Navigant Research Blog

Greek Construction Booming … In the United States

— May 19, 2015

Today’s outlook for construction in Greece is bleak. A standoff between the country’s Syriza government and its European creditors could spark a default of government debt and potentially lead to an exit from the European Union, and the Greek economy is in shambles after 6 years of recession. Furthermore, the head of one of Greece’s largest construction companies was arrested on charges of tax evasion.

Greek construction activity has fallen more than 95% from its pre-crisis peak and, in all likelihood, has little chance of rebounding any time soon. Across the Atlantic, though, Congress is considering a bill that could have a profound effect on a different type of Greek construction—the Greek-letter fraternity and sorority houses across the country.

Currently, a donation to a college or university Greek organization for housing provides a tax deduction of 30% of the donation amount (and, perhaps, a feeling of giving back). However, the Collegiate Housing and Infrastructure Act would allow donations to Greek groups to be fully tax deductible. The Fraternal Government Relations Coalition, a group representing 100 fraternities and sororities, is urging Congress to pass the bill. The group says that $1 billion in construction and renovation projects could begin if the bill is passed. Some of the buildings date to the 1930s, and some have seen few if any upgrades in the past several decades. The impact of $1 billion toward renovations on aging housing could have huge ramifications on energy consumption.

From Frat House to Green House

Improvements to the building envelope, more efficient HVAC equipment, better lighting, and, importantly, smarter controls could not only reduce operating costs but also improve the comfort of building occupants. Navigant Research’s Energy Efficiency Retrofits for Commercial and Public Buildings provides insight into the major technical and market trends related to these types of projects. Indeed at some universities, fraternities and sororities are already leading on energy improvements. The Kappa Alpha Order chapter house at the University of Maryland installed ceramic film on their windows as part of a sustainability initiative. Also, the Beta Theta Pi fraternity of University of Florida installed solar panels on the roof of its campus fraternity house. Broader Greek construction may have an impact positive enough to counteract all of that other stuff fraternities do.

 

LEDs Light Capital’s Streets

— April 13, 2015

There’s a certain glow to Washington, D.C. these days. It isn’t the cherry blossoms emerging after a dismal winter, or even the recent visit by Prince Charles and Duchess Camilla. It’s the street lights. In 2013, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) announced plans to upgrade 71,000 street lights to light-emitting diode (LED) lighting. The installations finally started in March.

Each LED lamp consumes about 350 kWh less annually than the high-pressure sodium lamps they are replacing. In addition to lower energy, LEDs have a longer lamp life, which translates to lower maintenance costs. The quality of the light is also better. LEDs provide white light as opposed to the yellow light of high-pressure sodium. According to the DDOT, the white light provided by LEDs lets security cameras more accurately record color. As a result, the color of cars, clothing, or people involved in crimes caught on camera can now be better identified. Moreover, LED lighting enables more systematic and dynamic control of street lighting, as networked control systems can be added to street lights that can bring additional energy savings.

Free Lunch, Almost

Indeed, the numerous benefits of LED street lighting, coupled with the falling price of LEDs, is driving a global transition from older lamp technologies. Many cities around the world have announced similar programs to deploy LED street lights, including Los Angeles, Acapulco, and Guangdong. According to Navigant Research’s report, Smart Street Lighting, LED luminaires are expected to rapidly surpass high-pressure sodium luminaires as the leading technology sold.

So what should Washington, D.C. do with all of these savings? The city council has a long history of finding innovative new ways of spending surplus money (or not). Annual energy savings of about $40 per light for roughly 70,000 lights translates to $2.8 million — not bad for a city of 658,893. That’s enough to buy every resident a rush-hour trip on the metro from RFK Stadium to Friendship Heights. Unfortunately, it’s not quite enough for a chili dog at Ben’s Chili Bowl. Alternatively, spending the entire $2.8 million on a single item sounds fun. The Pagani Zonda Revolucion comes to mind.

 

Balance of Power in Building Automation Shifts to Lighting

— March 27, 2015

Earlier in my career, when I worked for a mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) design engineering firm, my boss used to tell me, “Mechanical drives the bus.” The mechanical design of a building is composed primarily of the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system, which has historically been the most complicated of the MEP systems. Moreover, HVAC equipment accounts for about 30% of commercial building electricity consumption in the United States. What my boss wanted to get across was that HVAC needs to be designed first—and all of the other systems can fit in afterwards.

