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Societal Structures Inhibit Innovation in the Construction Industry

Why build anything else than what people are asking for? Why build to a higher standard than what is demanded if everything gets sold (regardless of quality and performance) on an overheated market? To help project developers to dare take the step, without increased risk, from todays resource-demanding homes to sustainable, smart and future-proofed homes, we need reliable evidence of the performance leaps, digitalisation capabilities and business model opportunities that new technologies can provide. Further, validated test results become essential to updating building-code norms and regulation that today seem antiquated. Investing in interdisciplinary & inter-sectorial collaboration between academia and industry is of vital importance to attaining a greater innovation rate and the rapid transformation of the housing sector which is needed for more resource-efficient and sustainable construction as well as homes that can comply with the established energy & environmental goals.

The LIL Chronicle – smart buildings in a social context

November 2017

Familiarity is important for generating interest and causing a sense of security. To comfortably sit in the lap of learnt habits is a luxury we can afford when it comes to reading, music or breakfasting, but not when it comes to choices that affect the resource consumption in buildings that will stand for close to a century or more. If we are serious about reaching the climate and energy goals, that Sweden and the EU have agreed upon in order to mitigate the effects of a global warming, then we need to muster up the courage to take a step outside of our comfort zone and challenge, change and improve the way we build and inhabit buildings. We need to dare to build with the best and most sustainable materials and use the latest technical advancements to our common advantage and together create resource-neutral homes that deliver the services that we need, at the time we need them rather than building as if we were stuck in the happy 80s. Instead of making the in-doors bearable we will make the in-doors pleasant and desirable.

We see structural obstacles that make the journey towards sustainable homes impossible for several players on the market. Todays structures in the construction sector, generate lock-in effects that are impossible for individual players to crawl out of on their own. To increase the rate of innovation and enable more resource-neutral constructions and living, we urgently need the following chain:

  • connect demand to sustainability so project developers can demand long-term sustainable buildings,
  • turn new technologies into proven technologies so consultants dare prescribe new technologies,
  • prove the systems benefits of new technologies, whilst simultaneously developing installation guidelines so contractors can choose sustainable systems,
  • get researchers and innovators to continue to develop new systems within construction technology (despite the current luke-warm interest), and lastly,
  • deliver validated and sound suggestions for improvements of building regulations to Boverket (Swedish Board of Housing, Building and Planning) and other governmental agencies in order to accelerate change in all future building projects, not just the handfull of early adopters.

Buildings can, with suppliers' current off-the-shelf technologies, become practically energy-neutral or even "plus-energy housing". Despite this fact, we continue to build most buildings according to current building regulations and are therefore left carrying the 90 kWh/sqm*year (regardless of climate zone). Thus, without too much effort, we can produce buildings that are nearly 100 times more resource-efficient than what is demanded by ways of standards. To build more sustainably and future-proof our housing we need to pave the way for technologies with the capacity to lower building-related resource-utilization. An example: In the process of building the 700 000 homes that are needed until 2025 we can either choose to (a) build according to current standard or (b) build homes using the latest technological advancements. If they were to be built according to current standards we would need an additional 4 000 GWh per year for operating the buildings, equivalent to a new nuclear reactor or 1000 windpower plants. If we build according to the latest (proven) technology that is readily available in the storage shelves of most suppliers we can half the energy need, and if we continue towards "plus-energy housing" (still proven), and let the buildings integrate into the energy system, then we further reduce the energy demand increase to a bare minimum.

A sector characterized by distributed decision-making needs common projects to help overcome structural barriers that halt the innovation process and where different players, with varying investment horizons, purposes and goals can together strive towards a common future of better and sustainable homes. The challenges we are currently facing can't be solved by innovators, entrepreneurs, agencies or researchers alone. We live in an interdependent and connected world, where product development and research need to move from being separate endeavours to becoming an integrated whole. Researchers have a unique position in society which (usually) is not affected by profit-motives, internal rates of return or quarterly reports. Researchers have time, motivation and methodologies for investigating new solutions whilst the industry (usually) has the ideas, the finances and the decision-making power to execute on ideas. These two must meet in new collaborations and interfaces in order to make resource-neutral buildings a fact within years, rather than decades.

We want to see an increased mobilization of society and all players towards engaging in multidisciplinary testbeds for innovative cleantech, KTH Live-In Lab and HSB Living Lab providing two examples. We wish to see the prescribed construction land open up for future demonstrationprojects where innovations that have been tested under the banner of established testbeds can find new markets and new contexts. Gradual changes of parts of the housing fleet can be a catalysor for the entire industry to move from the past into the future. We need immediate action if a transformation of the coming 700 000 homes is to occur by 2025, and it won't stop there. The additional 700 000 homes are simply aimed at turning a state of critical lack into a state of normal supply. Future construction projects will continue to place demands on our resource-consumption, unless we can start adopting new technologies, as in other sectors. New IT-systems and the digitalisation wave provide us with the opportunity to create truly smart buildings that can further increase resource-efficiency. We need to plan for the future production rates even past the current state of crisis.