26.02.2020 : Steve Perkins

Smart Buildings: It's not (just) about the tech

Smart Buildings: a buzzword past its use-by date? From smartwatches to smart fridges and smartboards, ‘smart’ can be cringeworthy or confusing. But like smart cities and smart manufacturing, smart buildings are emerging from the "trough of disillusionment" and projects are being scoped and delivered sensibly and practically.

One of the reasons we believe the froth has settled is this: clients’ attitudes have become more measured as their understanding grows more sophisticated. While the IOT (Internet of Things), data analytics, cloud and machine-learning are powering today’s smart buildings, clients don’t want digital technology for technology’s sake. Rather, we’re helping them to see it as a means to deliver benefits for tenants, visitors and building owners alike.

The benefits of smart buildings range from increasing operational efficiency, site security and service quality, to providing building users with direct control of their personal environment in a reliable, secure, vendor-neutral and cost-efficient way.

Significant reduction in ICT (Information and communications technology) costs are enabling powerful networking and data analytics to be used on most projects. Our ICT specialists in network design, data analytics and software development work hand in hand with our mechanical and electrical engineers to integrate physical and virtual worlds seamlessly. Data security, privacy and redundancy are carefully considered, and networks designed to be flexible and scalable to accommodate the inevitable changes imposed on them over their lifetime.

 

Is it a problem worth solving?

Features and benefits aside, critical questions to ask are, “is it a problem worth solving”, and “is it worth your while to deploy a digital or technological solution?”

There’s an ever-growing list of solutions that can add “smarts” to a space – no matter the scale - from small tenancy fit-outs, to high-rise commercial towers to sprawling campuses. But do you really need them and will they truly benefit your business or organisation? Decades of experience delivering innovative building projects gives us a deep appreciation of stakeholder needs, with the ability to make sense of the complexity and sheer number of technological options available.

The secret lies in our ability to uncover the pain-points of building owners and tenants, tapping into our institutional knowledge while conducting project-specific consultation workshops. This enables us to tease out these needs and craft a rich customer journey map. We then apply a range of technologies that could potentially meet the defined needs, centered around business priorities, budgets and schedules.

 

What do we mean by "real value"?

There are many ways to define the value one can derive from technology. Often the most suitable solutions will meet multiple needs, sitting at the centre of overlapping economic, social and environmental perspectives, and some of these examples are highlighted below.

Economic Solutions provide additional revenue, raise productivity and deliver both operational and capital cost savings. Return-on-Investment is a critical litmus test to determine whether the solution provides real value. More progressive clients investing in innovative solutions go by our rule-of-thumb of 1-2% of total construction cost, and the ROI should be of equal magnitude.

  • Building Data Analytics Systems sitting on top of existing Building Management Systems continuously compare actual building operations against a digital model, identifying performance issues that impact cost and comfort. It is not uncommon for energy consumption to climb after a building has been fully occupied, and ideally, they should be retro-commissioned to ensure that energy usage is not left unchecked. Having such a system can enable savings of 10% to 30% post-implementation.

  • Hunting for available meeting rooms is a major pain point for tenants, and particularly annoying when booked rooms are not occupied. Integration of tenant resource booking systems with occupancy monitoring systems releases booked rooms when they are not occupied, thus increasing utilisation. Similarly, central booking systems for shared amenities such as auditoriums, maker-spaces or meeting facilities, can be integrated with tenants’ productivity software, offering convenient booking for tenants and providing the landlord with additional revenue.

With more data and connectedness between systems and the rise of the sharing economy, landlords have an opportunity to provide new or better services to their tenants, beyond just real estate.

Social Solutions enhance users’ access to information, control of their local environment and create a safer community. As we live our lives more online, there is growing expectation that the people-to-building interaction becomes more intuitive.

  • Mobile applications allow users to directly control audiovisual systems, lighting and temperature in their local space, personalising it to users’ preferences. In addition, augmented and virtual reality in learning environments provide enhanced communication, which can be useful for remote users.

  • Video Analytics Systems monitor digital surveillance camera feeds in real-time to identify human and vehicle behaviors which could pose safety and security risks. Upon identifying anomalies, security personnel are dispatched by the system to address the situation – potentially before it escalates. We have implemented these systems on a wide range of government and private sector projects to significantly enhance their safety and security performance. These are augmented by facial recognition systems and mobile apps which are more convenient for users than traditional RFID cards.

Environmental Solutions reduce the consumption of non-renewable resources and are especially important in light of global commitments to reduce building carbon emissions across the industry value chain.

  • Solutions such as building data analytics for improved energy performance, mobile apps that allow users to directly control temperature, and augmented reality solutions that reduce the need for travel, overlap with environmental outcomes, making them even more compelling.

  • Other environmental solutions include smart irrigation sensors that save water by managing watering based on actual weather conditions, and video analytics systems that automatically reduce demands on lighting and cooling systems when the video surveillance system observes spaces that are unoccupied. These are often linked with facilities booking systems. To close the maintenance loop, it is integrated with facility staff dispatch systems that direct cleaners to spaces based on their occupancy, odour and real time feedback.

We believe the market for Smart Buildings will continue to progress along the "slope of enlightenment". Digital and technology solutions that are cool and shiny, but don’t solve stakeholder problems and bring real value, will find it challenging to excite the sophisticated market we have today.

About the Author

Steve Perkins

Senior Technical Director - Buildings

Based in Singapore, Steve is responsible for continuous improvement of the office's technical and project delivery practices. He also chairs our technical standards committee for building services engineering work. He is currently working on several smart building and smart cities projects in Singapore for public and private clients.

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