Post-pandemic, what happens in the high-performance building market?

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The pandemic has upended way of life around the world — and the impact on the future of buildings, building performance, and building use is in many ways still unknown.

Pre-pandemic, building design was already experiencing early waves of transformation. Now, a shaken world economy, new public health priorities, evolving standards, and a possible shift in the way we go to work are pointing toward a market reset.

Moving forward, we see opportunities emerging around healthy and carbon-neutral buildings — but the industry will need scale and speed to reach these ambitious and evolving targets.

Earlier this year, we hosted a workshop to explore the impact of the pandemic and how it might reset building markets and energy-performance strategy. Here’s what we learned:

1. We need to define the “new normal” in buildings.

Leading the list of notable trends impacting the built environment today are the increase in remote work and the idea of “retail cannibalization,” or the move of consumers to virtual platforms for shopping and entertainment. Flexible work arrangements are allowing people to move away from major cities to more idyllic suburban and rural communities, causing building owners to reconsider and reconfigure space use for new purposes, including both health and profitability.

Fortunately, high-performance building design addresses many of the challenges the pandemic has brought to the world of buildings, including the need for healthy indoor environments, new and expanded technology integration, and long-term cost reduction. 

Plus, deploying high-performance buildings could drive an economic restart, boost social equity in the built environment, improve quality of life in the broadest terms, and attenuate the global climate crisis through reduced energy consumption and carbon emissions.

2. US cities are setting a new direction for sustainable development.

Cities like New York and Pittsburgh are taking action and leading the way toward sustainable development. For example, in 2019 Pittsburgh’s 2030 District encompassed 86.3 million square feet and had 556 buildings committed to the 2030 objective, achieving an array of performance improvements: 23.1% energy use reduction; 19.8% water use reduction; 122 individual buildings providing indoor air quality (IAQ) data; and 26% cut in carbon emissions from transit (2018 data). 

But, moving forward broadly throughout the US, building owners need to be incentivized to commit to that new building future. 

3. The pressure is growing around high-performance design.

The move to high-performance buildings is expected to be strengthened, in part, by emerging standards — which are now being fueled by the development of data and maturing data capacity to elevate building energy performance requirements.

These emerging standards are adding to global and local aspirations and demonstrated performance capabilities to drive the shift to high performance, despite the pandemic. However, as standards move slowly toward implementation, the building market is responding faster to market forces, policy demands, and “MaxTech,” and a holistic approach to buildings is gaining momentum.

A holistic, or systemic, approach suggests all building related energy uses, and both outdoor and indoor climatic requirements, be considered in integrated design and management of an individual building or cluster of buildings.

4. A building’s impact on health, climate, and the economy is paramount.

Health and climate have proven inseparable. For example, in New York City where the risks from climate change are critical, the city is moving forward on the implementation of building performance requirements set in motion before the pandemic.

High-performance buildings address rising aspirations for building quality, and retrofit-based strategies harbor the potential to create thousands of jobs and serve as a response to a pandemic-battered economy.

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