Technology may not save the world from climate change entirely, but commercial property insiders are confident it will help.
Property technology, or proptech, is already being deployed in the construction and property management sectors to streamline work and control costs in development and maintenance.
What’s not as well noticed yet is how technology can be applied to make new buildings less carbon-intensive and more energy-efficient and retrofit older properties to be more environmentally sustainable.
According to Benjamin Shinewald, chief executive officer of BOMA Canada, the industry group representing building owners and maintenance operators, proptech is becoming a significant aspect of Canadian commercial real estate.
“For a long time, the industry saw buildings make small, incremental changes to adapt technology but basically remained static otherwise,” he says. “Now technology is making the industry realize that we can harness enormous power to drive efficiencies, including sustainability, health and wellness, measurement metrics and more.”
“I see the promise in proptech,” adds Kathryn Brohman, associate professor and director of the Master of Digital Product Management program at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University in Kingston.
“It’s like other areas of technology, where people are flipping the orthodoxies and coming up with new ideas. And it’s two-sided – people need buildings, and the buildings need to be environmentally sustainable,” Dr. Brohman says.
Owners and managers say they recognize the need to use all means available, including high tech, to reduce carbon emissions from buildings and construction, which, according to the United Nations, account for 39 per cent of global carbon output. Of that, emissions from heating, cooling and lighting buildings are responsible for 28 per cent.
“Proptech can play a huge role in improving a building’s operational efficiency, and operational efficiency is carbon efficiency, since it always reduces energy consumption,” Mr. Shinewald says.
New technologies can also reduce water consumption and make it easier to keep track of waste so it can be recycled or reused, keeping it out of landfill.
“Technology can be expanded to different building functions to promote sustainability,” he says. “For example, a sensor can tell the waste hauler to empty a bin only when it is full – instead of on a time-based schedule – saving carbon emissions by having fewer truck pickups.”
Sensors can also perform functions such as fine-tuning heating and cooling to correspond with the number of people in a building, instead of wastefully blasting air into an empty room, he adds.
In Canada and abroad, there are many opportunities for young engineers and entrepreneurs to start and grow proptech businesses, Dr. Brohman says.
“Proptech is part of the gig economy, where products and businesses pop up when there’s opportunity and need,” she says. Using sensors and the Internet of Things (IOT) to keep track of construction and materials and to control heating, cooling and electricity fits well with the need to protect the planet and can be cost-effective, she explains.
“Using digital capabilities to monitor and manage lets you make better use of materials and resources that you already have on a property, instead of always adding new materials,” she adds.
Dr. Brohman says she learned about proptech’s efficiencies on a smaller, personal scale recently when she booked, from Canada, some short-term rentals in Eastern Europe for Ukrainians seeking refuge from the Russian invasion.
“We could book the rooms and unlock the doors from here, so people could walk right in. Without that technology, we probably would need to fly there and organize everything [with flights adding to the carbon footprint],” she says.
Canada is among many countries aspiring to lower its carbon footprint to net zero by 2050 – a goal the United Nations says is vital.
“The road to net zero runs through the built environment, and the vehicle to get us there is proptech,” says David Harris Kolada, a managing partner at Greensoil PropTech Ventures in Toronto, an investment firm with a $100-million fund targeted at proptech firms.
A recent article written by Mr. Harris Kolada and published on the website Sustainable Biz Canada reports that proptech firms in North America alone attracted more than $100-billion in venture capital between 2017 and 2020. In 2021, as the pandemic raged on, proptech venture funding was on track for its best year ever.
“The pandemic was certainly a driver in the mass adoption we’re seeing of proptech across the real estate industry,” says Thano Lambrinos, senior vice-president at QuadReal Property Group, a Vancouver-based real estate investment company with $61.2-billion in assets under management worldwide.
COVID-19 accelerated the move toward proptech, Mr. Lambrinos says, as owners and managers look for new ways to clear the air in their buildings, an important factor in ensuring workers that it’s safe to come to the office or retail store.
“Occupancy is always a critical metric,” he says. “The pandemic enabled us to accelerate the deployment of technology in real estate that was always going to give us data to make better decisions – just for different reasons, such as social distancing.”
New technology can now be put to work to make better decisions about building materials, energy efficiency and retrofitting old buildings to make them sustainable for decades to come, he adds.
“We have an incredible opportunity with the amount of retrofit work that’s required in buildings across the country over the next 30 years,” Mr. Lambrinos says.