How Sidewalk Labs makes green development affordable
From more cost-effective designs to affordable workspace management, Sidewalk Labs is building up a suite of tools to make developers’ lives easier – and greener.
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“What we do is develop products and places to radically improve quality of life in cities for all,” says Jesse Shapins, senior director of urban development at Sidewalk Labs, the urban innovation arm of Google’s parent company Alphabet. Central to this, he adds, is addressing the climate crisis.
Sidewalk Labs has several commercial products to help developers meet their ESG commitments affordably.
What it does | Helps developers make better, faster design decisions on their sites
Target market | Developers, city planners
How it works | The software generates hundreds of potential designs for a site in minutes based on a developer’s priorities (such as emissions, walkability or costs) and constraints (such as minimum commercial or residential square footage). Each design comes with a financial model, which shows how different designs, mix of uses or unit sizes affect total costs.
- Visualisations of floorplans, apartment types and parking
- Integration of financials, energy models and site constraints in one place for easier collaboration within and between teams
Benefits | Quickly identifying the most cost-effective mix of uses for a site; potential to increase the density and sustainability of an area
What it does | Cut energy costs, improve tenant comfort and simplify building operations with inexepensive IoT devices
Target market | Commercial landlords (especially owners of older buildings), tenants
How it works | Users receive a kit with plug-in devices, sensors and a customised installation guide showing where they need to go in a specific office space or building. The tiny thumbnail-size sensors, which stick to walls, collect information about the office environment and feed it back to the Mesa software, which can automate everything from turning off unused lights to pre-heating or cooling a building based on real-time occupancy
- Building management tools for landlords
- Mobile app for tenants: users can send feedback about the office environment, for example if it’s too cold or too warm
- Real-time data and trends about office use
Benefits | Simple “plug-and-play” way to introduce high quality energy management into a building
What it does | Provides parking data in real-time
Target market | Parking operators, developers and city planners
How it works | Pebble has two parts: a sensor you can stick to the ground and a solar-powered box that picks up sensor data, which can be attached to a nearby pole. A dashboard allows users to see what spaces are available in real-time and shows historical data as well.
- Keeps data collection to a minimum with no way to identify a car or driver
Benefits | Streamlined method to understand carpark usage in order to increase space efficiency
What problems do these products solve?
Enabling more efficient and sustainable use of space affordably is at the heart of each of Sidewalk Labs’ products.
Shapins says Mesa is intended to be accessible for owners of older buildings that don’t already have building management systems designed into them in the way that new Grade-A offices will. Retrofitting can be prohibitively expensive, which is why Sidewalk Labs opted for a “plug and play” product.
Meanwhile, Delve helps developers figure out the most cost effective and sustainable mix of spaces for their site. The aim is to create more “15 minute city” style places where everything is within walking distance.
“Dense, mixed-use developments lead to greener cities,” Shapins says, “so it’s really important that we try to create as much density and quality mixed-use as possible, doing that in a way that balances profits with sustainability and ensures a high quality of life.”
In the UK, both Quintain – at Wembley Park – and Imperial College have used Delve in their development process.
Sidewalk Labs has several other projects in development. The first explores the use of mass timber, which would open up opportunities for a modular construction factory using sustainable materials.
Embodied carbon emissions – those associated with the materials and the supply chain of the building – will account for about 74% of a new building’s carbon emissions, Shapins says. As a result, Sidewalk Labs is in the process of establishing a business around sustainable timber and is working with several partners on demonstration projects across the US.
“We have to look at embodied carbon along with operational carbon, and mass timber is really the best medium for doing that,” he says.
Another focus for the company is electrification, working with utilities to find ways to move away from fossil fuels. Still at an early stage, the project will explore how technology can make electrification as cheap as natural gas is today.
But ESG is more than just the environment and Shapins says the next step is to consider the S – social impact. Sidewalk Labs plans to work with others in property to help shape metrics and real performance expectations related to the second part of ESG.
As Sidewalk Labs branches out, its guiding principle will continue to be the same as it was with products like Mesa and Delve: “It’s that combination of how to truly achieve transformative sustainable outcomes in [the industry] in a way that is economically feasible for real estate,” Shapins says.