If you ask people what they consider a smart building to be, you will get a different answer every time, and the great thing is every answer is correct. Smart buildings are different things to different people.
How do smart buildings vary in different countries?
The US have a huge focus on green buildings, operational efficiencies, fault detection and diagnostics, and portfolio-wide rollouts of digital twins optimized workflows and indoor air quality, etc.
The Canadian market – Statistically speaking, Toronto currently has the most crane’s in North America. This is because there is a huge push to construct buildings – digitally enabling and future-proofing them. Therefore, the vision here isn’t necessarily to create smart buildings from day 1 but to enable the infrastructure so that this can be easily achieved later down the line. Historically a lot of these things were value-engineered out, but as the industry is growing, developers realize that down the line, if a building isn’t a specific standard where technologies can be implemented, it becomes a premium charge to them to change and make upgrades to systems etc. Digital enablement is a key aspect of what they consider to be a smart building.
The UK is a very competitive market. There is a vast push to return from the pandemic and get people back in the office, looking at human-centric experiences. There is a focus on comfort and safety and empowering occupants through data.
Demand is increasing, and costs are decreasing, so we’re seeing the rollout of smart buildings now, not just in major cities around the world but also in smaller cities and small to medium-sized businesses. There seems to be exponential growth in smart building strategies.
Can you tell us about a recent project to demonstrate what is possible with smart technology?
RiverSouth is deemed one of the smartest buildings in Austin, Texas. It is a 15-story building and a true example of a modern workspace. It is curated with digital experiences that allow users to access on-site and off-site amenities. It has a wide variety of smart technology and is integrated with building systems to create tailored solutions. The building has automated processes to control the building operations – Heating, air-con, ventilation, lighting, security, etc. All of the data collected through these processes allows the building to become more sustainable and efficient whilst also prioritizing the health and wellbeing of tenants. From a tenants point of view, they’re able to utilize and see this information – what amenities are being used, how their space is being interacted with, occupancy levels in meeting rooms, smart desk utilization. So, the 2-way bi-directional solution allows tenants to see how their space is being used but also the developer is able to understand what size meeting rooms are ideal for those kinds of buildings, what amenities are required, whether more social areas would be beneficial, etc.
In the Canadian market, we worked with Fitzrovia real estate to digitally enable over 1 million sq. ft. of luxury rental property for the deployment of tenant experience mobile application technology. The app allows tenants to pay their bills, turn lights on/off, set thermostat temperatures and remotely unlock and lock their door. Fitzrovia has the initiative to create communities within their buildings, developing the relationship with the outside and inside world. So, services that are entering the building, e.g., a dog walker, cleaning service etc., have a seamless and safe entrance in the building without any issues, and the tenant has full control.
Within the UK, companies like Grosvenor, British Petroleum, Unilever, Fabrix and LBS Properties are all looking to deliver human-centric experiences.
We’re currently seeing businesses gathering lots of information and perfecting the ideal model of a smart building. Once we, collectively as an industry, have all of that information, it will be a much more seamless experience going forward because it will have been tried and tested.
ROI is still such a big topic, and it is one of the barriers to developing smart buildings. It is important to demonstrate value and a viable business case. Still, some of the benefits are a bit more intangible; whether that’s creating a healthier, happier workforce which might translate to less sick days and higher staff retention, it’s harder to quantify. However, it is still really important and valuable.
Can you walk us through the delivery phase of a smart building?
It’s important to align ourselves with the typical construction process and delivery phases. Typically for a new building process, we would sit down with the client and create an abstract brief including ideas, technologies and aspirations that they’re looking to achieve – information gathering and sharing. We then create a blueprint of how that is done through use case schedules, user journeys and visuals to capture what was discussed. We then enter the design aspect – which is designing full technical design specifications and processes, we work with design teams across the whole project, e.g., electrical consultants, security consultants. Building intelligence taps into every area, so it’s important to include everyone at this stage. We will work together if there are cost-effective implementations, or we tender that process out, but it is primarily coordination with the design teams. We oversea the deployment, ongoing governance, support the client, support the contractors and design teams and lastly, we validate the entire project. The final part of the delivery is the aftercare which looks at ways to continue the conversation. What we consider to be smart today might not be in 5 years’ time, so we create KPI’s or data points that we can come back to in 1-2 years to allow us to review and optimize. We consider how we can add additional things or remove things to improve their experience.
Can you talk us through the pricing and finance aspect as well?
From a pricing point of view, it is a lot more cost-effective now than it once was. Having the ability to install part of a solution or a solution up to a certain level and then build on that and improve it over time makes it a lot more viable for smaller businesses too. The industry is always growing; 3-5 years ago, a lot of these solutions were value-engineered out because they were price heavy. The manufacturers, the vendors and players within the industry are realizing that and are structuring their fees differently to appease these concerns, so whether that is having a CapEx cost or splitting that across a CapEx cost and an OpEx or having it all as OpEx, there are multiple options. We’ve also seen instances where the landlord pays for the structural part (the day 1 cost), and the tenants pay for the day 2 day 3 costs as part of the whole tenant package that they sign up for. Everyone is starting to realize the benefit of smart buildings.
What does the future of commercial real estate look like, in your opinion?
I’ve always spoken about not looking at buildings as singular entities but looking at them from a portfolio-wide perspective. I believe that there may be a layer on top of all of this, where different commercial buildings will share data with each other. As we grow, I am predicting that each building will speak to other buildings, which will benefit people in terms of wayfinding, advertising and special offers/discounts. Everyone wants to be competitive; competition makes the industry grow and drives innovation. So having this cloud-based layer may push the industry into different directions. This links to creating smart cities as well, which obviously have a whole host of benefits for the safety and security of citizens.