You can’t truly develop an industry without being able to define it. That has been the struggle of the smart buildings industry over the last decade or more, which is still unable to offer a truly standardised definition of what “smart” is. Without a proper definition, almost any building upgrade can be called smart for sales and marketing purposes. And, when those upgrades fail to deliver the expansive and futuristic benefits that the wider smart buildings industry promises, the customers lose faith in the technology, which undermines the entire industry.
“The debate has raged on as to what constitutes a smart building and it will show no sign of stopping if we continue down the path we’re currently on,” says Karl Walker market development manager at Beckhoff Automation. “Various clients will have an idea of what smart means to them, but will not be sure, others will say their building is smart as long as it does what they want it to and, perhaps most worryingly, there will be clients that will faithfully believe their building is smart because they have been told it is by whoever installed the so-called ‘smart’ technology.”
The fundamental truth causing the greatest issue in this debate is that one smart system does not create a smart building. A building is a sum of its parts and from a smart perspective, a building should be a collection of smart systems working together rather than a single smart system offering limited improvements.
The true, bold, futuristic benefits that smart buildings promise only comes with interconnected systems sharing data to benefit the functionality of each individual system in a holistic fashion. Smart access control, for example, does not make a smart building, but when it starts working with smart occupancy analytics, HVAC control, and meeting room booking, we begin to see those exponential benefits emerging.
“Sometimes, end users are ‘wowed’ by a fancy new innovation claiming to be smart. Buy lots of different smart objects and you might think to yourself that because your building is kitted out in smart technology it means your building is smart, but that is not necessarily the case – unless of course, all those expensive gadgets are working together for the benefit of the building as a whole,” Mike Brooman is CEO of Vanti. “We buy technology going into our buildings like we would buy a toaster for our kitchen; we buy the toaster, it sits in our kitchen, toasts our bread, it breaks and we buy a new one.”
The toaster can be smart but only when it is linked to smart entry systems can it provide the benefit of pre-emptively toasting the bread before someone enters the room to eat. Then only when the system is linked to a smart refrigerator that can auto-reorder butter, or lighting and environmental controls that can efficiently prepare the room for occupant comfort can we start talking about a smart kitchen. While the toaster/kitchen example may be limited, it can help us begin to imagine the interconnectivity needed on a whole building scale. However, for this kind of smart interconnectedness, we cannot simply bolt-on smart devices, we must approach long-term smart development from the early planning phases of a building.
“A smart building should be designed around its occupants. It uses technology to deliver useful and consistent experiences as well as space and energy efficiencies,” said Mike Brooman, CEO at Vanti, during a Memoori webinar in July 2020. Brooman describes the common procurement process as a series of silos with little involvement from the people who will actually use and operate the building. To solve that issue, he states, ”we must begin smart building development with the end in mind.”
Almost all building systems now utilize digital components, which means they all have the potential to be connected through standardized protocols. Such interconnectedness unlocks the building’s capacity to create those smart user experiences that the industry promises. The vast cost- and energy-saving benefits that the industry presents can only be realized by re-thinking how technology is installed and commissioned from the early planning and design phases. We must collectively appreciate that while our buildings could live for 60+ years, our smart technology upgrades on a 10-year cycle or even quicker. By beginning with the end in mind, we can future-proof our buildings to stay smart for their entire lifecycle.
“Future-Proofing is the process of anticipating developing and future trends to mitigate potential risks to a commercial building,” states our report: Future Proofing Smart Commercial Buildings: Adding Value And Avoiding Obsolescence. “In a smart building context, future-proofing will involve the delivery of technical solutions that are flexible and adaptable to accommodate changing tenant demands over time; meeting the future needs and expectations of clients, end-users, and/or occupants in terms of health, safety, and comfort. As well as durability and sustainability, performance characteristics, maintainability, and serviceability.”
By using this whole building lifecycle view, we not only prepare our buildings for the next generation of smart technology, to keep them smart for decades, we also allow for the interconnectedness of building systems on day one. By making the futureproofing part of the definition of smart buildings, we can get out of the dumb hole of technology silos and begin to deliver on the bold promises that the smart building industry presents. Only then can we avoid the disappointment that some building owners and managers face when assessing the technology they have purchased, and fundamentally realign the course of the smart buildings industry to what it was always supposed to be.
“The past decade has seen technology in buildings take huge leaps forward, resulting in more efficient spaces through connected systems. However, these connections are typically made in a point-to-point fashion, making changing or upgrading systems difficult and expensive. These deployments can’t easily facilitate data extraction or analysis either and certainly don’t support industry demands for self-optimizing buildings enabled by machine learning,” says Walker. “If more thought is given to how people use a building, and the potential improvements to technology and working style are taken into consideration, then time and money can be saved on adapting the building in the future.”