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In last month’s column, I reviewed recent high-impact technology from the past — the 2010s. This month, we’ll look forward. What technologies will shape the building industry in the 2020s and 2030s?
Scientists say that the floods, fires, droughts, melting, algae blooms and intense storms are not only going to continue but multiply. So, it probably doesn’t matter how much money status quo industries continue to spend on misinformation and compromising politicians. Most countries, including the United States, will continue to move to dramatic limitations on carbon.
The technologies I identified last month were not flashes in the pan; the use of most of them, if not all, will increase significantly. They were passive house; heat pumps; electronic, computerized, Wi-Fi-enabled devices; natural refrigeration systems; energy recovery equipment; radiant hydronic systems; water heat energy recovery equipment; water conservation equipment; rooftop solar; portable/home batteries; and microgrid software.
Of course, many of these will be refined further or become part of combo devices. In some cases, it’s already happening — for example, heat pump units with heat recovery and water heating functions as well. By the end of the 2020s, a solar panel will likely be much more integrated into the architecture of a building. Is it still a solar panel? Semantics. Also, it will be augmented by solar coatings, solar window products and highly capable battery systems.
Local Power Generation and DC Power
About five years ago, John Gorman, president of the Canadian Solar Industries Association, told me that distributed energy (rooftop and similar) would one day become more popular than utility-scale power generation. At the time, I didn’t believe him. I wondered if solar panels on a building would become more trouble than they were worth, a clunky fad technology. I don’t feel that way anymore.
Batteries, software, efficiencies and better designs have transformed solar into a no-brainer. As it is with solar in California now, some form of power self-generation will eventually become a standard feature of all buildings, everywhere. Not because it’s a fad but because it will be so easy, cost-effective and logical.
During the industrialization period from the late 1800s until now, the world has been impressed by and taken comfort from “big” technological solutions: big hydro dams, big power infrastructure grids, big railway and highway networks, and big job-creating, assembly-line manufacturing.
We now habitually depend on economies of scale from mass production, heavy industry that creates massive amounts of steel and concrete and lumber from which to build our world, and cope with continuous population growth and the big arms of government to provide business support, medical and social programs for citizens. Of course, big oil, big globalization and big ocean liners are all part of this same world. But I think we all know much of this is about to change.
The long-distance movement of goods and energy is becoming more difficult to justify. Microelectronics, 3D printing, robotics and artificial intelligence will transform manufacturing. Drones, other autonomous vehicles and rural/urban shifts will change the way goods are moved.
Eventually, robotics will dominate manufacturing, agriculture and the transportation of both goods and people. The need for engineers, technicians and programmers will grow. Manual labor will not. Depending on the success or failure of our transition away from carbon, an increasing share of agriculture may move indoors.
During the 2020s, reduced reliance on heavy industry and a reduction in globalization may not be immediately visible, in part because of inertia — world population and industrialization will both continue to expand. Turning a huge ship takes time. In addition, the delay tactics of big oil and corporate powers behind internal combustion engines and gas-burning appliances will continue to succeed for a while.
A few decades out, an environment-conscious public, highly capable technology and economics will combine to create a more efficient and cleaner world. Eventually, economic sustainability and ecological balance will not be denied. It’s already happening, albeit too slowly.
A Complex of Connected Microgrids
As local power generation with batteries and smart-grid storage gain sophistication, they will combine with DC power to create islands of less expensive, highly efficient, safer, self-reliant, resilient homes, communities, building complexes and campuses everywhere. Defenses against cybercrime and cyber terrorism will improve. These trends will already be visible in the 2020s.
In New Hampshire, one passive house developer has taken the next step and is designing several “agrihoods.” It might be said these replace the old model of building a community around a golf course. Instead, these communities are built around a shared, partially indoor, high-tech organic farm.
Large power utilities, which will eventually move entirely to offshore and onshore wind, solar, tidal and batteries or other storage systems, will still have relevance for heavy industry for a few decades. Beyond this, they may not even be used as backup systems because microgrids will all have optional connections to each other and, driven by artificial intelligence, they will trade energy in efficient configurations.
National electricity distribution grids are already economically unsustainable and will become less necessary. Electricity from coal, gas and nuclear will disappear because we can’t afford them.
One of the persistent weak arguments against renewable power is that the world population will continue to increase and energy demand with it. However, utility-scale renewables are cheap and easy to build quickly.
Further out, as all homes and communities become self-contained producers of their own power, employing microelectronic devices and appliances, and efficient low-voltage, low-temperature systems; and as industry and transportation likewise become more efficient, two things will likely happen.
