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Talking Glass – The future of data collection from building facades

Demands for data are set to escalate in the new age of embodied carbon.

June 13, 2023  By Treena Hein

Italy’s Permasteelisa used RFID tracking in the production and delivery of components for the Elba Philharmonic in Hamburg, Germany. The company says it is now attaching sensors to all its components in all its projects and looking at expanding how it uses integrated wireless communications for a variety of purposes.

As most of those in the glass and general construction sectors are aware, embodied carbon restrictions for buildings are coming down the pipe. These are restrictions on the carbon dioxide emissions produced in making various building components, as well as emissions involved at end-of-life for disposal (or perhaps recycling or reuse). Generating those limits, staying within them, designing for them and achieving certifications related to them – all of this requires what’s known as a life cycle analysis of building components and even entire buildings. LCAs trace the entire picture, from beginning to end, in an attempt to create a holistic picture of a product’s contribution to climate change.

To do any analysis requires data and the more detailed and comprehensive the data, the better the analysis will be. With facade-building LCAs, glazing firms will be required to provide all the data they currently have on hand. But for complete traceability, they also may be required to integrate data-collection into their manufacturing and perhaps installation processes – and maybe even into facade systems themselves.  

Matteo Giovanardi at the Polytechnic University of Turin in Italy, with colleagues at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, recently published a study on gathering facade traceability data. As they explain in their paper, traceability data is useful for carbon analysis and the related circular economy: where components or materials that have reached end-of-life are re-used or recycled, where possible, in a circular continual fashion. This matters in terms of embodied carbon restrictions because carbon emissions are reduced in circular economy frameworks compared to conventional frameworks that involve continual use of virgin materials. A circular economy framework can only be effectively applied to facades when we know where and how the aluminum frame, glass panel and insulation materials were made, where they were used, and how they got where they are. Giovanardi and his colleagues note that, in general, availability of this data right now in the facade sector is poor and siloed and that over 90 percent of it is simply stored and not used. 

The question of why there just isn’t much effective sharing of information is one that Giovanardi and his colleagues put to their industry focus group. Giovanardi reports that all those people interviewed within the group expressed no interest in sharing information. He notes also that “information is often confidential and bound by commercial agreements” and that industry members “provide data only for regulatory compliance.”


Technology gathers data
New sensor systems can help in data gathering. Various sensor systems across many industries are enabling gains in process efficiencies, better decisions, improvements in product development and much more. The facade industry need not be an exception.

Much data about the building envelope can be gathered using Internet of Things (IoT) wireless sensor technologies. In their study, Giovanardi and his colleagues clarified the value of traceability data for facades. It identified 12 types of information crucial for facade traceability and analyzed five main opportunities to use IoT to get that information and mapped traceability data flows.  

Beyond traceability (gathering and keeping information for compliance, certification and more), IoT can also serve a monitoring function in terms of facade components or entire facade performance. IoT systems can also engage with building users, he says, offering them the possibility to connect with the facade for security or other purposes. 

RFID use
In the context of gathering, storing and sharing facade traceability information, Giovanardi and his team concluded RFID sensors and tags can be useful. “In the facade sector, RFID could be used as ‘smart tags’ for supporting logistic activities and maintenance,” he says. 

RFID tags, whether passive (no battery)
or active (battery-powered), require the use of a reader (a device that activates the tag and reads the data on the tag) that must be within about 40 feet. RFID is widely used in shipping to track movement of goods or to activate processes. For example, fob RFID keys, when brought near a door or machine, automatically trigger or enable the lock to open or the machine to start. 

In a shipping context, with façade components for example, a skid’s RFID tag is read by the nearby reader and the associated software pulls up where it originated, where it has travelled and on what dates. Information can be added to the tag file continually.  

Giovanardi notes that Permasteelisa tested RFID tag use in creating the stunning facade of the Elba Philharmonic upper building located at the waterfront in Hamburg, Germany, built atop a very large and plain brick factory. This facade, which includes hundreds of curved glass panels, has been described as “a gigantic, iridescent crystal, whose appearance keeps changing as it catches the reflections of the sky, the water and the city.” 

12 ways enhanced tracking helps
Whether using RFID or other wireless communications technology, there are at least 12 ways that integrated sensors and data transmission in building facades might help both contractors and building owners.

1. Asset contract
Imagine being able to ask a broken component when it was purchased and for how much; what its product name is; who sold it; and what the warranty and serial number are – and do it right there on site with a tap on your phone. 

