The role of technology in creating sustainable big boxes

According to UK Government data, in 2022, the UK’s built environment was responsible for 25 percent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Good building management, especially around heating energy efficiency, is therefore essential if we are going to meet our national commitment to be carbon neutral by 2030.

The size of the problem in the warehouse sector

According the Office for National Statistics (ONS), transport and storage remains a relatively small industry across the UK, accounting for five percent of business premises (155,000 out of 3.2 million). However, it is now the largest industry in parts of the Midlands, the East of England and Yorkshire and The Humber in terms of share of business units.

When measured in square meterage rather than number of units, the size of the issue is clear. Warehousing in the UK accounts for 556 million square feet of property. And it’s growing fast. New orders for the building of warehouses were worth £5.6 billion in 2021 – more than in any year since 1985.

Its clear that warehousing accounts for a significant part of the UK’s building stock and has a considerable carbon footprint.

Towards a more sustainable warehouse

The drive towards carbon neutrality begins in the design and construction phases. To this end, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) recommends that the UK Government introduces a mandatory requirement for whole-life carbon assessments for buildings. This would increase pressure to reduce the levels of CO2 in construction, especially when using carbon-heavy materials such as cement and steel.

Greener building design, utilising low-carbon materials and ground-source heating systems, should be the norm, rather than the exception. Further, criteria around energy efficiency – such as insulation and self-generation – need to be strengthened in law to reduce carbon consumption throughout the operational phases of the lifetime of the building.

All this requires solutions for assessment, reporting and monitoring.

And even before this, planning improvements are required. With new builds at a forty-year high and vast warehouse cities shooting up on greenfield sites, prioritisation must be made for nature to protect biodiversity – with brownfield developments favoured over the use of greenfield land.

Intelligent building management

Once a building enters the operational phase of its lifecycle, the role of technology in aiding sustainability becomes clearer.

In line with the old adage, “what is measured gets managed” technology has a major role to play in helping to drive down resource and energy consumption. More efficient operations, especially in terms of HVAC, can significantly lower the carbon footprint of warehouses.

Sensor data and energy metering combined with smart building management software make it possible for facility managers to monitor and, subsequently, optimise, energy consumption. Today’s IoT connected devices mean it is no longer necessarily expensive to retrofit sensors and meters. Good wireless networking around warehouse sites reduces the need for cabling and therefore reduces the cost of gathering data from remote or underserved locations.

Capturing this previously inaccessible data affords much more potential to understand – and, therefore, reduce – energy use.

Monitoring and storing energy data over time and displaying information in intuitive dashboards and reports enables facilities managers to see in real time the impact of their interventions, to double-down on what works and discard efforts which don’t.

Incremental change for lasting impact

In large warehouses, small changes can have big impacts. While a relatively small consumer of energy compared to heating, switching to sensor-controlled LED lighting is a significant step towards the goal of carbon neutrality.

Operating other systems, including HVAC, on similar sensor-based operation can further reduce the carbon footprint of warehouses. This might be on the basis of presence detection, task setting or daylight sensing.

Warehouses are large sites, so they offer good potential for self-generation – whether from roof-top PV solar generation or wind turbines at suitable locations. This activity can be integrated with existing smart building software solutions to enable intelligent scheduling of resource-heavy activities, such as powering an electric vehicle fleet, to times when self-generation is active.

Efficient operations mean lower carbon footprint

Technology also has an important role to play in less direct reductions in the warehouse’s carbon footprint. The use of robotics in place of human workers enables lighting and HVAC overheads to be minimised.

Further, because robots can work 24/7 with no notice and without the need for breaks, time off or holidays, they enable work to be scheduled more dynamically and intelligently to make use of self-generated energy or other carbon efficiencies.

What’s more, by automating tasks around inventory management, collecting meter data, picking and packing, or any other aspect of warehouse operations, technology offers greater visibility and measurement potential. This, in turn, increases the opportunity for understanding resource and energy consumption and to further optimise operations.

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