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  • Writer's pictureChristiaan Gey van Pittius

Sustainable Architecture: Digitisation of residential life

The architect’s role in the integration of building-performance technology in domestic living: A study of smart home-design for reducing operational energy


A global issue has come to be universally agreed upon: climate change is caused by greenhouse gasses. Since the 1992 ‘Earth Summit’ held in Rio de Janeiro, many nations have started to take action towards reducing the impact of human socio-economic activities on the environment. In 2015, 195 nations adopted the Paris Agreement at COP21, where this instrument became central, and it was agreed to limit ‘the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.’ According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the assertion is that the increase of GHG’s, like carbon levels in the atmosphere, is causing the rise in global temperatures.

Embodied Carbon vs. Operational Carbon

According to the Architects Climate Action Network, carbon emissions from the construction and building material sector represent 11% of global GHG emissions. An additional 28% of global emissions are caused by building-use operations. The emissions from the construction sector are divided into two major sections: Embodied Carbon (EC) and Operational Carbon (OC). Much focus is placed on the EC of industry delivery. It is associated with the extraction, manufacture, and construction phase of a building, whereas the OC is associated with the energy used by a building post-occupancy and throughout its remaining lifecycle.


The UN projected that the OC of a building built in 2020 would accumulate to over 100% of the EC (upfront carbon emissions) of that building over a 30-year period. Thus, it could be surmised that if the mismanagement of building operations continues as before, the OC could add the entire volume of EC emissions of the built environment every 30 years during its use. Therefore, building designers must respond to this new challenge to reduce the EC in new builds and actively make design decisions to reduce the OC emitted by the post-occupancy use of buildings.

Residential Sector

According to Fionn Stevenson, the housing sector represents the most significant part of both the construction volume and energy use in Europe. The widely reported Sturgis Carbon Profile shows that whilst the residential sector represents the highest proportion of EC emissions which results in much attention being focused on the construction and design phase of a building, the lower proportion of 49% attributed to the OC emissions compared to commercial and warehouse uses is overlooked. As the residential sector is the most significant contributor to the volume of building stock, its OC emissions outweigh all other building types.

Architects must act

The construction and real estate industries are now at the forefront of change as the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction (GABC) reported in 2018 that 39% of global CO2 emissions were caused by the building sector alone. More than a third of global emissions can be attributed to decisions architects and build environment professionals make today. It has become unavoidable for architects not to take this challenge seriously and lights a renewed path for the industry. Therefore it is clear that radical change is needed to push policy, regulation and the architectural profession toward a low-carbon future.

“Constant change has been the backdrop to our lives, but now the nature of change has changed,” Peter Buchanan in his series of essays, The Big Rethink, for The Architectural Review. He goes on to suggest that the changes in global progression have brought on a time of significant transition – “times in which to rethink almost everything.”

Paradigm Shift

Carlo Ratti, from MIT, describes the change in the profession as similar to the severe paradigm shift of the Modernist movement where engineers became core members of the design team, directing the focus of architectural optimisation towards standpoints of mass production and social function. A new architectural movement is unfolding, and this time it has everything to do with the global environmental challenges we face today.

The 4th Industrial Revolution

In the 21st century, we have entered a new industrial revolution. It is referred to as The Fourth Industrial Revolution by Klaus Schwab following The Third Industrial Revolution led by the development of semiconductors, personal computing and the internet. In Germany, the term “Industry 4.0” was coined at the Hannover Fair in 2011, coining the fourth industrial change as is being led by smart and connected machines and systems that use emerging innovations like artificial intelligence (A.I), the internet of things (IoT), autonomous vehicles, energy storage and material science. Architecture is no stranger to paradigm shifts and currently has an opportunity to embrace new challenges.

Now Digitise!

In their book, “The City of Tomorrow”, Carlo Ratti and Matthew Claudel write that architectural designers must accelerate positive technological change. Critical of parametric design software and the surge of “blob” architecture, Ratti writes that digitisation will need to influence architecture deeper than only the skin to become meaningful and living. He exclaims that architecture should become an integral and responsive part of human life by doing more than just looking like a “living organism” but performing as a living system. Living systems need to be flexible structures in buildings, based on the theory of cybernetics, which dynamically regulate themselves, reproduce themselves, evolve and learn in dialogue with their inhabitants. Ratti continues to say that “the architect becomes a choreographer of dynamic and adaptive forces rather than scripting outcomes in a deterministic way.”

Co-Produced Social Learning

The application of advanced technologies into communities is best utilised when formal expert knowledge is combined with tacit and in-situ types of knowledge. A dialogue between advisors and homeowners holds the best potential for incorporating ICTs into everyday habits and practices.

Simplify but Not Automated

According to Fionn Stevenson and Adrian Leaman, a deeper understanding of the relationship between the residential user and domestic ICT systems is needed as they question the development of mass-produced ‘one-size-fits-all’ home energy monitors. Stevenson believes that these monitoring systems do not lead to lasting habit formation and improved design decisions. Stevenson makes the case that housing design should be simplified to support the occupant’s interrelation with the physical performance of housing architecture.

Occupants are ready for change

While architects and critics debate their views on the technological influence, most people enjoy and welcome the increasing role of the digital world in their lives. In a Danish housing study, the users revealed in the POE interviews and questionnaires that they are familiar with IEQ monitoring applications (software) and even specifically requested smart sensor systems to assist them in monitoring the indoor climates and energy use of their homes. Like these participants, users who learnt how to evaluate their domestic indoor climate and energy use have become enamoured by adding another digital layer to their lives. This technological affinity is gradually the case globally as the demographic status of cities are changing to become increasingly technologically educated.

In conclusion

Adopting ICT into architecture as part of the ‘smart’ movement has its advantages and disadvantages. The question of data security and device sustainability remains a considerable concern, and the large scale or mass integration of digitisation into domestic life is thus still evolving. The difference between traditionally academic POE projects and user/ community orientated building operations monitoring focuses on understanding and interpreting data collected and forming new habits to reduce carbon-emitting activities. Where POE studies aim to inform architects and academia on future design decisions, the digitisation of dwellings would potentially allow users to manage their energy use to reduce OC emissions. Users have become much more ‘digitally native’ and can use ICTs to learn and adapt to their domestic environment. It is unclear if automation would be considered a solution as this could exclude the users’ participation and social learning, reducing the level of resilience a community has.


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