Over the last year or two, we have seen a rise in both the volatility and frequency of extreme weather events. Last year, Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg made headlines by organising school strikes, which are now an international movement of students who boycott classes to participate in demonstrations to demand action against global warming and climate change.

When people think about climate change, images of heavily polluted skies above major cities or of sea turtles swimming amongst plastic bottles often come to mind. But with the public now increasingly aware of the impact human activity has on the environment, more emphasis is being placed on the sustainability of the built environment.

Distinguished from the natural world, the built environment refers to the human-made environments that provide the setting for the activities of everyday life. The Centre for Digital Built Britain defines the built environment as all forms of buildings (residential and commercial), all economic infrastructure (above and below ground) and the urban space and landscape between and around buildings and infrastructure.

Undeniably, the ways in which we build and engage with our offices and homes can have a huge impact on the climate and natural ecosystems. Consider, for example, the information and communications technology (ICT) industries. While cloud computing data centres do not have billowing smoke stacks, they do use tremendous amounts of energy as they keep their servers cool enough for operations. As noted in an article for Nature magazine, ICT companies — which include manufacturers of digital devices and televisions, as well as internet services and cloud platforms — account for more than 2% of global emissions. This carbon footprint from ICT is equal to that of the aviation industry's emissions from fuel.

But although society's appetite for newer, better technology is driving increased output, technology can also help make our built environments healthier and more eco-friendly. Here are just some of the ways in which PropTech activity can help us address our sustainability and conservation goals:

  • Facilities Management: Facilities management is dedicated to ensuring that a building can meet the needs of the people that work within it. This covers cleaning, security, parking, as well as many other services. PropTech in this area aims to optimise the performance of a workplace by simplifying business processes and reducing costs, with technologies often focusing on the long-term sustainability of buildings. For example, some PropTechs in this space provide drone imaging for the assessment of properties in hard-to-access locations. This may enable the spotting of areas needing repair before they need to be completely rebuilt, thus conserving resources.
  • Mapping: Other innovations, referred to as Building Information Modeling ("BIM") technologies, can help developers to utilise space more efficiently and consume less energy. Whereas traditional building design relies upon only two-dimensional technical drawings, BIM can take into consideration many more factors, including width, depth, time, costs, and environmental and sustainability analyses. BIM examples include cameras that produce 3D renderings and visualisation platforms that allow users to interact with floor plans, or tools which allow engineers to accurately simulate energy consumption.
  • Home Services: Home services technologies are those that support consumers in the management of their homes, and those who work in this sector are skilled at a wide range of repairs and maintenance of a building's necessities: running water, heating and air conditioning, power and electricity, and more. PropTech in this domain can include software or apps which allow handymen to book and schedule call-outs to homes for repairs. Such technology could help to curtail the negative environmental impacts of driving large lorries, for example, if used to schedule visits to homes in the same neighbourhood on single trips.
  • IoT Home: The Internet of Things or "IoT" refers to the ability of a device to transfer data without requiring human interaction (for more on IoT, see Tim Ryan's article on Connectivity, here). IoT devices are becoming more popular in both the commercial and residential property markets, as they can provide solutions in security, automation, and energy management. From an environmental perspective, PropTech IoT devices can monitor water levels, air pollutant concentrations indoors and outdoors, and many other environmental factors. As an example, a PropTech IoT device can adjust the thermostat or air conditioning depending on the atmospheric temperature, or even the presence of occupants in a room.

The above are just some of the ways in which the property market can embrace technology to address the environmental and ecological impact of the built environment. In addition to being good for the planet, the social pressure to create "smart buildings" can provide a wealth of opportunities for entrepreneurs, technology companies, and real estate developers alike.

Of course, success for the sellers and buyers of PropTech means addressing a new set of challenges and understanding complex dynamics and considerations. DAC Beachcroft's PropTech Team brings a wide ranging service that embraces the many varied aspects of this sector and helps manage the response to change. At the heart of this is a nationwide team of real estate and technology experts that can address the risks arising in this rapidly changing environment.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.