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Karl Walker, market development manager at Beckhoff, discusses what the term “smart building” might mean from various viewpoints and explains why data is the key to a truly effective intelligent building. 

What is a smart building? There isn’t one discernible answer as it really depends on who you ask. A “smart” feature could be as simple as ensuring heating and cooling are never delivered into the same space at the same time. However, this is rarely guaranteed as the two systems have likely been installed by two different contractors with no one taking responsibility for the interaction between them.

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.”

Misused, misunderstood

The word “smart” has become somewhat misused and misunderstood due to the proliferation of domestic Internet of Things (IoT) devices, e.g., smart meters, smart lighting and smart thermostats. Very few of these devices will ever form part of a truly smart solution. 

As an example, a smart meter in the home does nothing to save energy itself – it merely presents the user with information that ‘might’ allow them to make some informed choices as to how they ‘might’ use less energy. A smart lightbulb that you can control from your phone can still be left on all day. Without a controlling infrastructure behind these devices and software to analyse all the data, a smart building cannot be achieved.

To the casual observer, however, a smart building could be anything from a modern high-rise office building with multifunctional, interactive control panels to a professional footballer’s house boasting state-of-the-art audio-visual and security systems controlled from a smartphone app. 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 required from the user.

Let’s break this down and consider what a smart building might mean for different people:

Housing tenants

A social housing tenant experiencing fuel poverty is not going to be interested in a lightbulb that can be controlled from a phone, but a service that is convenient, comfortable and offers lower energy costs will be of utmost importance. In contrast, a tenant of a private rented sector (PRS) development in the city is likely to be far less concerned about energy bills but will be keen to enjoy the full interactive experience.

Domestic landlords

A domestic landlord, such as a housing authority, will most likely use smart technology 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.

Commercial landlords

Energy efficient smart working environments are now seen as a way to attract and retain the best workforce, and this presents a great opportunity to landlords of commercial premises. Commercial buildings that attract such tenants are able to set premium rental rates and for this reason commercial landlords will want their smart buildings to create a better, more comfortable and healthy working environments. 

Creating “exciting” workplaces is a big consideration for potential employees. Indoor air quality (IAQ) has become the major factor for healthy workplaces, and high levels of VOCs and CO2 have been proven to seriously reduce worker efficiency and performance levels and highly impact on absence through sickness.

Facilities managers

Facilities managers and building owner/operators require proactive/predictive maintenance through the continuous monitoring of assets, energy performance monitoring (e.g., by the comparison of similar buildings), utilisation and optimisation of space. 

For effective predictive maintenance, data needs to be captured from all sensors and controllers throughout the building or estate. This can then be consolidated onto a single platform, where the environment can 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. 

Cloud-based platforms allow comparisons to be drawn from data from similar buildings so that performance can be benchmarked. This could lead to ‘exemplar’ control methodologies and strategies being rolled-out to other buildings or be used to pinpoint hot-spots or pinch-points in control processes.

Main contractors

Main contractor/construction companies need to be able to monitor and understand the performance of buildings e.g. thermal performance of the building’s envelope, actual energy performance vs modelled (which, as we know is always wildly different – see the BRE’s excellent Bridging the performance gap: Understanding predicted and actual energy use of buildings report), and changing the layout of buildings to adapt to the ever-evolving patterns of working life, for example 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, of course, there is no way of knowing how that building will be eventually used. Problems are almost always uncovered in the post-occupancy phase and most smart control is implemented retrospectively, attempting to use existing disparate control hardware. Wireless technologies and the Internet of Things have made it easier to install additional sensors and converge systems into one centralised system or cloud-based platform.

The power of data

Whatever your idea of a smart building is, the key to ensuring it achieves what you want it to is 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. 

The more sensors you have in the building, the better. Measurement and control to a highly granular level is always the best strategy. In a domestic environment, this might mean having temperature and ventilation control in each room. 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 good control strategy or systems should be able to deliver the required data to all interested parties. There is no point in implementing a system that delivers the ultimate user interaction experience if the data cannot also be used by, say, an FM company to ensure the smooth operation of the building and ensure that potential problems are highlighted before they occur. It is also very important that this communication works both ways so that external software has the ability to calculate optimised parameters and adjust the operation of the systems accordingly.

Whatever its size, type or purpose, if a building is smart it 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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