero’ emitter.

With buildings and the process of creating them accounting for 36% of global energy use and 39% of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions per annum, according to the UN Environment Programme, the construction industry has a duty to present and act upon solutions to address our current state of climate and ecological emergency.

Globally, we are consuming and polluting far too much. If we look at housing for example, how we build new homes, where we build them and how we live in them together influence more than half of our environmental footprint. If we want to play a part in achieving the UK’s net-zero targets, we need to first look at the environmental performance of our buildings.

Fully operational buildings frequently do not perform as predicted at the design stage, particularly when delivered through mass development programmes such as government-led schemes for schools or housing.

While this can sometimes be attributed to poor on-site quality control and cutting corners in the specification, a major factor is the performance gap: the difference between the as-designed and as-built environmental performance.

The Scottish Futures Trust identified that operational energy costs in existing new build schools in Scotland was up to three times higher than the energy usage predicted at the design stage and this isn’t just an issue in Scotland. A recent Innovate UK study found that nearly every non-domestic building is monitored as part of the study had higher carbon emissions than predicted during the design phase. In some cases, total emissions were 10 times the building emissions rate calculated for Part L compliance.

Underperforming buildings do not meet their design targets, consequently impacting on the environment and societal health and wellbeing – this not only wastes money and makes for unhappy people, but damages our planet and jeopardises our future.

Therefore, we need to ask ourselves, what can we do as an industry to provide ways of mitigating carbon emission, address climate change and close the performance gap?

Is the short answer, go digital?

Playing a digital role

By creating a streamlined, joined-up workflow between the digital concept design model and the analytical software, we can maintain links through design development so that the design can be interrogated and optioneered as the design develops.

In many cases, design analysis workflows are often applied too late in the design process due to interoperability issues with design models and time-consuming processes required to affect their interaction, resulting in an ill-informed design. Not testing frequently enough during the design stage to test the various potential outcomes results in inaccuracies and false outcomes.

Software interoperability is key to allowing a seamless workflow through design conception and development to allow multiple design options to be rapidly tested and reiterated until we hone the design to arrive at the optimum solution that performs as it is expected to do so. BIM Academy has played a part in creating tools to facilitate a more agile end-to-end process for the rapid testing of design models to achieve the optimal solution earlier in the design development process, thus reducing wasted effort, abortive work and poor environmental performance.

All of these things lead to buildings which are intelligently designed to meet the demand from increasing performance levels and emergency targets.

Digital allows us to track how buildings perform in use and their impact on the asset users, smart devices produce data which tells us how these assets perform, but the digital process needs to start sooner. Capturing the design performance characteristics digitally in the information model is a prerequisite to future performance monitoring in use, this is gradually happening more and more as government mandates on BIM have kicked in around the world and designers are producing more data-rich models to work with.

For existing assets, the potential of Internet of Things (IoT) and sensor technology to monitor aspects such as lighting, thermal comfort, air quality and acoustics brings in the final piece of the jigsaw, allowing design performance requirements to be compared to actual in-use environmental performance and then mapped against user perceptions through the use of wellbeing reporting technology. This can be used by occupants, owners and landlords to create a source of actionable advice on the operation of their buildings and their environments.

As part of an Innovate UK research initiative, BIM Academy was asked to initiate a project with the aim of understanding how a software platform could be designed for use by social housing providers to improve the performance of their buildings and the wellbeing of vulnerable tenants.

As a result, we developed a cloud-based application capable of linking BIM contextual data with operational performance data from smart devices. This platform compares ‘as design’ performance against ‘in use’ to highlight performance gaps and their cause, as well as comparing performance before and after building improvement work takes place to quantify success and value for money and enabling proactive maintenance regimes based on the feedback provided by the platform.

This intelligent data platform containing building design information, sensor data and user feedback, produces meaningful actionable advice for building owners and occupiers.

Taking positive action

The use of digital and applied technologies therefore has two main functions in supporting positive action in fighting climate change. Stringent application of digital processes is needed at design stage to predict building performance and the then as-built asset should function in tandem with smart technology to monitor outputs and compare to predicted performance.

With a predicted 80% of the buildings that we will have in 2050 already existing today, we don’t have the luxury of the necessary above outlined application of digital analysis at design stage, as such retrofitting will be the preferred approach, thus requiring us to look at construction development as a circular economy. Digital is two-fold, an enabler and a supporter, and the industry as a whole must by-in now to meet the UK government’s 2050 target.


Peter Barker

Peter Barker

Managing director

BIM Academy

+44 (0)191 269 5444


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here