Smart buildings – a holistic view beyond the technologies

As with anything called ‘smart,’ the focus in smart building is often on the technological foundations, automated processes, and ability to leverage actionable data from connected assets whereby multiple goals are served.

While all stakeholders in building projects have various needs that partially overlap, the essence of a small building, however, should be about how it enhances user experience and improves the quality of life of its occupants in a very holistic approach.

Smart buildings are often defined from the degree of ‘smartness’ of the building itself with technologies enabling smart buildings to “manage themselves”, in connection with occupants, smart grids, and so forth. However, this is just one, albeit a key aspect. Moreover, the idea of full automation and self-management is one that is highly technology-centric and doesn’t say enough about what really matters in buildings.

Holistic smart buildings smart city integration concept

The place of the building in the environment it resides in is essential, on top of traditional goals such as profit, cost-efficiency, the value of the asset, and so forth. Smart buildings don’t just concern technologies either: the usage of materials and provision of services that ensure safety and comfort are important as well.

In fact, a smart building requires a holistic approach in multiple senses. While today it’s close to impossible to realize all elements of a truly smart building, we can also see ‘Smart Building’ as a concept and vision to gradually move towards.

Smart buildings are connected and part of ecosystems in many ways

In leveraging such smart building technologies, a staged approach is needed, as is a calculated prioritization of functionalities, depending on the nature and purpose of the building and needs of stakeholders.

It’s clear that in buildings such as hospitals and healthcare facilities overall it’s essential that all elements of the facility keep functioning at all times and that patients and staff are at the center, while in smart office buildings we will perhaps focus a bit more on productivity, which in the end is a human matter too, although in hybrid working models the employee experience is key.

Smart buildings require a holistic view that goes far beyond the often technology-centric view of many companies offering smart building solutions on various levels. A non-exhaustive list of such levels and elements:

  • The entire life cycle of the building matters, it’s not about implementing a few new fancy connected typical ‘smart building’ capabilities such as lights that switch on or off, depending on occupancy, or even ‘smart’ energy optimization.
  • Smart building projects require all stakeholders to be involved. Moreover, the ecosystems of smart building automation providers are growing, and smart buildings fit in a broader ecosystem context such as realizing sustainable cities with various types of buildings or realizing sustainable healthcare models whereby healthcare facilities and hospitals are essential, to give two examples.
  • The various goals that can be realized through smart buildings, from energy efficiency and operational costs to well-being, sustainability, and goals in the just mentioned broader context, are connected. Buildings are part of broader ecosystems: cities, communities, networks, and services of utility industry companies, etc. Moreover, the drivers between many of the goals are the same: the demand for higher levels of comfort in buildings and more digital services in the hotel industry, for instance, is driven by a changing consumer who often also is said to be more demanding with regards to sustainability.
  • Traditional areas of building management such as HVAC, lighting, energy, and security don’t suffice and are integrated with systems covering additional domains. The essence of smart buildings for many of the stakeholders is to gain insights into all essential functions that enable to realize and enhance the building’s goals whereby – in critical environments – preventing issues is a priority. Yet, these essential functions evolve and require integration with new or existing systems.
  • On a technology level, the connectedness (typically associated with the technologies in the broader scope of the Internet of Things) that enables the aggregated data that have to be turned into value and actions (DIKW) where needed require a far more holistic approach regarding existing systems in the building space in the largest sense (starting from the first stage in new projects) which de facto today is a challenge with ample silos.
  • A holistic view from a perspective of time matters too. Short-termism and quick gains are to be avoided, and important developments need to be taken into account. Smart buildings are (ready to be) easily adapted to changes that will impact their functionality requirements, depending on their – potentially changing – purpose and societal evolutions.
  • The technologies, materials, and frameworks for smart buildings go beyond the usual suspects. Alternatives need to be considered and closed systems should be avoided as new ways to enhance the well-being of occupants, customer experience, sustainability, future-readiness, and so forth emerge.

Smart buildings require smart goals

The goals of a smart building need to be smart as in S.M.A.R.T: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. Yet, they also need to take into account what perhaps can be less measured with the smart systems and technologies enabling them.

While it’s relatively easy to measure energy efficiency gains, for instance, the total impact of an overall improvement of occupant well-being might be harder to assess. Still, it remains essential and might challenge stakeholders to gain a better understanding than what is enabled on a building level through data from the actual property and its assets.

It’s clear that in this holistic perspective, with buildings being dynamic parts of ecosystems that serve the needs of multiple stakeholders and several goals at once with a degree of future-readiness, truly smart buildings are rather rare today. Yet, with buildings playing such an important role in our lives and being key for how we cope with societal challenges, it’s essential to make them happen, with the proper focus.

As this focus in smart buildings gradually shifts from enabling technologies to capabilities and, most importantly, people and ecosystems, new challenges will emerge on top of existing ones such as disconnected systems and security challenges.

We’re only building the foundations of smart buildings today. Yet, it’s key to think about their role in an evolving society in a non-technocratic, but very human and functional way whereby the security, privacy, and comfort of people are key and environmental goals must be served.