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    The connected office is sustainable

    Scalable systems and the office of the future, part 2

    When it comes to the office, the future belongs to the scalable system.

    Many organizations are reconceiving their workspaces to address anticipated changes to employees’ working habits. Flexible, connected systems that can easily grow as organizational needs change will become increasingly common and necessary.

    In an earlier article, we discussed how scalable smart systems can support the hybrid and fluid working styles that experts predict will become the new normal. But such systems can do more than help secure the future: they can also make offices and office buildings more sustainable today.

    Pushing the renovation numbers

    The sustainable office has long been on the agenda: the first version of the prestigious LEED green building certification was offered way back in 1998. But by making home-based working more prevalent and viable, the pandemic has made office sustainability all the more important.

    To entice employees back into the office, workspaces will have to offer more than the traditional desk and computer network connection. Employees are increasingly demanding environmental accountability from their employers, and employers and commercial real estate owners are increasingly looking at the office spaces that they own and manage as strategic assets. Making a building carbon neutral can help attract and retain top talent, especially among the younger working cohorts, and it can burnish a company’s image all while helping to avert the worst predicted outcomes of climate change.

    The numbers are certainly striking. According to a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report, “Buildings and construction together account for 36% of global final energy use and 39% of energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions when upstream power generation is included." Buildings account for 40% of the European Union's total energy budget. When you consider that office buildings make up 29% of the world's commercial real estate, the sector's potential to exert influence—either for better or for worse—becomes obvious.

    Sustainable office architecture and management has been gaining traction since the turn of the millennium, haunted by the specter of environmental catastrophe. Unfortunately, the push toward sustainability has not gone nearly far enough. In the U.S. alone, total commercial floor space is expected to grow 34% by 2050. Consider that in 2019, the U.S. commercial real estate complex burned up almost 18 quadrillion BTUs of energy, 72% percent more than it did in 1980.
    This is obviously not a sustainable situation, and the trend is not going to level off or reverse direction by itself. But something has to change: as the United Nations advises, the “energy intensity per square meter (m2) of the global buildings sector needs to improve on average by 30% by 2030 (compared to 2015) to be on track to meet [the] global climate ambitions" set forth in the 2015 Paris Agreement.
    These numbers need to inspire action rather than discourage it. The fact is that there’s an abundance of low-hanging fruit to be picked. In Europe, for example, a mere 1% of buildings undergo energy-efficient renovation each year. Tripling that percentage to (a still-low) 3% per year would go a long way towards achieving the EU Green Deal's goals for carbon neutrality, energy efficiency, and renewables.

    Retrofits, sensors, and beyond

    Global and regional climate action initiatives can give commercial real estate owners and tenants the impetus—and in some cases the funds—to embark on full-scale sustainable building retrofits. But the journey can also begin on a more modest scale. Retrofitting a building’s lighting with a managed, energy-efficient LED-based system can cut lighting-related energy use by up to 80%. Given that 10% to 20% of a building’s total energy budget typically goes to lighting, this can make a significant difference.

    A scalable connected lighting system can do even more than radically reduce energy use. Such systems can host sensor-driven connected applications that maximize operational efficiency while offering greater insight into and control over the illuminated environment. Deployed in the physical lighting infrastructure overhead, sensors can detect events and gather data on a wide range of factors, including perform daylighting levels, temperature, and humidity. The system could use such data to adjust HVAC and lighting use automatically. Less artificial light and more cooling might be required as a space fills with afternoon sunlight, with the reverse requirements as the evening comes in.

    Sensors can also collect occupancy data, which can then be analyzed over time to accurately target HVAC and lighting usage. After all, why should you heat a corridor, an area, or even an entire floor if nobody is using it? Data analysis can even help organizations shrink their property footprints, if usage patterns show that some office spaces are being chronically underused.

    Sustainability's never been easier to achieve

    LEDs today, sensors tomorrow, data-driven applications the day after that. This is what a scalable smart lighting platform can do. When LED luminaires offer native connectivity, you can enjoy immediate illumination and sustainability benefits the day you turn them on. You can then add more advanced capabilities whenever it's convenient for your organization in the future.

    Think of a connected luminaire in the same way you think about your laptop computer. Your computer comes out of the box with connectivity features and a whole range of capabilities on board, and slots for connecting additional hardware up and down each side. You can use the computer’s primary functions without ever taking advantage of the additional capabilities it offers, or without ever connecting a fancy webcam or terabyte drive to any of its ports. But when you do, you reap all kinds of additional benefits, many having little to do with a computer’s essential number-crunching abilities. Connected luminaires are just like that: they produce light right “out of the box,” but they also have additional data-enabled capabilities and hardware slots on board, and you can use those to reap benefits beyond their essential illumination abilities whenever you’re ready to do so.

    Reasons for adopting smart lighting and other such systems exist beyond the need to cut carbon emissions and lower costs. In an era of socially responsible capital, there’s a “halo effect” associated with pursuing sustainability initiatives. Zero-carbon operations is a differentiator for a company, and being able to claim it builds brand equity in a sustainability-minded market. Additionally, green practices make organizations more attractive to prospective employees, and they tend to increase employees' satisfaction levels once they've been hired.

    On the public policy front, it’s now easier than ever to take bold steps in the direction of sustainability. In Europe, for instance, the EU Green Deal is making billions of euros available to member countries for sustainable renovation. The Biden Plan promises to do something similar in the US.

    Sustainability is a moral imperative, and a necessity to avoid ecosystem collapse. The good news is that sustainability can be achieved while simultaneously lowering operational costs and making the workplace healthier and more human-centric. Smart systems are an essential element of sustainable operations—and connected lighting is a good place to start.

    About the author

    Jonathan Weinert, IoT and Connected Lighting, Signify
    Award-winning writer Jonathan Weinert has been been researching and reporting on LED lighting, connected lighting, and the IoT since joining Signify in 2008. 

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