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Redefining Smart Buildings

If you ask ten people for a definition of a “smart building,” you will likely get ten different answers. It all began back in the early 90s, when BACnet ushered in an era of open protocol building automation that made building systems more intelligent and set the stage for future integrations. In the mid-90s, a smart building was known as one that had high speed broadband – and in the early 2000s, the introduction of in-building wireless gave way to the idea of a fully “connected” building. These technologies provided the foundation for data collection, aggregation, integration, automation, and intelligence – but a small percentage of buildings have really taken advantage of the operational and financial benefits of truly “smart” buildings. Why is that – and what can we do to change it?

As we look back at 30 years of innovation in real estate technology, it is fair to say that the industry is not evolving as quickly as it should. And when I say the “industry,” I mean not only the real estate industry, but the solution and service providers that are serving it. Perhaps that’s because there is still a vast amount of uncertainty in the market as to what a smart building really is. In fact, a recent Continental Automation Buildings Association (CABA) research paper stated that, “The lack of a clear definition for ‘Smart Buildings’ causes difficulty not only in the development of a common international framework to develop research in this field, but it also causes insecurity in the potential user of these buildings.” Further, “It has been documented that the ambiguity in the meaning of these terms and services offered by smart buildings creates confusion between what the user expects from these buildings and what the user finally obtains (Flórez 2004), so that the consequence is often the rejection of the society to these new automated services.”

Despite the fact that the components and applications of smart buildings have evolved greatly – not to mention the many enterprise technologies being installed throughout the workplace itself – the term “smart building” has not. Most engineering companies still limit their smart building focus to building automation and energy management, because that’s what they know. This is what I would consider an old school view that hasn’t evolved with the times — and nowhere near encompasses the vast amount of technologies and applications that comprise today’s smart building.

Infrastructure and telecom companies reference a smart building as one that is fully “connected” from a telecommunications standpoint. They may provide backbone and data transmission capabilities (which are critical infrastructure components), but few offer integrated digital workplace applications or smart building solutions to ride on that infrastructure. Further, most of the new technologies and solutions that are installed in buildings are deployed as stand-alone point solutions without any consideration for integration with building systems or connecting into the central building infrastructure, resulting in redundancy in both equipment and software — not to mention reduced functionality and benefits.

Many of the cloud-based software solutions think a smart building is all about the data. Data, data, data. Collect and report data in order to make better informed decisions. Nope… that’s not really smart. It’s about the use of that data in ways that automate processes and operations in order to drive a desired outcome. Many building operators don’t know what to do with all that data in the first place – or how to tell what data is important and what isn’t. By automating the process, you allow the technology to evaluate the data and determine whether it’s actionable or not – and then you program the building to act on it without the need for human interaction. That’s smart!

“The lack of a clear definition for ‘Smart Buildings’ causes difficulty not only in the development of a common international framework to develop research in this field, but it also causes insecurity in the potential user of these buildings.”

So, in order to move the industry forward, we need to change the dialogue and stop limiting the definition of smart buildings to just HVAC, lighting, and energy management. If you consider JLL’s 3-30-300 Principle (representing the average amount of money paid per square foot per year for energy, space, people), you will realize that there is more value in space optimization and employee productivity than in merely reducing energy costs. As building technologies and solutions continue to evolve and advance, they all need to be considered as part of an interconnected ecosystem that makes up a truly smart building. In the same way that our smart phones are capable of adding and integrating many different solutions and applications (it’s ironic that the feature I use least on my smart phone is actually the telephone function), smart buildings should have the ability to incorporate everything into one operating platform.

I look at the landscape of smart buildings as a large, interconnected puzzle. Each of the different components is just a piece of a much bigger picture – with each piece being unique and important in itself, but much more valuable as a component of the whole. In the same way that green buildings are comprised of many different “green” components, smart buildings include a multitude of technologies, to include such areas as digital workplace solutions, occupancy detection, IoT, data and analytics, employee experience, indoor positioning and location-based services, mobile apps, DAS, renewable energy, digital twins, and much, much more. And as new solutions and are developed to continue to enhance and optimize buildings (think energy, space, people), the definition of smart needs to continue to expand as well. If consider all the possible smart building solutions and applications, the options are endless.

It’s hard to put a finite definition on a constantly evolving term. Over the years, there have been several attempts at developing a “smart building” standard and rating system, similar to what the USGBC did for green buildings. But again, given that there are so many different definitions and components that make up a smart building, it has been hard to pin down into one rating system exactly what qualifies as smart and what doesn’t. Each of the rating systems I’ve seen lean toward a specific discipline – i.e. telecommunications or energy management – versus really representing the broad spectrum of technologies that make a building smart. They end up being a check list of stand-alone “smart” solutions – versus focusing on the critical components of integration and automation.

I would describe a smart building as a building that is made up of integrated systems and solutions that enable it to function as a single, intelligent asset. This would include data aggregation and reporting – but more importantly, data sharing among multiple systems in order to respond to real-time needs and conditions. For example, a car pulls into the parking garage and the building automatically dispatches an elevator to that level. with the doors open and ready to transport that person to their floor. Or the lights in the conference room automatically dim to notify you that your meeting time is ending. Or the HVAC system runs based on actual location of people within the space.

Think of all the applications of smart buildings in getting people back to work safely and securely post-COVID. What a mess we are in trying to quickly deploy back to work strategies without the technology to support them. How do you manage de-densification if you can’t measure real-time occupancy? How can you ensure a clean workstation if you don’t know when or if someone has been sitting there? How can you ensure a healthy building if you can’t monitor and report indoor air quality? Just imagine if our buildings had been smart before COVID hit how easy it would be to deploy these applications now.

“I would describe a smart building as a building that is made up of integrated systems and solutions that enable it to function as a single, intelligent asset.”

I understand that it is very hard to deliver a comprehensive smart building unless you start from the ground up. But it is fairly easy to develop a plan and a roadmap to transform your building into a smart building over time. Start with the foundational elements of a building network and put together a strategy and timeline to transition your base building systems. Build an intelligence layer on top of that for data sharing and reporting, and then add other applications that meet your most pressing business drivers first. Begin with what you have, know where you want to go, and put a plan in place to get there.

And so, as building technology is evolving at an exponential pace, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to a single definition of a smart building. I’m sure I’ve missed a lot of elements within this topic that someone is going to want included as well – which just proves my point. My answer? D) All of the above.

Darlene Pope is a smart building industry veteran with more than 25 years of experience in commercial real estate, technology, and smart building consulting. Her most recent roles include Global Lead for Smart Buildings and Digital Workplace at WeWork and EVP/ Managing Director and Smart Building Practice Lead at JLL. Prior to JLL, Ms. Pope was the founder and CEO of CoR Advisors®, a woman-owned small business specializing in smart buildings and technology consulting for commercial real estate.

Ms. Pope is a globally recognized visionary, subject matter expert, author, and speaker on smart buildings, digital workplace, IoT, energy management, mobile applications, wireless solutions, and other real estate technologies. Based on her accomplishments and work in the industry, she was named “Visionary of the Year” in DC in 2016, was a DaVinci Gold Award Winner and received the President’s Award For Excellence at JLL in 2017, is one of Bisnow’s Power Women in Commercial Real Estate, and was recently named one of the Top 10 Women in Technology by Connected Real Estate Magazine.

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