Navigant Research Blog

The Future of Buildings Will Be Printed in 3D

— March 11, 2014

There is something mesmerizing about watching a 3D printer work.  Whether it’s printing in plasticsandmetalsugar, or chocolate, it is captivating to see layer after layer be laid down to create simple or sublime forms.  3D-printed (also known as additive) materials have been recognized as having novel material, physical, and even electric properties.  Impossible shapes have been created that could enable an expansion in how materials can be conceived and used.  But what does additive manufacturing mean for buildings?  The ultimate application is easy to conceive: printing buildings, molecule by molecule, creating homes with landing pads for flying cars, and a HAL-9000 built into the walls.  But that is the Future (with a capital F).  In the near future, 3D printing will change the ways buildings are maintained and built.

The first application of 3D printing will address a very old-school problem: replacing parts in aging equipment.  Buildings are incredible for their durability.  This is also true for the equipment inside buildings.  At the Hotel Boulderado in Boulder, Colorado, the city where Navigant Research is headquartered, the original elevator is still running after 100 years.  With good maintenance, some systems will last for decades beyond their intended service life.  Keeping legacy systems in place lowers capital expenses for building owners.  But it’s not always easy to replace old parts.  In some cases, the replacement parts are no longer available, either because the manufacturer has gone out of business or has simply stopped making them.  In other cases, the transport costs for replacing parts can be prohibitive.  3D printing can solve that by creating custom parts made with extreme precision.  With the portability of 3D printing, it could even be possible to send the design specs for the part to the location where they are needed and print the part onsite.

Print Me a House

Constructing buildings using 3D-printed materials is still in the visionary phase of development.  DUS Architects has launched an ambitious project to print a traditional Dutch Canal House out of polypropylene.  In a very public display, a large silver box will print walls and other structures onsite, to be assembled into the traditional canal house form over the next few years.  Starting with the façade, the buildings will be printed and assembled out of plastic, building voids into the walls for support and insulation.  This is a public demonstration of an innovative approach.  One can envision printing building materials onsite using local materials, curbing transportation costs, saving energy, and reducing carbon emissions, not to mention vastly lowering the material waste that is a part of the building manufacturing industry.  In the next few decades, we can look forward to 3D printers getting bigger and cheaper, enabling 3D-printed material to be merged with traditional approaches.  The economics of 3D printing materials for buildings are not clear, and could be a major limiting factor in most settings.  In the meantime, if you find yourself in Amsterdam, you can buy a ticket to see a house being printed.  The architects and partners have made the building site (and print shop) open to the public for a small fee.

 

U.K. Takes the Lead on Smart City Standards

— March 5, 2014

One of the important goals for smart cities in 2014 is the identification and development of appropriate standards to help drive innovation and cross-sector cooperation.  I’ve written previously about the City Protocol as a groundbreaking effort in this area.  Now the United Kingdom has launched its own smart cities framework.  Developed under the aegis of the British Standards Institution (BSI) and with the support of the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS), the standards have been developed by a group of stakeholders from U.K. cities, government, and suppliers.

Smart City Framework – Guide to Establishing Strategies for Smart Cities and Communities has been developed as a guide for city leaders developing a smart city strategy, with an emphasis on practical steps and a conceptual framework that will help them measure progress.  It draws on a series of workshops and stakeholder engagements over the last year, as well as best practices drawn from other international projects.  Significantly, it’s also based on the 29 submissions made by British cities for the £24 million ($38 million) Future City Demonstrator project, which was awarded to Glasgow in 2013.

I gave a presentation on the smart city market at one of the inaugural workshops for the new standard last spring.  At the time, I was impressed by the enthusiasm shown by both cities and suppliers, but I was also concerned that discussions seemed to be taking the initiative down well-trodden paths around local government processes and IT initiatives.  Important as these issues are, in isolation they do not capture the much broader opportunities or the challenges that the smart city concept presents.

Off the Trodden Path

Fortunately, the framework as presented goes a long way toward addressing those concerns.   It was even more reassuring to hear how the cities involved in early testing of the framework have been using it.  At the launch event in London at the end of February, smart city project leaders from Birmingham, Glasgow, Leeds, and Peterborough talked about how they have been employing the framework to build collaboration not only across city departments but also with a wide range of external stakeholders, including energy companies, water companies, and transport providers.  It has also helped boost their work on developing open data platforms and building developer communities to use that data to develop innovative applications for the city.

The framework is the latest in a number of programs to encourage smart city development in the United Kingdom.  In addition to the Future City Demonstrator program, the government has established the Future Cities Catapult, “a global centre of excellence on urban innovation” in London, and has launched an initiative to help U.K. businesses target a £40 billion ($64 billion) global smart city market opportunity.

Over the last 2 years, the United Kingdom has gone from being a laggard to a pacesetter in smart cities.  While other national governments are realizing the need to support urban initiatives, the United Kingdom is now helping to lead the way.  This is a significant step forward that should be of interest to all cities beginning their smart city journey.

 

Up in the Sky, Drones Display Cleantech Potential

— February 12, 2014

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – a.k.a. “drones” – are beginning to make the jump from the war front to a domestic application near you.  Amazon’s use of drones in its proposed Prime Air service is perhaps the most high-profile example.  This service aims to disrupt inefficiencies associated with delivering products to customers’ doors via truck with drone quadcopters that make the same delivery in a fraction of the time.  Drones have begun to gain traction globally as delivery vehicles for everything from dry cleaning to beer and sushi.

Recent announcements point to the use of drones for everything from data collection to expediting renewable energy project development to the physical generation of renewable power.

