innovative construction materials

The ROI of Innovative Building Materials and Technologies

Understanding the building technologies and construction materials utilized – or, in some cases, underutilized – can save you money, help your clients and form better buildings. But let’s talk ROI: what are the benefits of investing in these new materials for your next project, and how do you sell your client on it?

Eric NelsonArchitect and energy expert Eric Nelson, Nelson Architech GmbH, will lead a discussion on innovative construction materials at O.CON: The Office Conference, Nov. 1-2, in Los Angeles. We got a preview from Nelson on what he plans to cover.

NAIOP: What are the most impactful building technologies today, and how are they changing development?

Nelson: The most impactful building technologies today are insulation materials, photovoltaic cells and heat pump technology as well as building automation. Energy efficiency demands are primarily driven by the thermal resistance of the building envelope and the type of mechanical system that is in place to cover that heating load. A highly efficient building envelope will allow for low temperature heating systems, such as radiant floor heating with an efficient heat pump. The heat pump captures ambient energy from a geothermal, groundwater or air source and converts it into usable heat for heating and hot water. The electricity that powers the heat pump is provided by the building-integrated photovoltaics system, thus the heat and warm water produced from the heat pump is generated completely with renewable energy. Furthermore, excessive energy can be used to operate building auxiliaries, appliances and electronics and also fuel electric vehicles. All three technologies are robust and create a very sound sustainable system together.

Building automation allows for the targeted supply of thermal and electrical energy in occupied spaces, thus minimizing the unnecessary waste of energy in unoccupied spaces and decreasing the overall building energy consumption. A great deal of self-sufficiency can be achieved this way, and with further advancements in the battery technology, complete self-sufficiency is only a short time away.

NAIOP: How are these technologies impacting tenants?

 Nelson: The awareness, and consequently the behavior, of the tenant needs to change now, or it will be required to do so in the future. Just a short time ago no one really understood the source of the energy coming out of the electrical outlet, but the modern tenant will be sensitized to the origin of electricity, by what means it was produced, at what time it is available, and in what abundance. As a result, the tenant behavior will alter to accomplish certain energy-intensive tasks when the energy is available, and vice versa. The tenant will be much more in tune with his surrounding urban and natural environment as well as the diurnal and seasonal climate fluctuations. Decentralized production of energy will decrease our dependence on large centralized power plans, thus reducing the chance of large scale failures and blackouts.

Self-sufficiency on an individual, local and regional scale will become the new norm.

 NAIOP: What is the ROI, and why is it critical that developers make the investment?

Nelson: When considering the ROI of an investment, one has to differentiate between investing in the existing building stock or investing in new construction. In new construction, it is already possible today to achieve a high level of sustainability that will last for decades with commonly available technology and a reasonable investment. With the rapidly increasing requirements in the building code, compromises today could soon turn costly if one misses the opportunity to implement the full range of possibilities. Retrofitting the existing building stock requires much more complex considerations in order to determine what investment makes sense at the time, or if the building should be run a few more years as-is before it is demolished and rebuilt from the ground up.

In a sustainable environment, long-term planning will always pay off over short-sightedness. Factors of consideration include a lifecycle cost analysis that include the initial investment, operating costs and recycle/disposal costs in dollars (but increasingly more so in terms of carbon dioxide emissions/embodied energy), and also the soft human factors of improved satisfaction and productivity in the work environment. The requirements on the architect and engineers have become far more complex. Unfortunately, there is a big gap of competence and much learning to do on all sides.

NAIOP: What are the next great construction materials to make a difference in development?

Nelson: One of the greatest construction materials today and in the future is photovoltaic (pv) that can turn a building into its own power plant. The building envelope, so far a static and passive building component, can now actively produce energy. There are many new developments that will give the architect unlimited possibilities of embedding pv into the building skin. Also, systems like the solar activated facade (SAF) – a rear-vented cladding system that can absorb solar radiation and hold it into the night (thus creating a warm buffer that greatly reduces the heating load of the building) – will become more and more popular. The newest development of SAF also incorporates pv technology and harvests the heat from the air gap, thus utilizing the solar energy in three different ways: by generating electricity, extracting thermal energy from the hot air, and creating a thermal buffer in the mass of the building envelope.

Another very promising technology are phase change materials (PCMs) that can absorb/store or release large amounts of energy under specific (temperature) conditions.

In general, the technology of the future will not necessarily be high-tech inventions, because building technology unlike automobiles or computers is rather primitive. Building materials of the future will largely remain to be concrete, metal and glass – and wood, which is experiencing a big revival in European architecture. The future will be in energy production, storage and management, either passively through building materials and geometry or actively through mechanical systems and building automation.

Join Nelson and other commercial real estate thought leaders for an innovative look at office at O.CON: The Office Conference, Nov. 1-2, in Los Angeles. Visit the conference website for the full agenda of forward-looking sessions, and get a preview of the groundbreaking development projects on the pre-conference tours.

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