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There is no escaping the fact that commercial buildings in Australia, by and large, have been becoming more resource efficient in recent years. This can be put down to greener technologies, greater transparency about performance, and industry dynamics that have encouraged competition and celebration of achievements. A slightly worrying side-effect is that the ‘greening’ of buildings has also contributed to a significant increase in technological complexity. As Adrian Leaman and Bill Bordass have warned for many years, “more and higher technology without a commensurate increase in management input is risky and a hole that many buildings fall into”. Technology can certainly be the environment’s friend, but it needs to be managed well.

That’s why I am absolutely thrilled to be heading to the U.S. for four months next year to work with staff at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) and UC Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment under a Fulbright Scholarship. There is a growing recognition that the potential for greenhouse gas emission reductions from buildings may have been significantly underestimated considering, for many of the upgraded Australian commercial buildings, technology investments explain only half of the observed efficiency improvements. The other half – and arguably the more challenging part – is associated with human behaviour and motivation. If we can develop systematic approaches to help building operators achieve the full potential from their buildings, and do this at scale, the potential benefits are huge.

To give you a sense, if we conservatively assume that 30 percent of the word’s final energy demand is accounted for by the buildings sector, and that one third of that energy is used in non-residential buildings, it is possible that emissions can be cut by between one and three percent solely through effective behaviour-based approaches. Of the approximately 30 giga-tonnes of annual greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel and other sources globally, this might translate to between a 300 and 900 mega-tonne reduction – potentially larger than the entire Australian carbon account.

My objective in the U.S. will be to explore the relevance and replicability of the experiences we’ve gathered here at Buildings Alive working with commercial office buildings and link our talented and rapidly growing team of scientists and engineers at Buildings Alive and the University of Sydney’s IEQ Lab with leading researchers from the Energy Performance of Buildings group at LBNL and at the CBE at UC Berkeley. Together we will be seeking to draw on and support our industry partners’ deep practical hands-on experience running buildings so we can provide a stronger evidence base for decisions in Australia, the U.S and elsewhere.

We all recognise that advanced economies contain more than 750 million square metres of existing institutional-grade office buildings (Australia about 25 million, USA about 350 million) and that even though only 5 percent of commercial facilities are larger than 5,000 m2, they represent more than 50 percent of total floor area. Furthermore, an increasing body of evidence suggests better managed office buildings lead to more productive occupants, so there is potentially much also to be gained from improving the performance of an industry that plays such a crucial role in servicing the Australian and U.S. economies.

Photo credit: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory