The future of buildings

With rare exceptions, buildings today are still being planned, constructed and managed in the same way as they have been for decades. To avoid becoming obsolete and inefficient, current practices need to change. Net zero buildings, automated control systems and multi-functional design are examples of critical enablers when developing buildings for the next 100 years.

So buildings and construction must and will change, according to industry experts like American researcher Dr. Nora Wang. The changes could be dramatic. They could revolutionize the landscape and the way we live, work and play in cities around the world.

The challenge, says Wang, is predicting exactly what those changes should be and how quickly they will happen. It is also critical to determine how much that innovation and new technology will cost, says Wang, who is an architect by training. Financial considerations can slow or even stall innovation.

The business model will change because, if the current players don’t change, they will be out of business.

Vision for future buildings

Wang, who is based in Washington, D.C., is the technical lead for a landmark American study called A Vision for Future Buildings.This document maps out an ideal version of how buildings could evolve in the next 100 years. But there are different routes that the industry can take to get to that future. Not all will bring the same benefits.

“Honestly, I don’t know if there is any ‘silver bullet’ that can change the current practice,” Wang says. “But I would say that the business model will change because, if the current players don’t change, they will be out of business.”

Long-term goals to benefit society

The Vision sets long-term goals with huge benefits to society. Among the possibilities are:

  • Zero net sustainability for all new buildings
  • Complete smart building technology
  • Automated control systems, from HVAC to door security
  • Multi-functional design to ease flexibility
  • Technical cooperation between entire building blocks
  • Intensified integration of private buildings with public utilities and transportation
  • Improved relationships between buildings and their environment
  • Healthier work-live-learn spaces
  • Increased work productivity by up to 10 times

Drivers for different facilities

Meanwhile, not all buildings are the same, of course. Office towers, educational and governmental facilities, factories and residential buildings will all evolve separately. “They all have different drivers,” Wang says. “They will all undergo change for slightly different reasons.”

The connected home

For example, in the residential sector, Wang predicts a significant expansion in connected devices “for the convenience of the residents.” The home sector is already experiencing an improvement in energy efficiency. But connected homes will push that even further with technologies to coordinate lighting, heating and cooling, and all other functions. Using technologies that already exist, connected homes will also become more intelligent and secure, with appliances and door opening solutions that are digitally, remotely, and collectively controlled.

Modularity in commercial buildings

In the commercial sector, Wang is hopeful that market forces will soon encourage the construction of more multi-function and adaptable buildings, thus extending their lifespans beyond the 40 years that many current buildings have.

Modular design and construction technology can allow owners to easily change parts of their buildings for different tenants, allowing a single space to morph from an office to a restaurant to a living unit without major reconstruction.

Looking forward 100 years makes sense

Old and new building in San Francisco

Critically, the study cites the need to develop in-depth data to determine the life-cycle costs of building ownership. This is how builders and owners will weigh the costs and benefits of new technology in the near and distant future, Wang says.

Looking forward 100 years makes sense, however. This is the estimated timeline for a complete turnover, with the exception of historical buildings. The assumption is that each new or existing building will have a lifespan of 80 years. The turnover could be faster because many buildings are demolished just because their functions or systems are “outdated,” Wang says.

But people do not need to wait 100 years to see significant changes, according to Wang. It will happen within cycles such as five to 10 years and 10 to 20 years. These cycles may determine how and when routes to the 100-year future are chosen.

Sustainability and net zero

One immediate target is the evolution of net zero and carbon neutral buildings, Wang says. “If you are talking about net zero, this is a near-term goal because we already have the technology to achieve that. It may not have the immediate payback that many people expect in five or even 10 years, but the technology to achieve net zero is feasible and, depending on the circumstances, you may even justify the investment.”

The BIQ house in Hamburg, Germany, is powered by facades filled with algae.

Wang says there are practical limitations. “What will drive the change? When we looked at 100 years, it really freed up our imaginations. But, if you look at 10 to 20 years, there are more practical factors. Return on investment in technology is a major hurdle.”

She remains optimistic. Just 20 years ago, LEED buildings were rare and expensive. Now they are common and operate with embedded sensors. “You need to prove that it works and that it does have a market value. It just may take a long time because of the slow turn-around in the building environment.”

When we looked at 100 years, it really freed up our imaginations

Planning is critical, Wang says. That is why the U.S. Department of Energy and its Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, where Wang works, collaborated on A Vision for Future Buildings. Individuals from the building industry participated, along with experts from the private, educational and governmental sectors.

Wang describes her team as “an amazingly diverse group of people who wanted to share their visions.” Those visions could eventually change things for the better in the building industry.


By Bruce Kirkland


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