Last edited 07 Feb 2024

Smart buildings

Smart buildings are sometimes referred to as 'automated buildings', 'intelligent buildings', 'connected buildings' or buildings that incorporate smart technology. However, it is a fairly ambiguous term that at its most basic level has been used to describe buildings that include technologies such as:

It centres on the use of interconnected technologies to make buildings more intelligent and responsive, ultimately improving their performance.

At present, many building systems operate independently, and many are inherently inefficient as they lack the monitoring capability that would enable them to adapt effectively to different conditions or modes of operation.

Smart technologies can facilitate better decision making and automation of responses. Jones Lang Lasalle suggest that 'To be considered an intelligent system, automation should be able to: monitor performance; detect inefficiencies; diagnose possible causes; make automatic adjustments; alert facilities management staff to issues that can be automatically corrected; and suggest possible tools and parts that may help staff members get the job done quickly” (ref. JLL, Smart Building Technology: Driving the Future of High Performance Real Estate).

There are some concerns regarding the roll-out of smart technologies. It has been suggested that poorly implemented technologies can disempower occupants, taking away their control of the environment, and that a lack of suitable instructions or education may lead to the incorrect use of technology and so the inefficient operation of buildings. In addition, rapidly changing technologies can have a life-cycle of just 2-5 years. This raises environmental issues regarding the continual retrofitting of technologies, and suggests that building systems should be 'disaggregated' from the building fabric so they can be upgraded without the need for changes to the building itself.

To a certain extent, this smart buildings agenda is driven by suppliers with a vested interest in selling technology, and it can sometimes seem that the word 'smart' can be used to describe almost any new technology or system. In addition, the focus on active systems suggests by implication that low-tech or passive buildings are not intelligent.

Less product-driven definitions encompass the wider, fundamental outputs of the built environment, such as; wellbeing and productivity, as well as consideration of long-term future-proofing and whole-life costs, suggesting that truly 'smart' buildings are those that deliver better environmental, social and economic conditions.

In this context, 'Smart' design includes a broader understanding of property portfolios, local areas, regions and cities.

The term 'Smart cities' is defined in PAS 180: 2014 Smart Cities. Vocabulary as '...the effective integration of physical, digital and human systems in the built environment to deliver a sustainable, prosperous and inclusive future for its citizens.' Engineering practice Buro Happold suggest that this about more than just harnessing technology; requiring consideration of governance and growth, urban development and infrastructure, the environment and natural resources, society and community. (Ref. Buro Happold: Defining and benchmarking SMART cities)

Redstone suggest that “…the true power comes in taking a holistic approach – combining what were once disparate systems into an integrated platform that offers better economic, social and environmental performance for buildings and their occupants.”

Smart Building Overlay to the RIBA Plan of Work, published by the RIBA in 2024, states: ‘A smart building is one that uses technology to enable efficient and economical use of resources, while creating a safe and comfortable environment for occupants. Smart buildings may use a wide range of existing technologies and are designed or retrofitted in a way that allows for the integration of future technological developments. Sensors (IoT or other), building management systems, artificial intelligence (AI), and augmented reality are amongst some of the mechanisms and robotics that may be used in a smart building to control and optimise its performance.’

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