A Smart Building Can Adapt to Your Needs

The term “smart building” may not have a standard definition, but a building’s IQ can be measured based on its ability to learn from its inhabitants.

Brian Buntz

April 9, 2019

7 Min Read
Getty Images

The term “smart buildings” often gets tossed around loosely, and, oftentimes, undeservedly.

I once visited a European office building from a large tech company that was ostensibly a center for artificial intelligence, IoT and smart building research, among other things. At least one publication referred to the building as one of the smartest in the world. But one of the vendor’s employees hit the wrong button for the elevator, and a group of journalists and the employee there to guide us passively tried to suppress claustrophobia as the elevator travelled up and down to a series of floors. None of them, however, were the one we intended to visit. Because there were no buttons to control the elevator from within, there was no easy way to correct course. So after we arrived at the initial floor that had been falsely programmed, the elevator went up and down, attempting to provide a ride to the company’s employees who also hoped to catch an elevator ride. None of them, however, could squeeze in. Eventually, one of the journalists exited, pressed the button for the correct floor and re-entered, ultimately taking us to our destination.

It may be unfair to judge a building’s intelligence based on that elevator experience alone, but the story points to the fact that smart buildings should not be judged on their marketing or technologies alone, but on their ability to respond to user intent. “In essence, a truly smart building can be measured by how well it responds to the long-term needs of the asset’s investors and owners and the immediate and ongoing needs of its occupants,” wrote Josh Herrenkohl, EY global real estate advisory leader.

But building owners and managers have been slower to embrace technologies such as IoT and AI than the industrial sector, said Oliver Iltisberger, managing director of ABB’s Smart Buildings business line. “Five years ago, it was justifiable to use connected sensors in a factory environment because of the economics of optimizing uptime,” Iltisberger said. But it made less sense to use similar technology in buildings in that same time frame as the requirements for uptime for, say, HVAC or lighting systems is not as pronounced as the uptime for a factory or critical infrastructure provider.

But the availability of relatively low-cost sensors along with steady networking advances, continued urbanization and interest in sustainability, are driving interest in smart buildings. “In the past two to five, the costs of many sensors has fallen considerably,” Iltisberger noted, opening up a range of possibilities in the buildings domain, ranging from lighting, HVAC systems and physical security systems. “The smart building has become a much bigger topic in the last couple of years, but I’d say it’s still a few years behind compared to Industrie 4.0,” he said. And the trend is becoming clearer across the buildings landscape, ranging from single-family and multi-family homes, apartment buildings, the hospitality sector and commercial buildings.

Advances in the industrial realm are also crossing over to the building sector. In the Siemens Customer Experience event held in conjunction with Hannover Messe, the world’s largest industrial trade show, Christopher Alan, president and founder of AUTOParkit, explained how his company used Siemens’ so-called “digital factory” tools and the company’s MindSphere IIoT platform to create automated parking systems. In an AUTOParkit parking garage, a driver pulls onto a steel platform and steps out of the vehicle. Then, the system files away the car, hoisting it with industrial electric motors and drives. Once there, the vehicle is safe from getting dinged, broken into or “keyed” by barbarians. When the driver is ready to depart, the system fetches the car and brings it to her or him. AUTOParkit estimates that the system can accommodate roughly twice as many vehicles in the same space as a traditional parking garage, while also helping reduce the emissions stemming from drivers circling within the parking garage hunting for a spot or the exit at the end of a trip. The system also can accommodate electric and autonomous vehicles. Building owners using the system can earn up to 17 Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) points. That’s a respectable achievement, considering the environmental impact of traditional parking infrastructure can equal or exceed that of automobiles themselves, as an Access magazine article noted.

While the AUTOParkit example may not be the most prototypical smart building example, it is reflective of the broader trend of building owners and facilities managers to sharpen their focus on energy efficiency. Other central smart building goals include bolstering employee productivity and improving space utilization. While the latter may seem the most esoteric, a study from Herman Miller Space Utilization Services offers perspective. Private offices are unoccupied 77 percent of the time, according to Herman Miller research. Workstations fair somewhat better. They are unoccupied 60 percent of the time. Given the high cost of real estate in most urban hubs, such an efficient use of space comes with a high price tag. And with the UN predicting that 68 percent of the world’s population could live in cities by 2050, that cost could rise over time.

Another central driver of the smart building trend is the desire for building operators to make greater use of automation. “The market for retrofitting automation into hotels, for instance, is much bigger than the market for [installing automation technology] in new hotels,” Iltisberger said, pointing to the simple fact that new hotels represent a small sliver of the total market. “And when you retrofit into a hotel chain, you don’t necessarily need to automate every single room,” he added. “You might start in the lobby and the conference rooms, some meeting rooms, etc. That can be done very cost efficiently.” While a decade ago, the cost of automating a three-star hotel chain was generally prohibitively high, hotel operators today are looking at using building automation to boost energy efficiency, enhance the comfort of their guests and differentiate their brands from those of other hotel chains, Iltisberger said.

The Urban Land Institute’s and PwC’s annual “Emerging Trends in Real Estate 2019” report supports the thesis that building automation and other technology-driven trends are opening up new possibilities for building owners and managers. The report cites data from CB Insights that indicates real estate tech investment may have surpassed $5.2 billion in 2018 — four times greater than the sum in 2014. ULI and PwC surveyed 1,630 individuals from the commercial real estate sector and found respondents believed several technologies to be of moderate or greater importance to their sector. Construction technology and autonomous vehicles ranked 3.84 and 3.71 out of 5, respectively. The Internet of Things scored 3.4 out of 5 while workplace automation and big data analytics both scored 3.35.

Ultimately, however, automation is a broad trend related to all of the aforementioned technological niches. And over time, the broader population will likely grow more comfortable with buildings that are automated, Iltisberger said. While the majority of people are accustomed to manually interacting with buildings, a USC study indicates adaptive building automation is more popular than either full automation or no automation. “If people are happy today with having 80 percent of the functions being automated, but 20 percent of the time, find a switch somewhere, that amount will likely go down over time,” he explained. “Ultimately, it comes down to benefits; it is not only about automating. It’s about how can the building adapt to your needs. And the more the building can adapt to your needs, the more you can see the value of handing over control.”


About the Author(s)

Brian Buntz

Brian is a veteran journalist with more than ten years’ experience covering an array of technologies including the Internet of Things, 3-D printing, and cybersecurity. Before coming to Penton and later Informa, he served as the editor-in-chief of UBM’s Qmed where he overhauled the brand’s news coverage and helped to grow the site’s traffic volume dramatically. He had previously held managing editor roles on the company’s medical device technology publications including European Medical Device Technology (EMDT) and Medical Device & Diagnostics Industry (MD+DI), and had served as editor-in-chief of Medical Product Manufacturing News (MPMN).

At UBM, Brian also worked closely with the company’s events group on speaker selection and direction and played an important role in cementing famed futurist Ray Kurzweil as a keynote speaker at the 2016 Medical Design & Manufacturing West event in Anaheim. An article of his was also prominently on kurzweilai.net, a website dedicated to Kurzweil’s ideas.

Multilingual, Brian has an M.A. degree in German from the University of Oklahoma.

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