Bird’s Eye View

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in partnership with NASA and two academic institutions, has begun using drones to explore the vast expanse of the western United States for geothermal anomalies.  Using an experimental system called payload-directed flight (PDF) – essentially autonomous flight – researchers have been able to study and map the underground fracture and fault systems of a geothermal field in California.  The technique is being deployed in other remote geothermal landscapes as well.

Geothermal power holds tremendous promise as a source of renewable baseload electricity.  Currently accounting for more than 11 GW of installed capacity globally, or just 0.2% of the global installed base of renewable generation, geothermal power remains a vastly underdeveloped resource.

Two of the key barriers to more extensive development are long development timelines and substantial upfront capital requirements.  Initial scouting of potential sites for geothermal power development typically requires geophysicists to lug heavy backpacks full of equipment to survey vast swaths of remote landscape.  More promising sites are often surveyed by aircraft as well.  According to researchers utilizing drones for surveys, “Unmanned aircraft are ideal for scientific surveys because they can fly much lower than would be safe for piloted craft and are much cheaper to operate.”

Already used overseas in agriculture, drones also have the potential to improve economics across the bioenergy supply chain.

In Louisiana, drones are being used to monitor the health of sugarcane fields, collecting data at the individual plant level.  Close monitoring of individual crops is typically achieved by farmers physically inspecting their fields, a costly and labor-intensive undertaking.  Traditional airplanes are unable to capture data at the same level of detail.

Workhorse of Smart Energy

Borrowing from Amazon’s vision, drones may also have the potential to collect, move, and aggregate biomass materials, slashing one of the more significant (and often prohibitive) cost drivers for bioenergy.  With agricultural feedstocks used to make biofuels (e.g., cellulosic biomass to ethanol) typically representing 75% to 85% of the finished fuel cost – due in part to the manpower required to aggregate and collect the material – the use of drones could help overcome a challenging hurdle to more widespread commercialization of alternative fuels.

Google is among those companies taking notice of the cleantech drone phenomenon, having bought a slew of robotics companies in recent years.  Included in its portfolio of acquisitions is Makani Power, a renewable energy technology innovator aiming to disrupt the traditional wind turbine market by deploying high-flying autonomous wind turbines.  Makani has designed its drone kites to automatically take off and adjust themselves to the windstream to maximize energy production.

So-called “RoboBees” – developed at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Science –demonstrate the confluence of drones and clean technology.  Designed to behave like a swarm of bees to carry out search and rescue operations or artificial pollination, the RoboBees’ need for high energy density power sources to sustain extended flight remains a key limitation to their use.  Advances in battery technologies could one day provide a compact enough power load that could extend flight times for both RoboBees and other drone hardware.

While 2014 is unlikely to be the year drones disrupt cleantech, the profusion of applications across the smart energy landscape suggests we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of their potential.

 

Small and Medium Building Energy Management Remains An Elusive Goal

— November 6, 2013

Intelligent building controls and energy management systems have made dramatic advances in recent years, yet most are aimed at the small fraction (between 2% and 3%) of global commercial buildings with floor space greater than 100,000 SF.  The remaining 98% of commercial buildings, which according to EIA estimates make up nearly 60% of commercial building energy consumption in the U.S, remain almost untouched by energy management technologies or services.  Why are these buildings so difficult to reach?

The characteristics of small-to-medium commercial buildings (SMCBs) are incredibly diverse in use, construction, age, and ownership.  This diversity creates two major obstacles – one technical, the other related to incentives.  First, if even a small amount of energy control system customization is required for each building, the ROI on the technology investments quickly becomes unattractive.  Secondly, many SMCBs are owned by hands-off investors, such as real estate investment trusts (REITs), managed by separate property management firms, and occupied by renters who bear the energy costs without having any control over the associated infrastructure.  Even if the ROI is good, there is no incentive for owners to make the “I” if they will not receive the “R.”

In the Big Boxes

Despite the obstacles, significant opportunities for SMCB energy management continue to emerge, driven by demographic shifts and technology advances.  The advent of national chain and big-box stores has transformed the retail and food service industries in recent years.  While considered a blight by many, the cookie-cutter nature of these buildings, along with aggregated ownership and management of thousands of sites, dramatically reduces the barriers of technical customization and split incentives.  The major controls systems vendors now have focused product and services offerings, gained mostly via acquisitions (such as Honeywell/Novar, Siemens/Site Controls, and Schneider Electric/SCL Elements), specifically addressing the multi-site enterprise market opportunity.  These solutions enable some level of energy awareness as a first step, but are increasingly enabling advanced demand response and other time-of-use based services, as well.

Building By Building

If the key to SMCB success is site aggregation and standardization, how else can these be achieved?  Some pioneering property management firms, such as Jones Lang LaSalle, and design-build-operate-maintain firms such as McKinstry, are offering advanced energy management services within their menu of services.  Utilities offer another point of possible aggregation, motivated to achieve ever-increasing energy-efficiency goals mandated by their regulators.  The key enabling technologies for both property managers and utilities include advanced analytics services that combine utility meter data and external environmental and demographic data to deliver deep energy insights without the need for any onsite technology other than the utility’s meter.  FirstFuel Software, which pioneered this approach, is increasingly targeting SMCBs, even with relatively dumb meters.  Gridium, a relative newcomer, is leveraging the growing base of smart meters to gain insight into per-building energy use.

While these approaches may not support the advanced demand response services enabled by onsite control systems, they could enable SMCBs to profitably participate in utility dynamic pricing programs that achieve many of the same goals.  And solutions providers may find the revenue growth engine they seek.

 

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