Smart Building Technology & Automation: An Introduction

August 21, 2019 Wojciech Szczepucha

These days, everything is smart. From mobile phones and televisions to driverless cars, the word ‘smart’ is being used to describe anything that’s adaptable and innovative. Here, I would like to focus on one such example: the smart building concept.

What Is A Smart Building?

We’ve previously spoken about smart cities in another post. Smart cities take the possibilities of the IoT and new technology, such as machine learning, to guide cities and ensure everything is as optimised as much as possible.

A singular building is no different – in essence, if cities are large scale communities, buildings represent the microcosmic equivalent. Replace cars and parking with people and meeting rooms, or the various machinery, processes and tasks that get carried out in a building every day. 

As these processes become more and more intertwined with digital technology, it’s only natural that they should start to be optimised and refined. Smart building solutions work on the same concept as their city counterparts – record data for various processes through IoT and other sensors, than use advanced computing capabilities to refine, learn and improve.

Smart Building Benefits & Use Cases

If you think about how much goes on in any large building – for now, let’s consider these as commercial, industrial or other business related properties, rather than residential – it’s clear that each process is not a separate silo. A delay in one area can cause disruptions to another. 

So, with this in mind, let’s explore some of the most common smart building use cases and the benefits they bring, whether it’s improved efficiency, cost savings or simply adding a personal touch to improve the daily life of each individual within the building.

Smart Buildings And The Internet Of Things

Sensors and devices are essential to any building automation framework. In terms of smart building sensors, these can be used to track anything from temperature and humidity to the amount of people in a given room. All of this collects data and, ideally, can be fed into a system that is able to build and utilise that data.

In terms of devices, since most people carry a mobile phone or smart device on them, this can be used to collect information at a personal level, such as where a given individual is within the building, guiding them to where they need to go or informing them of facilities that match their needs/requirements in the immediate area.

Connect the two (both in-house sensors and personal devices) and you have a comprehensive solution that utilises the IoT to its fullest extent. Of course, custom smart building apps are essential to providing an understandable and familiar experience for individual users.

Energy Saving

One of the easiest ways to optimise a building is cut down on wasted energy usage. Rooms that are unused but still use utilities, such as electricity, can easily be cut down with the right deployment of sensors and automated control. In larger structures, this can be extended to entire floors and sectors, ensuring entire buildings aren’t in use when capacity is not complete.

This is something that is already seeing real world benefits. Microsoft utilised such energy saving systems in its own smart building set-up. The result? One campus managed to save $240,000 in just 30 days. In other words, that’s potentially over $2.8 million in a year, at just one of the companies facilities. 

Navigation

Big buildings or facilities are not the easiest to navigate. There’s a reason large structures often have maps, idiolocators and other wayfinders – but these analogue means are no longer enough.

While this has been done in the past through GPS and other crude means, modern sensors can more accurately pinpoint where someone is in a building (including which floor) and guide them accordingly.

Similarly, smart systems can also take numerous other factors into account, such as ensuring guests or personnel only go through areas they have permission or access to enter. Furthermore, just like how smart cities can improve traffic flow, smart building systems can help avoid bottlenecks. This can be done through various means, from booking the largest meetings away from each other, guiding guests to less busy facilities or simply unrelated teams don’t work in crowded spaces when a more optimal solution is available.

Can Old Buildings Be “Smart”?

When talking about smart buildings, many assume that it only focuses on new constructions, built from the ground up with some form of smart building design architecture. While new builds can certainly take greater benefit – including smart power, energy or utilities into account from the start – that doesn’t mean existing buildings can’t benefit, too.

After all, the key ingredient here are smart building sensors and IoT devices, all of which can be added anywhere. 

What Kind Of Buildings Can Benefit?

From smart offices to building automation and control systems, smart building platforms can fulfill a wide variety of purposes. In turn, this means a great range of buildings – as well as the respective industries that use them – can also directly benefit.

Manufacturing & Industry

Smart Building Manufacturing PGS Software

Of course, smart building architecture and features can cover a variety of structures, including factories. As these technologies start to become digital, and data is collected on an advanced level, it makes sense for a number of ‘smart’ features will start to appear. However, this is an area that’s more closely related to Industry 4.0 and is another topic in itself.

However, it’s worth mentioning here, because we’re working on something that will help the manufacturing sector – as well as a multitude of industries – gain all of these smart building efficiencies across numerous plants, buildings and structures.

In fact, we’ll be at Rethink! Smart Manufacturing in Berlin on September 30th & October 1st to talk about it more! Until then, we’ll be sharing some more details here soon!

Offices

While it’s easy to talk about smart technology in manufacturing plants, factories and other large scale industrial operations, we should also remember that the newest smart office technology is bringing similar benefits to the workplace.

Many offices already use smart office technology for meeting rooms. Using a centralised booking system, staff can book meeting rooms for the time needed, which is then displayed on smart screens outside each respective space. Sure, it’s not exactly the office of the future, but it’s a start.

Don’t forget that this is all gathering data as well. Companies can see how often their meeting rooms are in use, filtered by specific meeting room or even time of day, which can then impact wider office management strategies. 

The smart office of the future will, of course, be even more integrated but it’s nonetheless worth noting that many of these innovations are available today, as both the use of – and dependency on – IoT devices for office operations become more important.

