Adoption of building performance tech at firms sputters without business rationale
Between the Trend Lines with AIA’s Chief Economist
Only one in three architects feel they are meeting their responsibility to design sustainably. That tracks with AIA industry research revealing only a 10-11% adoption rate of building performance technologies like life-cycle assessment software, plug-ins, or other measurement tools vital to industry benchmarking programs like AIA’s 2030 Commitment. Yet low adoption of these technologies is a marketplace condition that is variable and not fixed, according to AIA Chief Economist Kermit Baker, Hon. AIA. Make the business case to owners, he says, and you can change the demand pattern. As COP26 in Glasgow concludes its first week, and in light of AIA and Carbon Leadership Forum’s new Embodied Carbon Toolkit, Between the Trend Lines looks at the question of frontline adoption of technologies that will prove pivotal to climate action in AEC industry.
How would you characterize firm attitudes about technology as a tool and as an investment?
Architecture is a technologically sophisticated profession, and most practitioners embrace that part of their work. When we ask the question how sophisticated your firm is compared to your peers, about 95% of firms indicate they are “average” or “above average,” with the lion’s share of about 70% claiming the latter. These are firms that have volunteered to be on the ABI panel and may not be completely representative of the profession as a whole, but it does seem interesting that they feel this way.
What kinds of technology are we talking about here?
We looked at a number of technology categories and asked architecture firms what they had adopted. First, we asked about communication and collaboration technology, and over two-thirds of respondents claimed their firms had adoption rates that are “high” or “moderately high.” I don’t think this should surprise us, post-COVID, but that figure probably would have been far lower pre-COVID. Secondly, we asked about project management and delivery solution technologies, and 63% said their firms have a “high” or “moderately high” adoption rate, and I don’t think this should surprise us either, given the complexity of projects. Third, we asked about firm management technology, which includes financial planning and customer relations management, and just under 47% rated their firms’ adoption rate “high” or “moderately high.” We also asked about social media technology, which was 32% adoption at the “high” or “moderately high” rate.
We also asked about energy/carbon/building performance technology on the same one-through-five scale as the other questions, with one being “low” and five being “high.”
For this question, 10 percent of small firms and 12 percent of large firms said they had “high” or “moderately high” adoption rates of energy/carbon/building performance technologies.
In light of elevated levels of anecdotal agreement around climate action, this is lower than one expects. Why do you think that is?
Number one, those technologies can be expensive. Firms are saying they don’t have the budget for it, and they don’t know what the ROI is on it. Even on free versions of that software, it’s also a time commitment to learn for workers and a time commitment to utilize on a continuous basis. The other big reason, as firms claim, is that their clients don’t require it, so they couch it as a nice-to-have and not a need-to-do.
What is the role of architects in reaching a higher level of achievement in this area?
From a business perspective, these results around software technologies suggest that there’s a hard case to support here, but architects would be the ones to make that case. Could energy, carbon, and building performance software technologies be a competitive advantage? Absolutely, and I’m not going out on a limb by saying this. Could architects use this as an opportunity to force a discussion with clients about the benefits of this technology? Absolutely. It is a value-add from a number of perspectives, not least of which is corporate optics and goodwill. So it’s a supply and demand issue at the moment. It’s not clear that the market demands this technology yet, so the supply of firms utilizing it and offering it is lower than one might like.
How would you compare the bending curve of demand for BIM over the last 20 years to this situation?
BIM was once the domain of only the biggest firms with the deepest pockets, but it has become far more ubiquitous now. Clients really drove that demand. Did architects get better at explaining the potential benefits to clients? Sure, they did. I would also say, too, that there were clear economic benefits of BIM, even as the social benefits were unclear or didn’t exist rhetorically. So, when we look at the adoption of building performance technology, which has a much clearer social value than BIM ever did, not to mention an obvious environmental benefit, there’s a big opportunity there to make the business case, which I believe can be done. It just requires a commitment by architects and owner-clients.
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