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How Software and Design Can Help Push the World Closer to Decarbonization

By Leon Kaye

Governments and companies continue to scramble as they insist they are committed to decarbonization in the wake of yet another gathering that resulted in a lackluster COP27. True, after Egypt there are renewed pledges to fund pay for “loss and damage” and climate adaptation projects for poorer nations that need them badly. At the same time, there’s no real agreement on how to pursue decarbonization: Few political leaders seek a bold shift away from fossil fuels, and billions of dollars are needed if clean energy projects can scale up worldwide.

While we’re on the topic of energy, it’s important to remember that many estimates suggest that the building sector is responsible for about 40 percent of the world’s emissions. About 70 percent of those emissions are generated from daily operations; the other 30-odd percent comes from the actual construction of the world’s buildings from start to finish.

Better design would help reduce the collective emissions of offices and homes worldwide. After all, a building designed to be sustainable and efficient from day one will emit less carbon during its construction and later, its entire lifespan. And that is where software can come in, as the  technologies and materials that can maximize a building project’s efficiency already exist.

To learn more about how better design and the most advanced software can lend an assist to the global construction sector, TriplePundit recently caught up with Rodrigo Fernandes, who out of his Lisbon office heads sustainability strategy, initiatives and partnerships at Bentley Systems, an infrastructure software company based in Pennsylvania. 

During the Bentley’s recent Year in Infrastructure Conference, held in-person and virtually in London, Fernandes offered his perspective on how better and design and software can have a leading role in taking on the world’s most pressing sustainability problems.

In layperson’s terms, think of Bentley’s software packages in part as a virtual reality tool for the building and construction sector. Though virtual reality and the “metaverse” have been long touted for their consumer and entertainment benefits — such as gaming, obviously, as well as for visualizing apparel and household goods — Bentley has seized upon this technology’s capabilities and made it an indispensable tool to manage a building project’s design, construction and operations workflows.

With the global building industry’s carbon footprint in mind, Fernandes made the case for how engineering and construction firms can be part of global decarbonization efforts. “You can start to take on carbon efficiency in the earliest stages of planning. The earlier you start, the more you can plan and reduce a project’s carbon impact,” he said.

When it comes to a construction project’s sustainability performance, that mindset has to kick in at the very beginning — there’s no winging it or slapping on some recycled tiles or carpeting once the project has launched. “If you build something now, you’ll have that building for about 60 years,” noted Fernandes. “The problem now is that the infrastructure we are building will long stay with us — so we need to plan beforehand, as the company will spend a huge amount of energy and carbon and steel; resources that are scarce. The later you start [focusing on sustainability], the less impact your project has.”

The right investment in software can help a project team be more proactive, which in the end can save money, materials and in the end, boost decarbonization efforts through energy efficiency and reduced emissions. “We know we spend a lot of energy and resources generating concrete, cement and steel; we can’t avoid using them as we need them to build the things today,” continued Fernandes, “but you can make them more efficient on an operational level. Your architects and engineers should understand not only the cost, but what is the carbon footprint of the infrastructure? What elements of design can they use to reduce CO2 from minimizing the impact of steel and cement?”

A demo of Bentley’s suite of products, including new software packages that Bentley released earlier this month, offered 3p an idea of how such technology can be indispensable to engineering and construction companies. Think of the software as combining the best in CAD design, modeling software and MRI technology, which along with virtual reality capabilities allows a project team to troubleshoot problems that can’t be seen by the naked eye. Better yet, a remote team can view, analyze and suggest solutions without being onsite.

Those capabilities lead to another benefit of harnessing software packages like that of Bentley’s — the ability to inspect buildings and large infrastructure projects long after they are completed, and be done remotely, more frequently and safely. Take, for example, what’s needed to inspect the underside of a bridge. Instead of dispatching a team that needs to be suspended from ropes and harnesses, an inspection crew can take a look at that section of the bridge using Bentley’s software from a remote location, and wait to send a group of workers under that same bridge until the actual repair needs to be done. The result is not only less emissions from fewer live visits to that bridge, but there’s increased safety, too — you’re not sending people into a risky or dangerous work environment until it’s absolutely necessary.

With the proper tools, the global engineering and construction sector is in a unique position: It can do its part to tackle decarbonization now while preparing the world for the climate adaptation needs for tomorrow. As Fernandes explained, “Your architects and engineers should understand not only the cost of these materials, but what is the carbon footprint of this infrastructure project?”

Further, software tools like that of Bentley also allow a project team to ask the best possible questions, such as, in Fernandes’ words, “Can I use design to reduce CO2 to reduce the impact of steel and cement?”

Bottom line, there’s little that can be done about the emissions that is already hovering above us in the atmosphere. But that doesn’t mean engineering and construction firms can’t start their push toward decarbonization now. The tools are at hand to ensure the most efficient use of building materials and to design spaces that have minimal impact on the planet from day one.  “Even if you do all of that — we’ll still have more floods, heat waves, etc., because the GHG emissions will stay in our atmosphere for many years. But at the same time, [Bentley’s software] can help us to survive and adapt,” said Fernandes as he wrapped up the interview with 3p.

Image credit: Brandon Lee via Unsplash

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Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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