Could the car industry’s latest lesson for construction be in its shifting emphasis from hardware to software? Think how housing could benefit
Despite the oft-quoted benefits of offsite production aspects of the car industry, one of its more important lessons for construction relates to the transition to a new fuel source. It’s clear that, for the medium term, electric cars will become the main way to decarbonise road transport, with car manufacturers investing vast sums to keep up with technology leaders like Tesla.
What is notable is that the number of moving parts in a typical electric vehicle is around 20, whereas internal combustion engines have around 2000. This is a vast simplification in a car’s ‘hardware’. The counterpoint is that an electric car’s software plays a vital role in optimising battery operation to maximise efficiency and deliver the required driving range.
An extension of this migration of complexity from hard to software is that software can be improved in situ, unlike hardware, which is fixed at the point that the car leaves the factory. For example, Tesla has pushed updates to its cars giving owners more power, improved range and reduced charging times.
Housing could profit from such an approach, simplifying hardware and using more sophisticated control software. This could allow us to challenge the conventional approach to heating a home. As building fabric efficiency increases, rooms respond more quickly to heaters; so we can consider using a more advanced control system which, for example, only heats rooms when occupied.
Such an advanced control system might be more expensive up front than a conventional thermostat, but much as electric cars simplified the hardware required, so too could electric houses reduce the complexity of building systems. The removal of wet heating systems and the associated pipework could more than make up for the costs involved in control.
With a more advanced control system deployed, the performance of homes could be continually improved as algorithm software was refined. For example, machine learning can be applied to ascertain which rooms are occupied most frequently and when. Rooms could be heated ahead of use and the system’s response would become imperceptible to the user.
Like transport, extensive electrification of the built environment is the likely route toward decarbonisation in the UK, with clean renewable electricity sources being key. The grid’s carbon emissions fell by around a half in the last 10 years and the government has announced a ban on new gas connections in five years’ time.
An electricity grid with a significant amount of energy generated from renewable sources such as wind turbines needs to be controlled differently. We can’t control the wind so need to match demand to the availability of power. And more advanced control software could switch off heaters if there is a drop in wind power output.
A world where our entire built environment is connected, via the ‘internet of things’, is still some way off. But when developing new infrastructure it’s important to lay the foundations for systems where control can make the most of more advanced and evolving digital technology.
Dan Cash is a building services engineer and director of Consulting at Atamate