The right tech can make smart buildings smarter

Just how smart are commercial buildings and can they get any smarter?

Smart buildings might be the sustainable saviours of the skyline, but applying advancing technology that adds value and interconnectivity is key if they are to become more “intelligent”.

By definition, a building is smart when its various components, including the air conditioning and security alarms, are connected and controlled by an operating system. A survey by Nielsen Thailand and The Parq, published in January, found that smart features in commercial buildings can be just as important as food courts and gyms.

Without interconnecting the different types of intelligent features and services, including heating and lighting, smart buildings won’t be truly smart

The survey of more 400 workers under the age of 45, living in Bangkok, found that 62 per cent ranked a smart security system as the most important feature, while 50 per cent said smart energy management was important to them. Smart parking was a feature supported by 47 per cent of respondents.

How smart buildings can help ease workplace congestion

One aspect of smart buildings that technology is expected to transform is how easily office workers are able to move around them.

Busy workplaces can get pretty congested, especially at peak periods such as lunchtime. With hundreds of buildings at least 20 floors high set to be built in London alone between now and 2030, there’s clearly demand for more efficient mechanisms for transporting office workers, according to Nick Mellor, managing director of the Lift and Escalator Industry Association.

Mr Mellor envisages smart buildings in the future being programmed to group people by assigning them to specific lifts. Using artificial intelligence, an elevator system will be able to predict which floors people want to go to based on past behaviour. Workers will be alerted by push notification and directed via bluetooth beacons to areas of the building where lifts will be waiting for them.

“Not only will this keep people moving around smoothly, without them experiencing congestion, but it’ll also reduce travelling times and cut energy consumption,” says Mr Mellor.

Smartphone-connected amenities must be useful not a novelty

Amenities and features that are linked to smartphones will increasingly become a major component of the smart building infrastructure. But this should come as no surprise. Workplaces are being occupied by a generation of digital natives, who curate and live their lives through technology, says Layth Madi, managing director of Drees & Sommer UK, a leading consultancy that has delivered smart workplace projects for FTSE 100 companies.

“Future smart buildings will mirror the way in which an entire generation is accustomed to interacting,” he says. “The most successful developments will be those which recognise this generational shift, and that their expectations and habits will change how smart workplaces will be designed, occupied and operated.”

While various amenities and features will be able to be controlled by smartphones, and even voice activation, this doesn’t necessarily mean a building should be fitted with the technology. For example, a smart vending machine is nice to have in an office, but it doesn’t add any value or have a meaningful impact on the building’s sustainability.

“The key is to focus on what people will need from a building to be productive and successful in their use of it,” says Rick Robinson, digital property and cities leader at Arup. “How will connectivity improve productivity, engagement and wellbeing?”

With the potential for so many connected services, from the toilets to water dispensers, it could be argued that there will come a point when buildings become too smart for their own good.

Smart buildings could be more connected and much smarter

Tim Stone, a partner at the internet of things investor Breed Reply doesn’t agree. However, he does believe that without interconnecting the different types of intelligent features and services, including heating and lighting, smart buildings won’t be truly smart.

“Sensors can gather data on people’s movements or analyse energy use to improve efficiency. But if you combined weather data with this, then you could make a building react to weather conditions. Or by incorporating up-to-date transport information, you could predict when workers will arrive and then make adjustments,” says Mr Stone. “There are a few platforms where you can bring this information together to enable richer analysis. Generally, though, there is a lack of interconnectedness.”

Mike Coons, head of workplace design at flexible office provider Knotel, thinks “we’re nowhere near peak smart”, as real estate has been one of the worst offenders when it comes to willingness to adopt technological innovation.

“I estimate that the percentage of buildings in New York, for instance, with any kind of integrated control systems is in the single digits,” he says. “There is plenty of room to grow in terms of building performance and technology integration.