What makes a building smart?

What makes a building smart? Engineer designing a smart building

What makes a building smart? This is a good question, but unfortunately, there is no clear answer to it. The least we can say is that a smart building is not a “dumb” building, which means it has at least the basics of what modern technology can offer. Drawing the line is difficult, but the standard view is that the building uses technology to share information between systems to improve or optimize its performance. The goal of that optimization can be ecological or economic efficiency, or user-friendliness – or all of them combined.

Most of our commercial buildings are more or less smart nowadays, and older buildings are being updated. Investing in making commercial buildings smarter is never a bad idea, but it can be executed in many ways. To better understand the possible pitfalls in such projects, and to understand what makes a building smart, we turned to James McHale, the CEO of Memoori Research, who is an expert in the field.

Can an old dog learn new tricks?

The construction process hasn’t changed much for decades, even though we expect more from our commercial buildings than 50 years ago. To better spot the main issue, let’s have a look at the seven stages of a building’s lifecycle that take place within the first five years:

  1. Preparation and brief
  2. Concept design
  3. Spatial coordination
  4. Technical design
  5. Manufacturing and construction
  6. Handover
  7. Use

A building is meant to be used for decades, much longer than what the lifecycle covers. Another issue is that even though the architects and engineers have put a lot of effort into designing all the technological features of a commercial building, those features and systems are not integrated from the beginning. Thus, smart building technology may sometimes have to be retrofitted during the “Use” phase, which brings more costs than if the technology were part of the construction process from day one.

What McHale advocates is having somebody responsible for the technology part of the project from the beginning, such as a Master System Integrator, who would streamline the construction process by ensuring the integrations are taken into account throughout the design and build phases. “Bringing ‘smart’ into the process at the end waters down the vision of constructing a smart building. Different systems must integrate, but the current operational model discourages that or at least makes it unnecessarily hard”, says McHale, who has been an industry analyst for over 15 years.

James McHale profile picture
James McHale, CEO of Memoori Research believes building projects should take smart solutions into account from the beginning

Service instead of projects

When you hear of a new building project, the term itself contains another problem closely related to the lifecycle issue: everything is a short-term project instead of a long-term service.

Let’s say your company wants to construct a new office building. You gather around an architect, a structural engineer, a mechanical engineer, and the main constructor responsible for practical construction. Each of them wants to make a contract with your company, becoming solely responsible for their part of the project. Then, when the construction work is already in full swing, you have numerous subcontractors, all working on their piece of the puzzle.

After a few years, the construction is complete, and the finished building is handed over. All the contractors and subcontractors have done their job and are leaving the maintenance for the property management company of your choice.

According to McHale, a different approach would be welcome and is starting to be implemented. “There are a few businesses who deliver buildings as a service, so to say. They map the needs of their client, gather the experts who can deliver such a complex entity, take care of the integrations but most importantly, take smart solutions into account from the beginning and offer full maintenance long after the construction is complete”. This is precisely how the aviation industry operates; they provide a full service, not just the aircraft. James McHale also points out this model is an excellent opportunity for such service providers to upsell their clients and make long-term contracts.

Of course, this is not always the case. Many old buildings are in good condition, but they need an update to cater to modern society’s needs. Those buildings benefit from IoT and smart technologies, and updating them is more efficient both economically and ecologically: “Currently we are making poor decisions. For example, knocking down relatively modern buildings to build a more sustainable one doesn’t make sense. It would be more reasonable and sustainable to bring them up-to-date with the technological innovations we already have”, McHale states.

“Currently we are making poor decisions. For example, knocking down relatively modern buildings to build a more sustainable one doesn’t make sense. It would be more reasonable and sustainable to bring them up-to-date with the technological innovations we already have”

James McHale, CEO of Memoori Research

User experience may speed up the development

We have talked a lot about smart buildings from the technological perspective, but we should not forget user experience in the equation – it is a fundamental part of the whole smart building concept!

A significant part of being a smart building is how people experience it – is it secure, is it the right temperature, or how does it make them feel? In modern society, the base level of commercial buildings’ requirements is easily met, while cheap or even free services bring more factors into the game and set the bar higher. People are also becoming more aware of their surroundings and how they may affect their health, and the offering must meet the ever-growing demand. As technology and gadgets are becoming cheaper and available to every man, we may soon witness significant progress in the smart building industry. James McHale sees this as a likely scenario, although he is careful with his predictions: “5 to 10 years is not a very long time, so there will probably be no revolution in the next five years, but some big impact for sure. People are already working more from home, which causes changes in commercial buildings, which affects city centers. Then again, climate change plays a role here, as we have seen from changes in legislation for building energy efficiency. There’s a lot more talk on this now than just a few years ago.” McHale enlightens. “For instance, if you look at the car industry and more specifically the rise of electric cars, it’s easy to see that they will be a big deal in the near future, eventually becoming our principal form of transport. That will create new demands on buildings too”, he continues.

Even though it is challenging to predict the future, it is safe to say smart buildings are the new standard, and smart solutions will become a regular part of the industry. We know the change will not happen on its own – it is up to us to make it happen.

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This article is a part of a series about starting with IoT solutions. Read the other articles here:

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