“If you’re going to do a floor panel off an assembly line… let’s see what else we can put in the floor panel,” says Zenon Radewych, partner and principal at Toronto-based WZMH Architects. This month the firm won the Award of Excellence the Canadian Consulting Engineering Awards for a prefabricated smart building component that is installed on-site with minimal labor. The Intelligent Structural Panel (ISP) is modular, energy-efficient, reduces construction waste, it has significant implications for the retrofit market and promises to increase our capacity to future-proof smart buildings.
“The ISP technology reimagines the traditional approach to the design and build process, taking a critical look at how buildings are built from the inside out. Bringing smart technology directly into the fabric of the structure instead of applying it as an afterthought will improve the quality of the building’s performance,” Radewych said.
WZMH’s vision for the ISP was simple “take all the components and processes that go into constructing a floor and shear wall and combine them into one intelligent product.” From that vision, the ISP was then developed with a team of engineers and specialist consultants from Stephenson Engineering, Quasar Consulting Group, and C3PoE.
The ISP system is made up of two-inch-thick panels at 10-by-30 feet or 10-by-45 feet as standard. Each panel is made of two steel plates and a perimeter wall surrounding what the team calls “an intelligent highway,” which houses technical components — namely low-voltage Direct Current (DC) and Power over Ethernet (PoE) connections. The ISP replaces traditional structural elements, such as concrete or steel decking, but with the added benefit of containing the infrastructure to operate the building.
A wide variety of sensors and devices can be plugged into the panels for a power supply but those individual elements will also become part of the unified network through the intelligent highway.” “That’s where you can create a true intelligent building: by having the different connected devices talk to each other because they’re going through this common intelligent highway,” Radewych says.
As a form of modular construction, the ISP promises higher material efficiency. Early studies indicate that broad use of the panels could reduce total building materials by 10%. “This started with technology and prefab, but we’re seeing lots of benefits on the sustainability side,” Radewych says. “When you build a prefab component and include other materials and systems inside of it, you actually reduce the amount of materials you need compared to conventional work. So, not only do you get the benefits of the smarts, you get the benefits of less material used.”
Furthermore, by relying on POE, ISPs can eliminate standard junction boxes and electrical conduits. The ISP will also be able to harness waste energy generated by its smart components and dissipate it gradually as part of HVAC heating systems. This system has been designed for new builds but the group is now working with Toronto-based Argentum Electronics to create “black boxes” that allow connection to dumb devices, such as standard lighting systems. Not only do the boxes provide power, but they can also measure the amount of energy being used by those dumb devices, thereby bringing them into the smart ecosystem.
“Whatever you can pull from a device, the ISP will pull. The really wonderful thing about this is that if you retrofit an older building, you suddenly have data on your day-to-day operations,” says Radewych. “Overnight, you basically have a smart building. Yes, we are building a lot of brand-new buildings every single day, but it doesn’t mean we’re tearing down the old buildings. They’re still going to be around for 50, 60, 70 years or longer. The market potential is to convert existing buildings to make them smart. The black box is totally aligned with that idea.”
Retrofitting is critical to the smart buildings industry. As Radewych says, buildings live a long time and technology often doesn’t, so if we are to convert or smarten our building stock then it must come through retrofitting.
The ability to replace technology easily and with minimal disruption also supports a smart building’s ability to future-proof against technological and other developments that may occur. Designing in this way can facilitate easier reconfiguration and retrofitting of new technologies, as well as modification of internal spaces to better adapt to changing tenant requirements.
“A key consideration in the effective future-proofing of the buildings we design and build today is a flexible and adaptive physical structure. By designing in flexibility and adaptability of these structures, the design team can help to defer overall building obsolescence or the future need to perform costly structural works, reducing overall demand for building materials and energy, as well as life-time costs for the building,” explains our recent report: Future Proofing Smart Commercial Buildings — Adding Value And Avoiding Obsolescence.
While the 2018 Study of the State of the Smart Buildings Market by venture capital firm Navitas Capital concludes that: “One of the largest enablers in allowing applied technology to be integrated into the physical hard asset is the rise of pre-fab construction players, who, by their tech-enabled mindset, serve as more progressive adopters of smart building technologies, provide modular, dynamic, and tagged materials in the design, and significantly de-risk smart buildings technologies by significantly shortening the construction time and processes.”
Modular construction is not new and offers many advantages for the smart building, not least addressing major challenges such as retrofitting and future-proofing. For one reason or another, however, modular construction has been limited to niche property developments, such as quick build, shipping-container style, temporary structures.
The ISP and similar systems promise to bring smart connectivity to modular building components, taking us one step closer to making our buildings (new and old) smarter, more flexible, and better future-proofed. The ISP is still in the prototype phase but the industry should keep a close eye on its development and the implications it may have on the evolution and greater adoption of smart buildings.