The state of ‘smart’ buildings

The state of ‘smart’ buildings

How smart is the UK? By Jamie Cameron, Director of Digital Solutions at Johnson Controls UK & Ireland

We’ve all grown accustomed to hearing about ‘smart’ technology. Brands now seem to be labelling every new device and gadget out there as smart, without any extra thought as to why it is or isn’t. We have smart watches, smart phones, smart key doorbells – the list could go on forever. The UK smart building industry is, unfortunately, heading towards the same fate.

Connected, smart buildings, in London command a 5% ‘digital premium’, enabling building developers to increase revenue on their spaces. The irony is that in reality, most buildings in the UK are not genuinely smart. So why do we hold onto the belief that we live in such a ‘smart’ world when in reality, we barely scratch the surface?

While there are buildings in the UK that make use of intelligent technologies, they don’t always justify the ‘smart’ tag. The truth is there are no truly smart buildings in the UK – despite many having been labelled as such across the country. Unfortunately, it takes more than flashy tech for buildings to earn the ‘smart’ label.

It’s also important to acknowledge that people have had the freedom to adapt their working environment to their own preferences over the past year. This has served to change expectations, and building decision-makers will now need to convince workers to return to their spaces as offices begin to reopen.

Redefining ‘smart’

Of course, there are buildings with intelligent technologies fitted into them, but the reality is that they’re not being used effectively enough to create a genuinely smart building – one that thinks, responds, and adapts to its occupants’ needs. This disconnect is the result of implementing smart technologies as point solutions. The sum of all these individual parts does not constitute a smart building. To create a truly smart building, which can command even more than a 5% digital premium, we need redefine what we mean by ‘smart’.

We know that smart buildings bring benefits; two-thirds of business leaders recognise that poor connectivity is detrimental to both work-life balance and mental health, and 81% of companies believe that a well-connected office leads to a better performing business. But ‘well-performing’ is starting to mean something new, with Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) concerns now inherently linked to corporate success. To this end, companies are being tasked with the seemingly impossible objective of becoming carbon net-zero. That’s where smart buildings – truly smart ones, that is – come in.

Technologies that we see as smart, like facial recognition on entry, automatic lighting, and app-based temperature control are often seen as ‘enough’ – they wow visitors and do improve employee experience. And ‘smart’ doesn’t need to be confined within the building itself: sensors can be used to gauge the average time people leave the building and provide transport updates, such as transport delays or traffic jams, to optimise employees’ experience even after they leave the building itself. But none of these technologies, smart as they are, are worth the investment if they don’t actually improve how a building is run, or its impact on people, places and the planet.

The real challenge goes far beyond opening doors and turning lights on and off. It’s about tapping into the building to ensure everyone in it can be productive, healthy, and happy, while leveraging every piece of data the building holds to save costs, bring energy usage down, and help achieve ESG goals. That is the moment when a building becomes smart.

We need to be smart(er)

Right now, the data from each of these point solutions is siloed and disconnected. This is preventing building managers, developers and owners from seeing the bigger picture, limiting them to small, incremental changes that don’t help realise the full potential of their investment in smart.

What’s more, many buildings house multiple tenants, with various needs that are subject to flux at any time. This will become truer than ever as businesses return to offices on a more flexible basis this year. For some tenants, regular heating will be less essential. Others may require less space or see cleaning requirements become more intensive. For others, the opposite may be true. That said, some things will remain consistent: the need to drive down energy usage, move towards carbon net-zero, and provide an impressive and comfortable experience for occupants. All of this is harder to achieve when a building’s data is sitting in siloes, underutilised and unable to provide a 360-degree view of what a building can really offer.

To reach this potential, we have to get deep below the surface level of smart technologies to unlock the insights they generate. This happens when we connect smart technology systems together to create an ecosystem/platform for smart solutions, looking at the bigger picture. The data and insights this creates can then be analysed to make vast improvements across a building, and even the whole enterprise.

To make this a reality, the data needs to be connected and easily accessible in the cloud. Then decision makers can analyse the data in its entirety and identify areas of improvement. They can focus this analysis on processes such as maintenance, energy savings and sustainable development – wherever needs attention at that time. Then, they can pinpoint the smart technologies that can make these adjustments autonomously and improve the experience that tenants receive. From these foundations, building and office decision makers can create something which is truly smart.

Looking at the bigger picture

Changes to a building’s systems may sound costly, but the reality is many buildings already have the technological foundations in place. Bringing all of these technologies together can help to transform these places into genuinely smart buildings. Incoming data needs to be connected to provide the bigger picture for whoever may need it. Decision-makers can use the information available to take the relevant actions, whether they’re smaller scale improvements to regulate building temperature or longer-term considerations to help meet ESG goals.

Faux-smart buildings are able to charge a 5% digital premium, but the benefits of smart buildings go far beyond this. Only when we‘ve achieved truly intelligent building architecture will we begin to realise just how smart the UK can be.

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