IT a major tool in fighting global warming

Copyright David Lawson - Property Week 2004


Technology is one of biggest culprits in global warming. Air-conditioning and desktop computers consume  gigawatts of power then  emit clouds of waste heat every working hour.  Yet advanced IT and careful management has also become a major tool in controlling its own profligacy.

   Imagine a building with no light switches. Movement sensors cut energy bills for unused rooms at a stroke, although they have to be backed up by computer-controlled detectors to eliminate that ridiculous arm-waving by solitary workers left in the dark while quietly perusing a screen.  Imagine detectors that lower internal lighting imperceptibly as the sun streams in. And a system where each light can be adjusted by the person below tapping into a telephone or desktop PC.

  All very Star Wars, yet the new Clifford Chance building in London’s Docklands is already reaping the benefit. It has saved developer Canary Wharf the cost of a sub-station, as well as slashing the occupier’s bills.  The Swiss Re building has redrawn the City of London skyline but gets more brickbats than plaudits nowadays as analysts sneer at a failure to attract tenants. Yet within a decade it will be lauded for low running costs. The ovoid shape – essentially a spiral chimney, drawing in natural ventilation to eliminate energy-hungry heating and ventilation – could never have been achieved without sophisticated use of computers by architects Foster & Partners. Even the construction is down to advances in IT. The small, constricted City site demanded sophisticated just-in-time removal of waste and delivery of materials, while the tower cranes had to be programmed to restrict movement over neighbours when people were at work below.

   But these shine like beacons in an industry glacially slow to adopt new technology. There are plenty of programs to aid project management and design but many developers remain blissfully unmoved by the fact that energy audits – and taxes - will soon begin to bite before a brick is laid.  Avanti, a partnership between Collaborating for the Built Environment (CBe), the International Alliance for Interoperability (IAI) and Teamwork is another beacon, using government backing to sponsor projects showing how IT can improve data exchange and materials supply. Slough Estates is involved in one, involving a £20m development on the Farnborough Business Bark. Others will be highlighted at next month’s Building Performance Exhibition at London’s Olympia.

  But surely this is expensive, showy,  pie-in-the-sky for ‘ordinary’ developers?  Not so, say Clifford Chance. Energy saving technology will pay for itself within five years. And these big buildings are testbeds for techniques which could be retro-fitted into more modest renovations as carbon taxes  bite.  Some are already reaping rewards. The first energy services company formed through a public/private joint venture is now working out how to use financial savings rather than how to make them, according to Allan Jones, energy services manager at Woking Borough Council and director of Thameswey, another key speaker at Olympia.

     But you don’t need to get heavily involved in technology to benefit. Just hand the problem over. Facilities management specialists can slash bills by tuning existing building management systems with new software and add-on controls. Sainsbury saved £3m last year under an energy management agreement with supplier RWE to cut   CO2 emissions by more than 10%. Modernisation of cooling plants alone is expected to cut  costs by 18% and improvements in lighting by an additional 4% and that is before the technologists get their hands on energy-hungry heating and ventilation systems.