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Super low energy (SLE) buildings are the way forward

Zhenyi Lee • 18/10/2021

It is highly encouraging that the push for Super Low Energy (SLE) buildings is gaining traction here in Singapore. Recently, the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) noted that there is an uptick in interest from the industry to mainstream SLE buildings from 2030 onwards.

To date, 50 buildings have been accorded BCA’s Green Mark Super Low Energy (GM SLE) certification. This is indeed a good start and will certainly pave the way towards a more sustainable built environment and a low carbon Singapore.

A sustainability imperative

SLE buildings are no longer “good to haves” but they are a sustainability imperative. Without a doubt, sustainability remains a key priority in the post-COVID era due to the far-reaching effects of climate change. The latest 2021 IPCC climate report had warned on "a code red for humanity” where there are trends already irreversible, and deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions must be made in the coming decades.

To this end, more aggressive efforts need to be rolled out now to make up for lost time. Market-led actions - and not just regulatory-led ones - are essential to ensure that we sustainably co-exist with our natural environment.

Building a greener city

With reference to a report from World Green Building Council, building and construction are responsible for 39% of all carbon emissions in the world, with operational emissions accounting for 28%. In Singapore, buildings consume one-third of the nation’s total electricity consumption. These statistics reiterate the significant role of the building sector, in reducing the carbon footprint to mitigate climate change.

Buildings in Singapore now have to meet higher standards to be certified Green under a refreshed scheme, the new Green Mark 2021. This is also applicable to buildings which have already been certified Green Mark in the past. With the announcement, a stronger motivation is anticipated for organizations to advance their current sustainability efforts to reflect tomorrow’s needs, rather than benchmarking them against yesterday’s achievements.

SLE set to become mainstream

In assessing SLE strategies, organizations may find themselves stepping into unfamiliar grounds and exploring solutions which have a yet proven track record locally. With the growing interest and progressively wider adoption, SLE will shift from being in a phase of work-in-progress, to become a new norm for the building industry.

In the meantime, a more forgiving culture is essential, to encourage all stakeholders to take bold steps for change and towards mastery.

A direct outcome of SLE equates to carbon emission reductions which complement achieving ESG targets. When qualifying investments, a more holistic approach would be to evaluate the entire value chain from a macroscopic view on overall real estate sustainability outcomes, rather than viewing these as stand-alone achievements.

No one-size-fits-all, and a one-time-fix-all solution

Dealing with an existing building is a different challenge, from a new construction. Passive strategies and renewable energy commonly pose stronger headwinds in existing buildings - not limited to only physical constraints but also operational ones, such as the inconvenience posed to tenants or even relocation.

A strong senior leadership support is critical to make that first call, lead and drive systemic change. Collaborative efforts between landlords and tenants are also necessary to reduce building energy footprints and transform them into higher-performing ones, as tenants’ energy usage typically accounts for half of the total electricity consumption for office and retail buildings. In many cases, landlords play a lead role in initiating and guiding the conversation.

Building environmental conditions are dynamic, subjected to fluctuations in weather, occupancy and the use of space. What used to be predictable, can now be unpredictable in a post-COVID era.

Moving forward, Smart Energy Management systems could be feasible means to learn the intricacies of building operations and refine control strategies to operate buildings in a more efficient, flexible and sustainable manner. Finally, after all forms of wastage are eliminated and efficiencies optimized, we use renewable energy to manage the residual emissions, which will power base building operations.

SLE strategies can be unique to each building. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all, and a one-time-fix-all solution, in most cases. Putting the right things in perspective at the right time, is key. The privilege of building everything in a single instance comes around only once in a blue moon, or it may never happen.

Take opportunities to celebrate incremental improvements and success. Every organization is unique and exists in different shades of green within this sustainability space - some are more advanced, while others have just embarked on their exploration journey. There is plenty of room to identify and fill gaps in the coming years, and green careers remain some of the most in demand.

On good faith, the real estate industry is supportive and understand the criticality of the move towards “Super Low Energy” and “Net-Zero". They are only seeking the most sensible way to do it - one that works best for their operating models.

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