Market Talk: Building sustainability

05 August 2021
In conversation with George Bou Mitri, president, Honeywell Building Technologies Middle East, Turkey and Africa

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What trends do you see across the different industry verticals within the Mena region with regards to driving building efficiency? 

Buildings represent most of our energy consumption as we spend more than 60 per cent of our time in buildings, so our focus is on how we take the space that we operate in and transform it to make it more sustainable, and I can think of two main trends.

The first trend is a bit of a push and the second one is a bit of a pull.

The 'push' is from government agencies; we see more regulations in the region to have sustainability and high energy efficiency in buildings as part of the many 'Vision' strategies. We know the pull is happening from the actual users and developers of these buildings. 

The UAE's vision is to achieve zero-carbon buildings by 2050, a huge goal but certainly achievable, and we see that 64 million square metres of built-up area in the UAE already adhere to the local green building regulations, so there is significant progress happening in that space. 

As for the second trend, the users and occupants of buildings, many of whom are becoming more conscious about the environment and sustainability, be it residential, commercial, retail or even office spaces, are demanding more sustainable approaches and solutions to be deployed.

The developers of these buildings use these sustainability practices as a value proposition and differentiator to state that "my building is net-zero, adopting the latest technology, using energy-efficient lighting or deploying systems for HVAC cooling, etc".

These two 'push and pull' trends combined with certifications from agencies are putting us in a strong position.

 

In your experience, how are property developers, architects and building users responding to these policy changes and demand for green buildings and sustainability best practices? 

A decade ago, architects would tout a flagship development where the design of the building would allow additional sunlight to increase energy efficiency.

Nowadays, that approach is becoming a part of every single development. It is not at full scale, but standards and specifications are driving in that direction across the board.

 

What is the potential for building owners, operators and occupants to make a difference to an organisation's sustainability targets?

Each of the stakeholders in any retail or commercial building has a significant role: the occupants, operators, owner and developer. Occupants look at how you operationally go into your living space and ensure that you are in a healthy environment, have suitable workspaces, or have the right experience. If you're walking into a movie theatre and it's too cold, or it has the proper ambient temperature, etc. For the occupant, the experience is driving that change on its own. 

If you look at the operators, they are now seeking to leverage technology, optimise their operating costs and provide the highest level of service to these occupants. And if you look at the actual developers or owners, for them, it's a brand. It's about being a good corporate citizen and providing a unique value proposition. It's about positioning themselves as the company or the developer that would provide thoughtful thinking and solutions for the occupants and users of these buildings.

In a recent survey with Wakefield Research, around 60 per cent of operators believed short-term change is necessary for these buildings. About 30 per cent believed air quality, especially in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, is more important than ever before. 

These and other changes are important for us as we come back to work, with the 'new normal', especially with some of our solutions such as touchless access, which can function effectively and still ensure we can do contact tracing. 


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Covid-19 has accelerated these transformations, increasing the importance of atmospheric and environmental conditions, ESG criteria and hybrid working models. How do you see the role of digital transformation contributing to building sustainability over the next 10-20 years?

I think the technology and building space has moved quite fast and even faster because of Covid-19. Historically, when you walked into a control room of a building, you'd see multiple systems, each in a silo. You'd get indicators, particularly with alarm systems; if there was a shutdown, you'd see the red or green light and not much two-way communication or analytics.

However, over the past decade, we've seen these systems converging into a single platform. We're now able to use data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to deploy the right technology. While that platform is essential, we're also seeing the devices becoming smarter. 

For example, we have semiconductors everywhere now. What was historically wired can be wireless today; what was once more of a transmission unit has become more two-way communication, so now you're able to drive set points for the coding. You can manage your lighting, elevators, escalators, maintenance of the critical mechanical and electrical equipment, and all of this comes together so you can analyse historical trends.

When we look at the hospitality industry, what time is check-in? You start working the right indicators and leverage this machine learning to provide a better and more sustainable operation that yields operational benefits and savings for an enhanced user or occupant experience.

The technology is there and what we've seen in the region is that multiple projects are now calling for net-zero buildings, buildings of the future, smart buildings.

Green building councils are now putting forward standards for future buildings, so the potential of machine learning and AI in smart buildings to predictively manage the facilities more efficiently is enormous today. 

 

What are the barriers to uptake? Is it the cost of capital investment, or the fear of something new and inertia to change, or is it moving ahead as fast as possible?

I think it's a normalised adoption rate. Cost is also not an obstacle. Much of what you deploy for sustainability best practices is economically feasible because you generate savings and improve your occupants' or visitors' experience. We've seen quite good adoption rates today, but I know this trend is picking up.

Another ongoing ambition in this region is developing smart cities and happier communities using technology to integrate services, whether transport or security, or green and smart buildings. 

 

How do you see the development of a more holistic data environment? 

KPMG highlighted that from 2018 to 2022, the smart city industry will double to over $2.5bn in the region. Taking a step back when you're deploying a smart building, you're also creating the foundation to build a smart city and smart communities.

Communities are also an integral part of the city; you have to drive sustainable and efficient experiences for the occupants by leveraging technologies from across the world like public safety, emergency response, supporting the fire department, policing, or even just the emergency transport from a car accident.

We also need to look at how to ensure that we have an integrated mobility model between traffic transportation, street lights, or even garbage collection; all of these aspects come together, and then we look to ensure energy efficiency.

How do we get that much more connected? How do we know when we need to maintain, replace or adjust all of these aspects? A great example is the new administrative capital in Egypt. It's a vast development and brilliant integrated city operation that also looks at the city surveillance.

Riyadh recently gained 18 points on the global smart city index; it is now ranked fifth among G20 cities.

The UAE has also invested significantly in developing its smart cities, from master plans to Sustainable City, Science City, Festival City, etc. 

There's a lot of focus on deploying these solutions for multiple benefits. I believe we'll see this develop further in this region where you have a lot of communities. This integration between the services provided in the community and the occupants of the community is becoming a requirement to be smart, where it creates a differentiating value prop for the developer.

 

There's a shift to cloud-based services and different relationship models with clients, users and other companies. How do you see Honeywell's approach changing to embrace and benefit from the new opportunities?

We've been in the region for over 60 years now and run a full-fledged operation with locally based technology operation and service teams with a robust partner network. 

We began our digital transformation long ago, looking at the platforms that bring buildings and cities together and looking at the edge devices that become 'smart'. By connecting the two, we're able to have a unique building of the future offering.

Through that process, we learned to become more focused on what users want, the different use cases and the journey for each user, from the minute visitors reach the building or the parking lot to getting registered at the waiting room.

We look at how to enhance it through technology. The people working in a building have a different use case. Then if you're the building operator, you have other use cases. Hence, I'm optimistic about many technological advancements, and the future will be pretty exciting.

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To find out more, please visit us at Honeywell Building Technologies

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