Digitalisation and collaboration are key to decarbonising our buildings

Pref Ludenshied

Decarbonising buildings is a huge task, but digital technologies, coupled with collaboration across sectors and stakeholders, can help make the vision of smart, sustainable infrastructure a reality, says Fabio Mercurio of ABB Smart Buildings.

Buildings are known to be a major contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, consuming more than 30 percent of the world’s energy and contributing almost 40 percent of global carbon (CO2) emissions. The construction sector and building owners have a significant challenge to reduce these numbers – in new builds but also in retrofitting – and the clock is ticking.

Digitalisation and electrification along with better energy efficiency and incorporation of renewable sources are becoming the adopted solution for the majority of GHGs emitted by buildings, while connected technologies and building automation can also help manage grid resiliency and reliability.  

Advancing technology is a powerful enabler here – artificial intelligence is being used to optimise granular data collected by smart internet of things devices allowing for data-driven efficiency decisions with greater accuracy than ever before.  As a result, better space management, and intelligent lighting, heating, and ventilation solutions are helping to improve employee comfort and productivity, while simultaneously saving energy and reducing running costs.

The decarbonisation challenge

While the new generation of smart, digital technologies can vastly improve the quality, safety, comfort and productivity of both commercial and residential buildings, significant hurdles remain. Decarbonizing infrastructure by integrating these innovations into new builds may be simple but retrofit projects can be daunting and this has to be made easier.

Excessive consumption of electricity due to inefficient equipment such as legacy heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems, drives and pumps1, for example, or poor asset or occupancy management, results in vast energy wastage. This presents a huge opportunity to install smart building energy management systems, coupled with highly efficient variable speed drives, purposely built, and configured for the application.

The urgency for smart, digital technologies to revitalise and decarbonise aging buildings cannot be emphasised enough. According to the World Economic Forum, global building floor space is projected to double by 2060, yet only 3 percent of investment in new construction is green and efficient, while the renovation rate for existing buildings stands at less than a third of the rate required to meet the Paris climate goals2.

In the EU, climate targets require 3 percent of buildings to undergo “deep” renovations every year by 2030 for at least 60 percent energy savings per building. The rate of renovating buildings is currently only 0.2 percent3. We’re a long way off target.

Building towards COP27

Collaboration is key to meeting market and legislative demands and making the vision of a decarbonised built environment a reality. At COP26 in Glasgow, there were encouraging signs of progress.

The Cities, Regions, and Built Environment Day (CRBE Day) brought together leaders from the private and public sectors and saw the announcement of 26 climate action initiatives4 from across the built environment system. The Building to COP Coalition hosted more than 130 events at COP 26 as well as the Marrakech Partnership for Global Climate Action programming, with a focus on collaboration.

It’s reassuring to see that following the success of CRBE Day, monthly sessions featuring a powerful coalition of stakeholders are being used to elevate the built environment as a critical climate solution ahead of COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, under the banner #BuildingToCOP27.

Visualisation and control using digital tools

Collaboration doesn’t just involve government ministers and CEOs, of course. It starts with building and facilities managers and company employees interacting with smart digital technologies in buildings to improve the efficiency and quality of their work environment in the wake of Covid-19.

For example, touch-free interfaces can be used to improve hygiene in offices, while smart sensors automatically adjust light, oxygen content and temperature based on users’ personal preferences.

Using digitalisation and advanced data analytics in this way helps to promote ‘active efficiency’ i.e. optimizing energy use by integrating traditional energy efficiency tools with digital technologies5.

Digital solutions embodied in smart equipment not only reduce energy usage and emissions but can even automate demand response, meaning buildings can adjust to peaks and troughs in renewable generation. In this way, buildings not only reduce energy consumption and overall carbon footprint, but also subtly modify the behaviour of their inhabitants for the better – making them truly ‘smart’.

Mission to Zero

Recognising the need for not just collaboration, but also an industry-wide roadmap, we created “Mission to Zero TM” – a blueprint for decarbonising commercial buildings, developed using our own facilities.

Our factory in Lüdenscheid, Western Germany, is the flagship retrofit of the blueprint. We achieved carbon-neutral operations through a combination of solar power, smart energy management, and a highly efficient cogeneration plant to save CO2. Our learnings have created a much-needed guide to help others on their carbon-neutral journey.


Viettel Hanoi
Viettel Hanoi Building

Redefining workplaces: Viettel building in Hanoi


An example of truly ‘smart’ infrastructure is the Viettel building in Hanoi, headquarters of Vietnam’s state-owned telecommunications company, which is setting a benchmark for how buildings can help cities become smarter and more sustainable, largely through a host of high-tech solutions.

We worked with Viettel to incorporate the latest smart building solutions, and energy-efficient motors and HVAC drives, helping them up to 20 percent in energy costs while ensuring a safe, comfortable work environment for around 1,000 employees7. Lighting, heating, security, and energy management in the eight-story building are all linked using a smart building automation system.

Products and solutions in the eight-story building – including lighting, heating, security, and energy management – are all connected and communicate with each other, meaning all the information and data are uploaded to the building management system as part of the building’s digitalisation.

The latest HVAC drives precisely control the speed of electric motors used across HVAC applications. The motors in the Viettel building only use the energy required to produce the air or liquid flow, so no electricity is wasted, and are easily, cost-efficiently integrated into the building automation systems.

The building also uses a dry transformer, which supports Viettel’s efforts to minimize environmental contamination and fire hazards for the building. Containing no oil, the transformer is more environmentally friendly and many of the integral parts are fully recyclable.

Creating the buildings for sustainable cities

Smarter buildings are of real importance to cities such as Hanoi, which are densely populated and rapidly growing. The Viettel building is a compelling example of how digitally networked and controllable systems can enhance energy efficiency and sustainability and play a role in the fight against climate change.

It's our vision that collaboration and knowledge sharing, coupled with the application of innovative technologies, will pave the way for innovation and investment, reducing emissions from the built environment and creating a more sustainable future for all.










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