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What does it actually mean for buildings to go smart?

(Image credit: Image Credit: Jamesteohart / Shutterstock)

The relationship we have with the buildings we inhabit, from offices to homes, is set to change forever. With the rise of ‘smart buildings’ and changing attitudes toward working practices, the ‘soft’ digital infrastructure that overlays hard bricks and mortar is becoming equally fundamental to our everyday working life.   

Yet, what it actually means for a building to be smart is not clear. One of the biggest barriers to widespread smart building adoption is the lack of a clear, holistic view of what’s possible and what the ROI is likely to be. Organisations today are more often than not offered siloed solutions, with piecemeal returns, that seem like more work on an already full plate.   

However, the essence of a smart building is to create truly connected environments that bring people and information together in a meaningful way. The power of smart infrastructure is that it not only empowers employees to explore new ways of working to boost productivity and creativity, it also enables companies to make informed business decisions based on empirical evidence about real estate management. Smart buildings work for those who use them, as well as those who own them.   

There has been a sizable shift towards a global uptake in smart buildings, however this will falter if the business case for smart infrastructure isn’t properly made. What is needed is greater understanding of what it means for buildings to go smart, and the benefits they can bring to all who use them.   

Demystifying smart buildings 

Smart buildings are structures that harness smart technology, including IoT and machine learning. At an elementary level, smart buildings can automatically control internal operations such as heating, ventilation, lighting and security amongst other things. What makes a building truly smart though is how it uses sensors embedded in the myriad of systems throughout the building to collect huge amounts of behavioural data. Using machine learning, this data can be analysed in real-time to create a two-way conversation between the space and its inhabitants. A smart building is aware of the users’ presence and moulds itself to their preferences.   

Importantly, unlike a building that simply integrates IoT devices, smart buildings are equipped to develop, learn and adapt over time to ensure the smart solution is always relevant to its inhabitants. Take an integrated digital ceiling for example, one that can sense the presence of the people in the room and from that manage the temperature, air ventilation and even let other colleagues know the room is in use. The creation of a smart building means integrating individual intelligent elements, collecting data from them and repurposing it to make a building more productive.   

Ultimately, it is about the culture and needs of the building’s users – smart infrastructure is designed to interact with the people who spend every day there. The infrastructure and networks are meaningless unless you can make it do things for people. This is the promise of smart buildings – an environment where the digital experience is elevated to the extent that it determines the shape, and colours the very persona of the space. The measure of true value comes from the soft infrastructure and not the traditional bricks and mortar.   

Creating environments that promote productivity   

One of the biggest shifts in business seen over the last few years has been the move away from traditional 9 to 5 working structures towards a more flexible, personal way of working. Companies are now rightly increasingly concerned with employee welfare and how they engage with their working space. People are conducting business differently to how they used to, and technology can help optimise this.   

Within a smart building, its inhabitants become smart, able to explore and evolve new ways of working, boosting their productivity and creativity as the building moulds itself to provide the optimal environment to support their goals; from enabling users to find free space to work, whether that be a desk, meeting room or quiet space where they can concentrate, or find colleagues while navigating complex campuses. Better collaboration with workmates, and in a sense collaboration with the space itself, is fundamental to agile working and a key benefit brought about by smart buildings.   

Reducing real estate costs, the smart way 

Measuring productivity can be difficult, but one of the biggest benefits provided by smart buildings can be seen in hard figures. Increasing mobility within the workplace means that unoccupied desks and meeting rooms, even whole floors, are a familiar sight; it’s reported that space utilisation in London is as low as 48%. With the cost of real estate in the capital currently standing at £20,000 per 100 square foot of space per year, tenants need to become savvier in how they optimise their existing space.   

With their ability to analyse vast sets of data collected over a sustained period of time to provide a tangible picture of how the building is being used, smart buildings typically push space utilisation north of 80%. This can liberate significant amounts of floor space, some of which can be put to other purposes for internal use, sub-let or simply sold for profit.   

Through harnessing our OneSpace software technology to create a smart building, UBM, the international media and events company, gained tangible insights in how their building was being used which allowed them to rationalise seven floors of expensive London real estate into six. This has generated a material reduction in operating costs, not including the associated savings made through space and energy usage and the inherent people-related benefits of a more productive and an agile working environment. Through having greater insight into the building, a desk to colleague ratio of 1:1.4 has also been achieved, with further improvements expected to be made over the coming months.   

Smart buildings look to rise to the twin challenge of boosting productivity while reducing real estate costs. Ultimately, the digital transformation of buildings from normal to ‘smart’ will mean that over time, work spaces will evolve from stagnant ‘status quo’ to ones geared up for agility, responsiveness and engagement with the workforces that use them. Spaces will work harder for their money, helping organisations to become increasingly competitive, reducing costs and enhancing employee engagement. With the use of intuitive smart technology, a two-way conversation between space and inhabitants will be established, ultimately achieving an environment that reflects the culture of its workforce.   

Mark Braund, CEO at RedstoneConnect 

Image Credit: Jamesteohart / Shutterstock

Mark Braund
Mark has been CEO at RedstoneConnect since 2016 and is an experienced Board-level leader, CEO, talent management, global sales & marketing professional. He has a clear & successful track record of growing businesses to outperform the market.