If all buildings were the same we would be able to create a wide range of off-the-shelf devices that would work reliably via plug-and-play in any building, and most buildings would probably be smart by now.
The fact that every building is unique is not the only problem holding back the adoption of smart building technologies but if all buildings were identical the market could be far more open, consumer-friendly, and accessible. There is no way we can make every building the same, and nor would we want to, but there is also no way we can continue reinventing the wheel with every smart building development. The buildings industry needs a new technical solution for the complexity it has created, both for the market and for the planet.
Perhaps the most obvious issue with the unique nature of every building project is scalability. While lessons are learned with each project, the building designers, facility managers, and system integrators essentially start again with a blank canvas for each new project. What worked for the last building won’t necessarily work for the next even if the physical shape is identical, the way the building is used has a much larger impact on its technology needs, while local weather, pollution, and other factors also play their part in differentiating every facility. All this means that projects take a long time, reducing profit for those involved, which then limits spend on R&D inhibiting growth in the market for technology.
“The problem is that most smart buildings are actually bespoke. They are custom built for that one instance, that one physical building that exists somewhere in the world,” Mapped CEO Shaun Cooley said in a recent episode of the TechFirst podcast. “Companies would build an amazing prototype and amazing proof of concept in a single factory, or a single building, or mine, or refinery… then they would go to move it to the next one and they would start from scratch again. So, what was originally a 12-month project turns into another nine months. And then somebody does the math... we’ve got 95 refineries, or we have 4,000 buildings multiplied by another nine months, and these projects would just get canceled.”
Another part of the problem is the sheer number of components that make up a smart building, and then the dozens or even hundreds of vendors offering slightly different versions of each. Knowing what components, devices, and systems suit the unique needs of your building within this sea of options is challenging enough but the complex interoperability landscape makes each decision harder and critical to overall building strategies. Seemingly low-impact purchases and installations made early in the development process may lead a building into a technological silo that does not serve their needs as well as another would have. Every decision becomes an effort, and in a building with many big decisions to be made, and in a portfolio of hundreds of buildings, the challenges and risks become enormous.
“Buildings are systems of systems, each with its own ecosystem of humans and processes. Unfortunately, buildings are designed in individual silos (HVAC, lighting, etc) that weren’t intended to be integrated with. This creates a big mess and often results in a huge bottleneck for smart building technology projects,” writes Rajavel Subramanian, co-founder of Facilio, and James Dice, founder of Nexus Labs, in a recent article. “More often than not, these projects are like walking through a minefield. Like a minefield, you just don’t know what integration surprises await you. And it’s more than just a fear of explosions. The implications of the integration bottleneck are an enormous drag on projects”.
Take on one vendor with a limited range of products and services for your whole portfolio of unique buildings and you may get the interoperability and portfolio-level control you were promised, but you are then "locked-in". Limiting consumers to one vendor is not the answer, nor are accepting the long setup times that come with our unique building stock, we must find a technological solution that enables our fragmented mess of Proptech to work with each other, quickly and seamlessly, across large portfolios.
“The folks who own portfolios of buildings — whether it’s a large company that owns and occupies them on their own, or a company like a CBRE, or Boston Properties that owns and operates a bunch of buildings for others to occupy — none of them look the same, and so the definition of what is a smart building is really, really hard to answer,” Cooley says. “All of those unique snowflake systems are very hard to orchestrate at a portfolio-wide level.”
We need to establish open and universal standards for connectivity between all devices, or some kind of data translation layer between all systems and devices. We need a system that would allow anyone to buy almost any product and have it work with their building system —a building could then embrace its uniqueness by creating a collection of smart tech to suit its individual needs. Only then can we begin to reach for the potential of smart buildings; when each building is free to use whatever combination of tech they see fit, when costs reduce to a rate that suits most buildings, and when design and setup time is vastly reduced.