Artificial Intelligence, Big Data and the Sustainable Built Environment

May 18, 2022

Globally, digital access is important not only as a technology which can make governance, business activities and services more efficient, but also as a potential enabler of wider socio-economic engagement of individuals in communities of interest and continuous monitoring and reporting on the state of the natural and built environment.  

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, the construction sector faces a challenge to remain competitive, improve performance and safeguard jobs. To become and industry stay competitive, construction needs up-to-date and innovative AI tools and technologies for more sustainable building design. The integration of new technologies during the design, construction and operational phase can significantly lower the cost while improving the functionality of built assets. Artificial intelligence (AI), advanced data analytics, fintech, cloud computing, 5G, new materials, renewable energy technology are just a few of the innovations changing the global construction industry landscape. 

In its recent circular economy action plan, the European Commission highlighted the significant impact the built environment has on many sectors of the EU economy. It said: “The construction sector is responsible for over 35% of the EU’s total waste generation. Greenhouse gas emissions from material extraction, manufacturing of construction products, construction and renovation of buildings are estimated at 5-12% of total national GHG emissions. Greater material efficiency could save 80% of those emissions.”

The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has amplified the growing calls for sustainable, resilient, adaptable building that can effectively operate during moments of crisis. The focus on addressing climate change will increase in the wake of the recent COP26 conference and the UK construction sector will undoubtedly continue to innovate to ensure it contributes to this process. It is generally accepted that only a minority of UK built environment practitioners are experienced in the subject area of sustainable development, and that there is a significant amount of work to do in improving standard design and building practices, processes and decision-making.

Net Zero Emissions and the Sustainable Built Environment: the Scottish example  

The Scottish Parliament has been one of the first to embrace these developments so it is instructive to look at what they are trying to achieve. The Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Act 2019 set legally binding targets for us to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045, with interim targets requiring a 75% reduction by 2030, and 90% by 2040. The built environment sector in Scotland contributes around 40-50% of total carbon emissions, is under pressure to reduce CO2 emissions from the products and processes. The Scottish Government has developed a number of recent key policy and regulatory guides. Whether it is Housing to 2040, or The Heat in Buildings Strategy, or changes due to come into effect in 2022 regarding Section 6 Energy within the Building Standards, they all address critical aspects of the built environment’s journey to net zero. This target challenges architects and engineers to provide new solutions that are practical in terms of cost and applicability in Scottish social and cultural context. 

The challenge is increased by the risk-averse attitudes of clients and contractors, and by overly cautious regulatory officials. As the sustainable building design is the project focus, it will have a wider positive impact on the sustainability of the built environment in Scotland. 

More sustainable built environment will contribute to more sustainable social and economic development in Scotland. Both the Planning Advice Note 84 and the Sullivan Report suggest that if very low carbon development is designed then the need for low and zero carbon equipment will no longer exist. Good, careful design at the outset will minimise the total energy demand for the lifetime of the development. Design considerations for a new development as a whole and for the individual buildings can help the energy efficiency. Designing Places (2004) confirms that design is a material consideration. It highlights the opportunity for making efficient use of energy resources from an early stage of the design process. As architects are involved in decision making on new building design and refurbishment of existing buildings, it is crucial that sustainability issues are tackled at the design stage.

It is important to remove any potential barriers to the improvement of environmental, social and economic performance of built heritage. Barriers to improving environmental performance of built heritage are eliminated by developing policies and practical guides based on the research on potential application of innovative technologies and materials that reduce carbon emissions related to the heating or lighting of built heritage. Scottish Historic Environment Policy, published in 2009, established a flexible framework for improvement interventions by highlighting that “the protection of the historic environment is not about preventing change”, but that “change in this dynamic environment should be managed intelligently and with understanding, to achieve the best outcome for the historic environment and for the people of Scotland”. It has also published technical guides for microgeneration in traditional and historic homes, and for improving their energy efficiency. In addition, they published the outcomes of research on testing of the performance of innovative, sustainable materials used for thermal insulation and of building elements such as windows. 

Life Cycle Assessment, AI and Big Data

The environmental impacts of the production, application and end-of-life of technological devices require a life-cycle assessment (LCA) of the use of natural resources, energy and potential adverse impacts on human life and biodiversity (e.g. through pollution, radiation, etc.). As LCA methods have been a subject of extensive research and development in the last few decades, ‘adding of satellite information’ on social impacts and on the potential subsequent economic impacts of innovative technologies, is a new research challenge.  

Digital twins of built heritage (and any other building) can be created based on building design drawings or detailed measurement plans, including data on building materials and services, and used to perform dynamic simulation modelling with the aim to investigate how different technological solutions related to improved thermal insulation, heating, ventilation, lighting, energy generation from renewables, etc. might be used most efficiently to create healthy indoor environment and reduce carbon emissions. Such modelling, accompanied by information on payback period for each technology, would enable investors interested in the reuse of built heritage to understand how the building could be made more sustainable and what the payback period of such an investment would be.

As AI is used to analyse digitised data, it can be used to reveal additional information about built heritage in digitised historical documents. The use of AI in the analysis of digitised documents on built heritage typologies, condition, conservation methods and their results, reuse, accessibility, economic sustainability, carbon emissions, etc. could provide insights about different relationships and inter-dependencies of those aspects and inform future decision making. 

The potential benefits of the recent technological advances could be harnessed if the levels of leadership and understanding of the changes under way, across all sectors, are increased; if the requisite institutional frameworks to govern the diffusion of innovation and mitigate disruption are set up; and if a consistent, positive and common narrative that outlines the opportunities and challenges is developed. This requires significant capacity building in the built environment sector and its governance and regulatory systems.   

The conditions of respective contract and contracts as a whole can play an important role in regulating matters related to the sustainable built environment. The question for the legal profession and their clients is not whether they should provide for sustainability but how they should provide for it within the contract itself?   The advent and development of digital technologies has had a significant impact on the establishment of contractual arrangements. Due to the recent technological advancements, could automated and smart contracts be considered a driver for sustainability within the built environment sector?

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Dr Andrew Agapiou is an Associate Professor at the Architecture School, University of Strathclyde. He combines his academic background in Construction Law & Project Management with over 25 years of industrial experience helping construction clients to develop their Environmental, Social and Governance Strategies, Policies and Procedures.