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Smart Buildings

 - The View from Helsinki
Henry Lawson
Henry Lawson
Senior Market Research Consultant
Worldwide Market Intellience
BSRIA Limited

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It was a pleasure and a privilege to be able to talk at the Nordic Smart Buildings Conference in Helsinki on 6th – 7th June.

We heard from a wide variety of fellow speakers representing suppliers, architects, facility managers, analysts and industry savants. This variety reflects and reinforces what, for me, is one of the key aspects of the vision of the smart building that is emerging.

Architects, developers, contractors, owners, and users all come with a different world view and different priorities. Over the past century or so, technology has been grafted onto all of this in a patchy and inconsistent way. While the process and services inside a building have become increasingly “intelligent,” construction processes have often barely evolved. As one speaker pointed out, if you look at a picture of a building site in Helsinki from the 1920s, the only major feature that is obviously missing is the high-rise crane.

However, automation and smart technology have the potential to become much more than just ad hoc aids to be “bolted on” to the various phases and processes in the life of a building. A combination of the Internet of Things (IoT) and increasing advanced analytics has the potential to unite the building not just with the rest of the experienced world but also with the lives and the aspirations of the people who use it.

As one speaker observed, buildings are not just artefacts, they each have a purpose. And they ‘work’ to the extent that the building’s design and other features serve to fulfil that purpose. And this is more than just pious pie in the sky. A new mixed-use development in Helsinki, REDI, is due to open later this year. The whole complex is designed around a philosophical principle: that buildings should promote happiness.

The trick is applying this in practice. The key point here is that once you reach a certain level of income, time rather than money becomes a bigger factor in enhancing your wellbeing. Where a well-designed, smart building comes in is in minimising time spent on less fulfilling tasks while making it easier to do enjoyable things.

For example, smart technology can minimise time spent waiting for lifts, or collecting your bike from the store, while providing well designed common spaces and facilities such as gyms. Mobile apps can be used for tracking and to perform various functions. To validate this, users and residents are regularly consulted, and their input fed into future phases of the development.

There are of course other ways of getting more immediate feedback on people’s reactions. I have written about the potential for the use of smart wearables. Alternatives include the use of basic facial analysis, via CCTV to assess people’s emotional states.

Ambitious projects can take longer to provide a return on investment, and in the case of REDI, one of the technology partners is helping to provide this.

Good architectural design is also vital and can provide positive incentives. One speaker bemoaned the fact that “sustainability” is often seen in terms of “giving things up.” To counter this rather joyless prospect they have promoted the concept of “hedonistic sustainability,” creating buildings that are not just green and efficient, but fun to live in and work in.

Of course, truly ambitious projects are still stand out as being unusual. It speaks volumes that the famous Edge building in Amsterdam tends to crop up in almost every conversation about smart buildings in Europe. You only have to remember that there are somewhere around 16 million non-residential buildings in the European Union to realise that the fact that the conversation so reliably drifts towards just one of these suggests that it is still very much the exception rather than the rule.

Generally, the smartest buildings tend to be associated with high profile, high technology corporations who are specifying buildings for their own use. For example, Google, Apple, and Microsoft all have the ambition, backed up by the finances, to create buildings that actively underpin their vision of how their employees work best.

Of course, the prospect of smarter buildings being championed initially by a technological and financial elite is nothing new. That is what happened initially with smart homes after all, and with many other building services that were once seen luxuries that are now assumed to be essential, including central heating, double glazing, air conditioning and electronic security systems and Wi-Fi.

The conference also spent some time looking at some of the basic links that will make this emerging smart world possible.

While it is becoming a truism to say that data is key, the pitfalls and barriers are being recognised and steps taken to overcome them. We still face a Tower of Babel of different data protocols and standards, and common taxonomies (Haystack being one example, HyperCat another) can help ensure data exchange. Combining data from different sources inside and outside the building, sometimes picturesquely described as “mash-ups,” is also increasingly a feature of the smart building. With some data more reliable than other, data "passporting" can confirm the credentials of a data item or data source.

Data privacy is becoming a steadily increasing concern, fuelled both by public concern and, in Europe at least, by the implementation of GDPR raising questions about what types of data building systems can be permitted to hold. If people can “opt out” then it is important to realise that those who “opt in” are not necessarily representative. For example, if you are collecting information on the health or fitness of people in the building, then those who opt in could well be biased towards the healthier cohort.

And of course, cybersecurity is an ever-present ghost at the data banquet. While this ghost is never going to be exorcised, processes for containing it are gradually becoming more comprehensive and more coordinated.

contemporary Getting the interface right between the building and its user is also essential. This means not just minimising the number and complexity of apps that a user has to access (some buildings can require several) to the development of ever more sophisticated voice control.

There was a general recognition that cloud computing and edge computing complement each other when it comes to managing the flow of information in and about a building. Edge computing may create more points of exposure, given that each processing point is potentially vulnerable, but also means that data can be processed locally and immediately, without being shared or stored unless this is absolutely necessary. It also reduces the potentially insatiable demands for network bandwidth otherwise raised by the IoT.

Thought was also given to how we keep up to date with the state of a building at the various stages of its life. It was agreed that Building Information Management (BIM) is crucial, but it was pointed out that BIM is all too often not updated to reflect changes to the building’s use and configuration.

To ensure that building managers keep up to date with the building’s configuration it is important that a BIM system is properly updated. Increasingly, players are moving beyond this to embrace the concept of a “digital twin”, where all the key features of the building are modelled, and which can be used to test and evaluate any new changes.

I came away from Helsinki feeling that we are still at the very early stages of a revolution, but that it is a revolution that is really happening. Leading architects, designers, and clients are already applying key elements of smart building technology to new building projects, and this is most effective where the building can be integrated into the wider urban environment. The challenges for retrofit may be greater, but many of the same principles can be applied here.

The basic elements for the smart building revolution are already present, as is the concept of how they can all fit together into an almost seamless link between buildings, the people within them and the wider society outside. It is interesting that the sense of a complete, holistic, integrated world, something that philosophers and visionaries have dreamt of for centuries, could now come closer to reality thanks to the IoT and bits and bytes.

About the Author

Henry Lawson, Senior Market Research Consultant, Worldwide Market Intelligence at BSRIA

Henry Lawson (MA, Oxon) is Senior Market Research Analyst in BSRIA’s World Market Intelligence division specialising in smart building technology. His main areas of focus include the international markets for building automation and controls (BACS), building energy management solutions (BEMS), smart homes,  hydronic controls, and smart HVAC.

Having spent more than 30 years working with the application of data to a variety of different industries, Henry  is particularly interested in the ways in which data and analytics are impacting on building services and technology.
He is also a regular contributor to publications by BSRIA and other organisations on smart technologies and related matters, and is a regular speaker at industry events in the UK and in other countries.


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