Constructing healthy buildings: what is holding us back?

The drive to use smart building technology to create healthy office buildings has been given added impetus in the age of Covid-19.  In the second of a series of articles, Paul Wells examines the barriers to sustainable progress

While there has been recent progress in making buildings healthier – both in terms of the wellbeing of their occupants and in their environmental impact on the planet – progress on the whole has not been as fast as it could be. There are a number of key structural issues that have been holding the industry back.

Reliance on existing processes

The outdated culture of construction is arguably the greatest central issue, with a lack of either motivation or incentivisation to change. Many sectors have started to embrace automation and the efficiencies that can be gained through technology innovation. However, construction can be viewed as a ‘last bastion’ of the lack of automation and efficiency, continuing to use methods and processes that are not always suited to the demands of a modern global economy. While there are isolated instances of innovation, these are rarely adopted at scale which leads to some doubt about the extent to which the construction industry is even concerned with trying to develop new processes and technologies. A continued reliance on ‘business as usual’ seems likely to continue to act as a brake on progress in some quarters, although the shock to the system represented by Covid-19 might accelerate a shift towards automation in others.

Existing building stock

We have to acknowledge that the relative difficulty of retrofitting existing buildings can hold back the move towards smarter, more sustainable buildings. Developers and occupiers are often reluctant to invest in platforms or technologies that would work in their new buildings but not across the whole estate. It can be difficult to fully meet emissions targets in existing buildings, leading to complex decisions about whether it’s better to move into new buildings or continue to work within the constraints of existing stock. However, in most cases a layered approach can be taken that allows occupiers to leverage at least some of the benefits of smart technologies; this may be easier at the moment than it typically has been, with many buildings standing empty or minimally occupied.

Lack of integration

The lack of integration between the different disciplines involved in any construction project is a significant problem. This is a particular issue when it comes to integrating technology-oriented disciplines into a design team, with modern technological solutions too often treated as an afterthought. Traditional project structures mean that early-stage construction experts such as engineers and architects have made significant decisions by the time that technology-oriented disciplines are brought into a project.

‘Construction experts have made significant decisions by the time that technology-oriented disciplines are brought in…’

This can limit technological innovation by simply bringing experts into the process too late to make any significant innovations. In some projects, we’ve seen teams only being selected for smart building projects after equipment has been chosen or the floorplate completed. Trying to reverse engineer a smart building is difficult and likely to result in costly and off-putting design changes. In these cases where too many decisions have already been made, the potential to achieve the project aims around smart or sustainable building are significantly limited.

Lack of knowledge

A lack of knowledge around the potential solutions on offer can also be a problem. Where people want to make more sustainable decisions, there isn’t always a clear path to action. The lack of wider education in the sector is fuelled by the widespread concern that new technologies will be out of date as soon as the building is complete – or even earlier – limiting a client’s appetite for investing in technological innovation. The outcome of this is the further enshrinement of the existing working practices.

Lack of appetite

Despite a growing interest in enhancing productivity and wellbeing, the commercial agenda still typically dominates when there are limited quantifiable benefits from a new approach. This results in a simple lack of appetite to do better – based on people’s perception of the outcomes – for purely altruistic reasons, with companies reluctant to consider making changes that they feel have predominantly negative financial impacts, even where this is not necessarily substantiated. This can be made worse by a lack of knowledge sharing in the industry with companies reluctant to openly share information even in cases where buildings performed well, concerned that they’d lose their commercial edge.

Overall, there are some significant obstacles to progress. We do not believe that they’re insurmountable, and our collective focus should be on what we can do to move forward. In this piece, we have identified the barriers to progress – and we have already made the business case for healthy building in the first article in this series. The final article in this series will set out a path to progress, with a call to action around what we can do to create a healthier work environment.


Paul Wells is CEO at IM&M, a leading provider of intelligent building solutions to lower your carbon emissions, create better working environments, improve efficiencies and integrate your systems. More on IM&M Suite here.

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