Indeed, until relatively recently, the idea of building controls really meant HVAC controls. Before widespread adoption of microprocessor controls, HVAC controls consisted of a series of tubes (pneumatics, not the Internet), lighting controls consisted of a switch, and the idea of integrating more than one building system was preposterous. Building automation emerged from HVAC controls. Now, however, the integration of multiple systems into a single building management platform is becoming more common. Navigant Research’s recent report, Commercial Building Automation Systems, maps these trends in the integration and interoperability of systems.

More Equal Than Others

Even in highly integrated buildings, the HVAC system retains priority—but that may be changing. As part of the Continental Automated Building Association’s Intelligent Buildings and Big Data research project, Navigant Research quantified the number of data transactions generated by the automation systems of intelligent buildings. In the future, lighting might generate far more data than HVAC. The rapid adoption of LED lighting coupled with faster and cheaper computing options creates the possibility of individual light fixtures having their own sensors and controls. While HVAC systems may still be more complex, the data volume created by the dense sensor networks of these advanced lighting controls is immense. Soon, it may make more sense for HVAC operations to be managed through an additional module on a lighting controller, using data gathered by lighting sensors.

New Pecking Order

The market seems to be reacting to the new pecking order. Acuity Brands recently announced its plans to acquire Distech Controls, a building controls and energy management company. Despite having a complete portfolio that includes lighting, access control, and closed-circuit TV (CCTV), Distech Controls emphasizes HVAC. The company’s integrated room controls solution, for instance, creates an environment where the HVAC controller also controls lighting and automated blinds. Acuity Brands, on the other hand, is a lighting company. It is a designer, manufacturer, and distributor of a variety of indoor and outdoor lighting fixtures and lighting controls.

Overall, as integration between building automation systems increases, so too does the opportunity for the crossover between HVAC companies and lighting companies. Indeed, Daintree Networks, a leader in wireless mesh networking for integrated lighting controls, expanded into HVAC controls in 2013. But the trend has been for established HVAC players to acquire lighting solutions or for lighting players to organically expand into HVAC. Acuity Brands’ acquisition of Distech Controls may signal a shift in the balance of powers.

 

A Bird’s Eye View of the Construction Sector

— March 13, 2015

From mysteriously hovering over the Paris skyline to enabling extrajudicial executions to repairing and maintaining power grids, unmanned flying drones are finding more and more uses. Recent rules from the FAA establishing a regulatory framework for the fledgling technology has limited many commercial uses. Amazon’s plan to deliver packages by drone may be grounded for now, but applications of drones in the construction industry hold promise.

The current capabilities of drones, namely the ability to fly and take pictures, make them well-suited to create as-built drawings of buildings. Often, as buildings are constructed, the original design has to be modified based on conditions in the field. In order to be useful for operations and maintenance, these drawings need to be accurate and up-to-date. Unfortunately, the accuracy and completeness of as-built drawings are often lacking. Drones could provide a way to document what gets installed behind the walls of a building as those walls go up. Artificial intelligence and image processing could nearly eliminate the role of people in the process.

The Sky Is the Limit

As drone capabilities expand, so too will their role in construction. The Swiss architecture firm Gramazio Kohler Architects has used quadcopters to build a structurally stable tower out of blocks. The drones are able to collaborate and communicate through an algorithm that directs the drones to avoid collisions and optimizes the path for fast payload pickup and release.

A day where drones are used to replace manual labor in the construction of buildings may not be far behind. Construction equipment maker Komatsu has already unveiled plans for unmanned bulldozers and excavators to dig holes and move earth autonomously using data from drones. Currently, the unmanned equipment will mainly operate along preprogrammed routes and have human operators able to take control if necessary. But automating more of the unskilled construction tasks is one step closer to reality.

Do Robots Dream of Electric Masonry Saws?

Though drones are a visible step toward construction automation, they will not be the only robots on the job site. Both R-O-B Technologies and Construction Robotics have developed prototypes of robotic bricklayers. Using robotic arms, rather than drones, the demonstrations have yielded faster production than human workers with high levels of accuracy and precision. Moreover, robots can make construction sites safer. With 796 fatal work injuries in the United States during 2013, construction is one of the deadliest professions. Replacing human labor with robot labor holds promise for a safer future.

 

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