2. Service contract
Substantial losses in both performance and money happen every year because facade components are not properly maintained or replaced at the end of their useful lives. Tracing technology can deliver a maintance schedule for components and alerts for service staff, then log the work done. Then the longevity of the component can be assessed to help determine its value. Don’t just say you deliver well-built, long-lasting glazing…be able to prove it with data.

3. Technical features
Facade typology, dimensions, weight, frame materials, glass spec – all these can be attached to readable technology or at least stored in a local database for easy recovery. Having the information on hand makes life a lot easier when it comes time to design renovations or upgrades.

4. Guides and instructions
Installers don’t always read the instructions anyway, but at least they can be readily available if a chip on the part can send it to their phone. With the proliferation of mechanical features on advanced facades, easy access to operation, maintenance and installation instructions can be crucial.

5. Performance declaration
What’s the U-value of that IGU? Embedded technology can record testing and performance data that can be used to analyze building performance and design renovations and upgrades. With a better database, data from individual components can be drawn together to get a picture of the whole envelope performance.

6. Certifications
Building inspectors need quick access to labels certifying component compliance. Tracing data systems can provide that and prevent commissioning headaches.

7. Supply chain
In the coming age of embodied carbon measurement, where a product comes from and what went into making it will be critical information. Information stored and transmitted from tracing technology can give the whole picture from where the product originated up to the present.

8. Logistics and construction
Accurately tracking product through production to the jobsite is a challenge. Chipping and coding product is a solution. Then the data can be used afterwards to improve processes and remove bottlenecks.

9. Operational and management
Facades that collect data about use and occupation can inform property owners as to which parts of their building are performing better or worse and guide maintenance and upgrade decisions. For instance, sensors might detect rooms that are being heated unnecessarily without the lights on, indicating energy wasted on unoccupied space.

10. End-of-life
Longevity, disassembly instructions and disposal are not just going to be the waste disposal contractor’s concern in the years ahead. When a product is judged on its complete life cycle from cradle to grave, information on how to destroy, recycle or re-use it will be needed and could be provided by attached tracing technology.

11. Integrated services
More and more, facades are being asked to do more for the occupants. Architects are looking for systems that can deliver a specific experience tailored to the building use. This requires integrated control of light and daylighting, shading, ventilation, HVAC, humidity and more. Facades that can collect and transmit data are critical to achieving these spaces.

12. Feedback
Improvement is a process of looking at what has been done and seeing how it could be done better or differently. Collecting data on the performance of any system is a necessary step. 

All components eventually wear out and tracking their lifespans, disposal and replacement carbon costs will be demanded by property owners in the future.

Solutions and challenges
As mentioned, the study lists a dozen areas where collecting more traceability information would help with facade LCA. In terms of what a facade provider might do or have to do in the future to collect this information, Giovanardi and his colleagues point to a “facade passport” as a possibility. 

This would be similar to a material passport, defined by Giovanardi as “a data set describing the characteristics of materials and components in products and systems.” They are being considered as a key strategy in European policies for promoting the reuse and recycling of building products. This is aimed at tracking material sources, recording their manufacturing processes and preserving this information over time, enabling a greater value for complex and long-lasting building components such as building facades. Giovanardi adds, “this would be a unique information framework where whole life cycle information can collected and make it available to different stakeholders. The main issue is to organize different data to be able to exploit useful information from it.”

However, at this point, Giovanardi says using facade life-cycle traceability information and employing a circular economy for facades “is possible but still a long way off.” One challenge is technological, in that facade components are not generally designed for disassembly. That is, they are not designed so that the components at the end of facade life can be taken apart efficiently for re-use or recycle. It’s also costly to deal with facade components at the end of life. Giovanardi adds, bluntly, “facade producers today have no interest in managing facade end-of-life.” 

All these issues lead him to conclude that new business models must be developed to support the transition to circular thinking. “For example,” he says, “a ‘facade as a service’ concept.” In this approach, the facade would be provided by the manufacturer to the building for its lifetime but remains technically owned by the facade manufacturer and is reclaimed once a building has reached end-of-life.  

However it is achieved, Giovanardi and his colleagues believe that storing facade information in a common, life-cycle oriented framework accessible to multiple actors is important going forward – and they assert that “facade manufacturers, being the central players in the system, have the task of driving this transition.” They conclude that “greater and more detailed knowledge of the materials in use could facilitate the creation of circular systems and the definition of government guidelines and incentives tailored to the real demand of the existing building stock. Advances in IoT and lessons learned from other industries in the use of RFID technologies to manage large data sets with limited cost and time allow us to imagine future scenarios.” •

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