23.05.2017 : Steve Perkins

Smart buildings - where's the value?

One of the biggest threats to increased ‘smart buildings’ systems adoption is jaded owners reporting to their peers that they invested in a system and gained little value in return. To continue momentum in smart buildings innovation, we need to ask “where is the value here?”

Property owners are investing heavily in smart buildings strategies – excited by the limitless potential for Information Communication Technology (ICT) and Internet of Things (IoT) devices to integrate the disparate systems that make up every built environment project. These devices can yield significant improvements in operational efficiency, functionality, security and environmental sustainability for stakeholders.

At Beca, we’ve seen a significant surge in demand from our clients to help them realise their smart buildings and smart cities visions – and it shows little sign of abating.

Advancements in ICT and IoT capability, paired with falling costs that typically come with maturing technologies are rapidly improving the economics of implementing large scale sensor networks, data storage and analysis.

Five years ago, technical solutions that were unaffordable to most in the buildings industry are now practical and affordable for even modest scale asset owners. Systems such as:

  • Mobile device applications that allow users to customise lighting and air-conditioning settings to their liking, wherever they may be in a building.
  • Integrated building management systems which monitor all buildings in an owner’s property portfolio in real-time. These systems can optimise energy efficiency by re-tuning each building’s mechanical and electrical systems’ set points – based on insights gained from collective analysis and comparison of all the buildings.
  • CCTV video analytics systems that ‘view’ camera video to identify unsafe behaviours (like children running the wrong way up an escalator) and alert security staff.
  • Autonomously guided vehicles to shuttle people around a building campus.

These are clever technologies that can change the way we live and work, but unfortunately, too often, the technology becomes the primary focus of attention – rather than a dispassionate assessment of the real value it brings to that specific project.

It’s easy to be entranced by this almost magical technology, focussing on what it can do for us when we should first be asking ourselves: “Where is the real benefit for the project/business, beyond it looking cool?”

As engineers, we need to be challenging the list of features trumpeted by vendors with the question:

“How does it help us meet our stakeholders’ key project goals, and what are the potential unforeseen consequences?”

Using the above example of building users customising their environment (e.g. lighting and air-conditioning), hard questions include:

  • Will the customised environmental control encourage our prospective tenants to pay the landlord a sufficiently higher rent to justify their investment? How will the owners market the value to tenants (e.g. higher staff productivity, higher staff retention or just that it makes your office more hip)?
  • If this requires the landlord to install and maintain systems which would normally be part of the tenants’ fit out works, will the required change to landlord/tenant responsibilities be workable in that leasing marketplace? Do we need to educate tenants’ leasing agents on the value first?
  • What are the potentially negative outcomes that could flow from changing the way users interact with the building? If someone in an open plan office is cold and they suspect their neighbours are requesting lower space temperatures it may add to office tension. If users are adjusting temperatures to levels that are not cost effective or environmentally sustainable, how should the landlord respond? Clear, advance communication to users asking for consideration of these issues would help address this.

With new technologies, there is often insufficient real world information to do an empirical analysis. But it shouldn’t stop us applying our experience and judgment, and asking some hard questions about where the value is and what the potential pitfalls are.  

In many cases, the tangible and intangible benefits sum to a return which makes the investment worthwhile; but this isn’t always true. Sometimes it’s just a poor fit for that project. A critical review of the real benefits a ‘smart’ solution will bring, will lead the team to adopt a selection of strategies that have the greatest chance of long-term success for the owner.

Playing devil’s advocate may not make us popular initially, but it will help strip away solutions that aren’t the right fit, and minimise the risks of ones that do deliver benefit.

About the Author

Steve Perkins

Practice Development Manager

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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ADD A COMMENT
Luan You · 29/05/2017 10:32:25 a.m.
Hey Steve, have you seen the Microsoft Build 2017 demonstration of cognitive services for health and safety on the worksite? It is very similar to your point about CCTV cameras being used in more intelligent ways. https://channel9.msdn.com/Events/Build/2017/KEY01#time=27m52s

Microsoft are also pushing IoT big time, they have many offerings now including a framework for "edge" devices and Azure Stack is coming which promises to bring most of the cloud functionality into an on premises environment.