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What exactly is a smart building?

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Karl Walker, market development manager at Beckhoff, explains why the term “smart building” may greatly vary in meaning – depending on who you ask.

The proliferation of domestic Internet of Things (IoT) devices, such as smart meters, smart lighting and smart thermostats, has led to some misunderstanding of the phrase “smart building” in the truest sense of the word. 

Depending on who you ask, a smart building could be anything from a modern high-rise office building with multi-functional, interactive control panels to a professional footballer’s house boasting state-of-the-art audio-visual and security systems controlled from a smartphone app.

The Construction Innovation Hub’s ‘Smart Buildings Project’ (a consortium of the BRE (Building Research Establishment), the MTC (Manufacturing Technology Centre) and CDBB (Centre for Digital Built Britain), describes a smart building as follows:

“A smart building should be intelligent, sustainable, secure, adaptive and occupant-centred in its design, construction, operation and integration with other smart infrastructure within the built environment. It has a passive environmental design with digitally changeable characteristics that react, learn and predict any alterations within its internal and external environment.”

“Smart” devices

A smart meter in the home doesn’t actually save energy on its own – but it can provide the user with information that might allow them to adapt their way of living to use less energy. A smart lightbulb that you can control from your phone can still be left on all day, and there is no point in having a smart thermostat that controls the temperature throughout an entire house if, say, two of the four bedrooms are rarely used. A truly smart building can therefore only be achieved when it has a controlling infrastructure behind the devices and software to analyse all the data they produce.

In reality, a building should only really be considered smart if it is performing the functions the end user wants it to perform efficiently and with minimal input from the user – and the desired functions of a smart building will vary from user to user. Measurement and control to a highly granular level is always the best strategy. In a domestic environment, this might mean having independent control of temperature and ventilation in each room. 

For example, a lightbulb that can be controlled from a phone is not really going to appeal to a social housing tenant experiencing fuel poverty, where a convenient, comfortable service offering lower energy costs will be of utmost importance. A tenant of a private rented sector (PRS) development in the city, on the other hand, is more likely to enjoy the full interactive experience with less concern about energy costs.

Smart technology can be used by housing authorities to ensure that their property isn’t being abused by the tenant (e.g. damage from condensation where an extractor fan isn’t being switched on in areas of high humidity such as kitchens and bathrooms) and also to ensure that assets are working correctly and have been correctly maintained (e.g. boilers or emergency lighting systems). This has taken on greater importance since the publication of the Hackett Report in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster.

In the commercial sector, energy efficient smart working environments are viewed as a way to attract and retain the best workforce, and indoor air quality (IAQ) has become a major factor for healthy workplaces. This means commercial landlords are able to set premium rental rates for tenants looking for a healthier, more comfortable working environment.

Building performance

Designers, consultants and construction companies need to be able to monitor and understand the performance of buildings (e.g. the thermal performance of the building’s envelope), the factors affecting actual energy performance vs. modelled, and the effects of changing the layout of buildings to adapt to the ever-evolving patterns of working life (e.g., through the monitoring of people’s movements through the building, which record occupancy patterns that reveal how spaces are used). 

The requirements of the users of buildings are unlikely to be considered by the main contractor during the construction phase and there is no way of knowing how that building will be eventually used. Most smart control is implemented retrospectively, attempting to use existing disparate control hardware. The installation of additional sensors and convergence of systems into one centralised system or cloud-based platform has been made easier by wireless technologies and IoT devices.

Sensors make sense

The key to ensuring your smart building achieves what you want is to use data – lots of it! Through the combination of data within existing building control systems and that of additional sensors, knowledge can be generated by software systems, which could include analysis of historic data using machine learning and other artificial intelligence algorithms. 

Therefore, the more sensors you have in the building, the better. For effective predictive maintenance, most likely required by the likes of building/facilities managers, data needs to be captured from all sensors and controllers throughout the building or estate and consolidated onto a single platform. The environment can then be accurately controlled according to the needs of the occupiers, and recommendations can be generated that can be operationalised and turned into work orders for facilities managers.

As evidenced above, a smart building can now relate to much more than just a building’s energy efficiency. A modern smart building will be easy to manage, it will run efficiently, be adaptable to future changes and ensure a comfortable environment for its occupants.


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