Retail

Smart Building Retail PGS Software

Retail buildings have two dual areas for smart infrastructure. For the first, such enterprises need smart ways to stock shelves, manage the store and deal with customers. With the right sensors, it’s very easy to track new produce and, combined with sales data, can indicate when stock is running low, informing the nearest staff member to restock that area or order new deliveries.

Furthermore, a smart layout can change based which items get the most attention and should be prominently displayed, while an exceptionally advanced system can remove the need for human interaction at all. Most people are now familiar with Amazon’s infamous Amazon Go supermarkets, which have no checkouts at all. Instead, users are tracked through cameras, sensors and their own phone. Items are scanned as users pick them up and, when they leave, the store has tracked everything in their basket (creating a ‘digital twin’ of sorts)

On the other hand, at a larger scale, retail industries also need to consider their users needs. Many larger chains are already utilising apps or smart solutions to indicate how much stock is left and where shoppers can go to find them. At a larger scale, such solutions can guide users to the exact location. 

In areas where numerous companies are based, such as a shopping centre, this becomes even more useful. A central app that has access to the information from various stores can help shoppers find exactly what they’re looking for, across a variety of businesses, as well as provide the most optimal way to do so.

Healthcare

Smart Building Healthcare PGS Software

The healthcare industry is a sector that relies heavily on information, from doctor and bed availability to patient information. Likewise, healthcare facilities, from GPs to hospitals, have near countless numbers of people coming in and out on a regular basis. A smart building can better manage all of this.

All of these could use guidance when it comes to when and where to go. Patients and visitors can go exactly where they need to and, likewise, patients that have a room or bed can keep their preferences or adjust things themselves – removing unnecessary strain from admin and support staff. 

Such solutions can also ensure patients are seen on a regular basis, in line with their requirements or, if sensors show any issues, they can bring this to a specialist’s attention straight away, enabling them to take more timely actions.

Furthermore, these facilities also often use advanced medical equipment that is becoming more and more digital. We’ve already mentioned how digital twin technology can be used here – both in replicating machinery for optimal maintenance and even creating digital replicas of patients – but linking machinery up to a combined system also allows for faster results. In turn, all of this technology helps close the loop between doctor and patient.

However, while the technology is certainly available, the healthcare industry is also one sector where privacy is paramount. Many countries have their own requirements, such as doctor and patient confidentiality or HIPAA in the US, and any solutions would need to consider how certain information is collected, stored and accessed.

Real World Smart Building Examples

While this might seem advanced, there are in fact a number of smart buildings gaining many of these benefits today. While the extent ranges widely – from older buildings that have been retrofitted to modern architecture built with smart technology in mind – it’s clear that this technology is available now. For the latter examples, where buildings have been designed with smart office technology at their core, here are 3 particularly advanced examples.

The Edge – Amsterdam

Undoubtedly one of the smartest buildings in the world, The Edge is based in Amsterdam and was purpose built for its main tenant: Deloitte.

So, what makes this building so cutting edge? Just about everything. Deloitte employs numerous smart office solutions through the building’s corresponding app. The app guides around 2,500 works to one of 1,000 desks, or any other space, each day. Rather than assigning spaces permanently, the system guides people to where they need to be for that day, whether its a meeting, a specific team or something else.

On top of this, the app communicates with devices within the entire building, from coffee machines and temperature controls to the onsite gym. 

Of course, all of this feeds data into a larger system that is able to act on it. For instance, entire sections of the office can be closed off when less staff are in the building, saving wasted energy. 

In short, The Edge’s 28,000 sensors ensure employees are always connected from the moment they arrive. Everything is optimised for the best results, while unnecessary costs and resource usage are removed entirely.

1 Albert Quay – Cork

The headquarters of Johnson Controls, 1 Albert Quay is often referred to as the “smartest building in Ireland”.

Staff are integrated very similarly to The Edge. Once they arrive, the building guides individuals to specific lifts cores for better optimisation and cost savings, while also informing other departments or facilities about the number of staff currently present. This helps in a multitude of ways, from improving the air conditioning to informing the on-site kitchen of how much food should be prepared for each service.

Furthermore, Johnson Controls are also expanding their services outwards, integrating with other connected services in the city. 

RBC WaterPark Place – Toronto

While this building is known for its smart and green efficiency, it’s actually the floors that are home to Cisco which have the most optimisation. With additional IoT sensors, this office operates very similarly to The Edge – workers are assigned specific desks based on their needs, giving way to more meeting rooms, while all their individual preferences are kept wherever they go.

However, one unique feature Cisco’s headquarters have is the ability combine meeting rooms. This requires some specific hardware – namely walls that can compact themselves and fold up into the walls, but it allows bigger spaces to always be flexible. This way, spaces are available for all important, larger meetings but, when this isn’t the case, they can be used as a series of much smaller rooms.

Summary

As smart technology becomes more commonplace, it’s only a matter of time before building automation systems increase. Right now, large scale corporations are taking advantage of better energy usage, personalisation and more – but it won’t be long until even the smallest business can utilise smart office solutions to the same effect.

Business Perspective

When it comes to smart building solutions, new emerging technology in the workplace never stays new forever. In many places, smart building systems are becoming a more common feature and may very well become the standard for organisations looking to stay competitive and as efficiently optimal as possible.

Sources

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