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With commercial and industrial office buildings consuming nearly 30% of the world’s energy, smart building innovation is essential in the fight against climate change.

Although the pace of technological evolution in the built environment has been slower than in other industries, the tide is changing.

Across regions, cities are experimenting with ways to improve air quality, reduce congestion and provide clean, reliable, and sustainable energy to their growing populations.

Investec recently took some of South Africa’s top entrepreneurs in the property and construction sectors to Berlin as part of its Global Young Entrepreneurs Programme.

Here we share some of the top trends shaping the future of the built environment that were discussed by the innovative companies and experts the tour met with.

1.1 million
Global sales of electric cars in 2017
1. Electromobility for smart cities

Topping the list of what will shape cities of the future is electromobility, says Katharina Nekic, from Schneider Electric, global specialists in energy management.

Germany is preparing for this exponential new technology and has committed to putting 1 million electric vehicles on the roads by 2022.

In Berlin,  electric cars are already everywhere you look with various convenient charging stations across the city. Electric bikes and e-scooters are commonplace and even e-buses are currently being tested.

Electric vehicles offer drivers cheaper, greener transport, especially when cars are charged using renewable energy. Smart cities like Berlin are also encouraging the electrification of public transport, taxis, and commercial fleets.  

1 million
Number of electric cars in Germany by 2022

According to the United Nations Environment Programme global sales of electric cars has “soared from 122,000 in 2012 to 1.1 million in 2017” with China owning the biggest number at 533,000, Europe at 280,000, and North America with 212,000.

Cities will deploy charging stations to cater to future mobility patterns, says Nekic, with a focus on autonomous vehicles and shared mobility to decrease congestion.

These stations will need to be integrated with the electricity grid to facilitate smart charging at the best times.

Green building
Zero Carbon Building in Hong Kong.
2. Eco-friendly smart buildings

Green walls and rooftop gardens are old news. In Berlin, eco-friendly construction has reached a whole new level.

From buildings that purify the city air to housing developments that generate more energy than they consume, smart buildings will be springing up all over the cities of the future.

Comprising sustainably sourced, recyclable building materials, smart buildings are powered by renewable energy sources and have intelligent energy systems at their core to manage the temperature, air quality, and security.

According to Andreas Koster from Garamantis, an interactive digital installation company, buildings of the future will have different sensors integrated into each room.

Andreas Koster
Andreas Koster, Garamantis, digital installations company

We can then combine all the data coming in from a whole building or campus in one software package to see how energy efficient the building is in real time.

This gives building owners the ability to centrally manage and adjust settings to maximise energy usage.

Smart buildings are springing up all over the world. In a report on “Agile Cities,” the World Economic Forum references several case studies including the 800,000 square-foot Tower at PNC Plaza in Pittsburgh, USA, that has a central chimney to transfers heat from rooftop solar panels throughout the building.

In Turin, Italy, the Agnelli Foundation uses hundreds of Wi-Fi-enabled sensors, that collect data relating to occupancy, temperature, carbon dioxide concentration, and the status of meeting rooms, to personalise cooling, heating, and lighting to individual preferences.

3. Virtual Reality site visits

The age-old use of pencil and paper to design buildings and spaces is still dominant.

However, change is slowly happening with the help of new technologies such as Virtual Reality.

“We can now view the entire construction site in Virtual Reality so that you have the opportunity to walk through the buildings or through the area and can look around and can turn your head to really experience the whole building site.”

Such innovation is already being used in Berlin’s real estate industry where “virtual reality showrooms” are becoming the norm.

City of Nantes
The city of Nantes, France.
4. Pop-up 3D-printed houses

3D printing is a cheaper, quicker, and more innovative way of building in the construction industry, says Berlin-based innovation and design thinking expert, Norbet Hollinger.

“I do believe that we will see the first 3D-printed houses going mainstream in a couple of years.”

WEF’s Shaping the Future of Construction report estimates that “construction time for some buildings could shrink from weeks to hours, and customised components could be provided at much lower cost”.

Although large-scale 3D printing is still in its infancy, some companies are making strides.

In 2018, construction technologies company Icon printed the first legal 3D-printed home built in the United States. This year, the company will create the world’s first 3D-printed community.

In France, the first family to live in a 3D-printed house has taken occupancy in their 1022-foot square home in the city of Nantes.

The best part of 3D-printing technology is that it allows for temporary and flexible accommodation.

“The cool thing about it is that it’s nothing that is there to last for decades, you can build houses within 24-hours and maybe they are used for a couple of years,” said Hollinger.

5. Big data in building maintenance

Within the next decade, new buildings will be maintained by an intuitive, integrated digital backbone that controls and measures all facets of the building.

The creation of an intelligent building often starts at the construction phase.

“Think of an intelligent brick that has some kind of sensor built in and when you build a house that is completely made of intelligent bricks, all of a sudden you have a data-collecting house,” says Hollinger.

“The effect is immense, you can basically predict when you need a new roof or when you need to rebuild certain parts of the house. So, basically, the whole maintenance of the building is being automated.”

This technology is even being extended to cities that are using data to revolutionise their spaces. Santander in Spain, for example, is a real-life smart city – thanks to thousands of sensors.

The sensors draw data to control everything from paid parking using mobile phones to intelligent streetlights and even smart bins that send reports when they are full.

The city also has an automatic irrigation system as well as apps that make it easier to find services such as transport and restaurants.

6. Co-living and co-working

The on-demand, sharing economy is also revolutionising the property market that is having to find innovative ways like the development of co-living and co-working spaces to service tenants and buyers seeking flexible and affordable occupancy.

Thierry Beaudemoulin
Thierry Beaudemoulin, Covivio, property fund.

If you know what your client’s needs are, you can create value out of that - offering flexibility for booking rooms and flexibility of apartments. I think this is where you make create value with services.

Leading the way in the co-living space are real estate start-ups – known as Proptech companies like Berlin-based Medici Living Group.

The Group develops affordable, tech-enabled and space-efficient co-living spaces for students and young professionals who want to be part of a community.

The entire  process of booking and generating rental contracts is all done online, which means tenants can instantly book and move into a flat-share. All utilities and Wi-Fi are included in the cost.

Offering a hotel/apartment hybrid, Medici gives residents a private en-suite bedroom and communal kitchens, living areas, workspaces, laundries, and gyms.

Its buildings feature weekly networking events and an app that residents can use to book comprehensive services and utilise smart-living technologies.

The co-living movement comes hot on the heels of the co-working trend that has taken root in cities around the world.

Co-working poster child WeWork, the biggest office tenant in Manhattan, offers super sleek workspaces with all-inclusive amenities from reception to coffee and IT services. Built around the community model, the company gives you access to a global network of entrepreneurs and innovators.

Thierry Beaudemoulin, CEO of Berlin-based property investment firm Covivo says success in the shared living and working market is all about flexibility and services provided.

Covivo’s Symbiosis 125,000 m², smart working project in Milan is also tapping into the need for a communal working environment and the sustainability trend.

About the author

Lenyaro Sello

Lenyaro Sello

Digital content specialist

Lenyaro is a key member of Investec's Global Content team, based in Johannesburg, who focuses on relevant and topical issues for internal and external audiences including clients. She is a well-travelled multi-skilled multimedia journalist who previously held roles within eNews Channel Africa (eNCA) and Eyewitness News (EWN).

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    Focus and its related content is for informational purposes only. The opinions featured on the site are not to be considered as the opinions of Investec and do not constitute financial or other advice. The information presented is subject to completion, revision, verification and amendment.

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