First, energy will, for a time, be seen as abundant. Following further refinements, it will not be a topic of conversation at all because all power generation will be local and purpose-designed. Electricity will be effortlessly generated, stored or used.
Water, Air and Transportation
As we become more self-contained and self-reliant with building energy, we are likely to more loudly demand the right to clean local water access. Water polluters will be more severely punished than ever before.
This trend will manifest early in the 2020s and become the main focus because there are numerous places where water is already in peril. Increasing natural disasters will only exacerbate the difficulties.
Another positive development likely to take place is the continuing advancement of desalination technologies. One of the key criticisms of today’s systems is the substantial energy demands required to convert the ocean into drinking water. The increasing efficiencies and dropping cost of wind, solar, tidal and storage batteries will all help eliminate the energy challenge of desalination.
The most significant infrastructure challenges we are facing do not relate so much to electricity distribution as they do to healthier urban water system upgrades.
In addition, if we can increase the momentum behind electrified buildings, electrified transportation and renewable power generation, we are, in fact, going to alleviate the air pollution crisis.
Although globalization may recede, flight-shaming will disappear as high-speed rail and tube transport, autonomous electric vehicles and electrified air travel options multiply. Humans are curious and adventurous, and the Internet and virtual reality will not be enough.
We will choose to continue to be physically on the move. We will travel the world and some distance into outer space. Much like today’s “road warriors,” those executives who seemingly live on jet airplanes, some people in the future will simultaneously live, work and travel in their autonomous pods.
Construction Industry Changes
A vital part of the digital transformation of our society is the increasing sophistication of the building design and construction processes. Improvements in these areas are thousands of years overdue, but several trends suggest we might finally be getting there.
GPS technologies on jobsites combined with precise 3D design are together reducing the incredible amount of time wasted when trades are provided with an excuse to delay prompt work completion. Digitization allows greater precision in all areas and more documentation.
The success of design-build companies has forced those who want to avoid the model to at least sort out the legalities associated with sharing files between design teams from separate firms. This means minimal duplication of effort with blueprint files and updates to everyone’s versions in real time. It’s a huge efficiency boost within the building design discipline.
The prefabrication of buildings or parts of buildings is finally succeeding after some noticeable hiccups in its early history. Prefab is having a positive impact on schedule efficiency, materials management and worker health, safety, absenteeism and performance.
These and other industry developments also support low-carbon buildings, which require precisely managed building envelopes, care with HVAC load calculations and a more integrated, holistic approach to structure and system design.
Planning for Tomorrow
The industry developments and technology discussion explored in the foregoing suggest a future with some opportunities and threats for heating, cooling, plumbing and refrigeration professionals. For HVAC designers and installers, it is becoming clear that the best strategy is to move your expertise toward electronic and electric systems and away from fossil-fuel devices.
Although the latter will continue to grow for a few more years, it won’t be long before sales stagnate and then recede. The time to prepare for it is now. The shift could seem relatively sudden.
Progressive plumbing professionals are developing expertise in the areas of municipal water infrastructure, rainwater, greywater, black water, sewage heat recovery, drain water heat recovery, electronic and low-flow plumbing fixtures, and hydronic HVAC systems.
Refrigeration designers should be thinking about natural refrigerants. Some of the blended products may succeed, but my prediction is that, in the long run, natural refrigerants will win the day. Every week a new solution employing natural refrigerants hits my inbox, so we are likely past the point when dismissing them out of hand makes sense.
Although I’m obviously an environmentalist, these predictions are not based very much on wishful thinking. They are based on decades of talking with people such as those who read this magazine about technology, business and government trends.
I’m not naïve about how slowly things sometimes change, especially in the construction industry. I was an advertising manager 35 years ago when the first single-ply membranes were introduced to the North American roofing industry. Only recently have they been widely adopted, despite being the best solution for decades. I also was a brand manager for ADT 15 years ago when smart home systems were developed. Everyone loved the technology, but few were buying it.
But things are changing more quickly now. The climate imperative is encouraging governments to require decarbonization. Chief financial officers and other profit-minded players are more aware than ever before of the opportunities offered by our continuing digital and robotics transformation.
We’re running out of excuses for inefficiency and systems that damage the environment. Given the climate havoc of the times, the coming period will be historically pivotal — and buildings are right smack in the middle of the conversation.
The beginning of a new decade is always a good time to reinvent yourself. Let’s go all the way with efficient, convenient, clean, smart systems. Let’s leave our polluting ways behind, once and for all. Happy New Year and welcome to the 2020s.