Smart buildings, explained – here’s what they mean for the built environment

Posted on: 11 March, 2024

Smart buildings could represent the intelligent, connected and sustainable future of the built environment.

The built environment is no stranger to digital transformation. Just as technology is revolutionising processes across industries like IT, finance, healthcare and manufacturing, it’s also transforming the way buildings are designed, built and operated.

The term ‘smart building’ has become increasing common in the sector in recent years, but rather than just being another technological buzzword, this new wave of digital transformation has enormous implications for both the built environment and for sustainability. Here’s why.

What are smart buildings?

Smart buildings are structures that utilise technology to optimise resource usage, efficiency and comfort for occupants. These buildings are equipped with a variety of modern and innovative technologies, from artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR) to the Internet of Things (IoT).

How do smart buildings actually work?

Smart buildings are designed to monitor performance on a variety of metrics, such as comfort, efficiency and productivity. To achieve this, they’re equipped with digital sensors that can gather data and connect with software to provide opportunities for optimisation.

For instance, digital sensors may identify a meeting room or area of an office that a business rarely uses, along with the days and times it is most frequently occupied. It can then adjust energy usage to ensure that heating and lighting is applied to this room automatically when it is most likely to be in use. Similarly, lighting and temperatures can be adjusted in a car park based on usage, helping to reduce energy consumption.

5 examples of smart buildings

Smart building systems aren’t a futuristic pipe dream – they’re an increasingly common reality in many of the world’s biggest cities. Below are just a few examples:

1. Frasers Tower, Singapore, Sinagpore

Frasers Tower is a 38-storey office tower in Singapore and is home to IT giant Microsoft. This tower is a prime example of a connected building, making use of a smart building system integrated with Microsoft applications like Outlook and Office 365 that allow for the effective performance of both the building and its occupants.

Frasers Tower also makes use of smart sensors that monitor temperature, air quality and lighting. What’s more, through the use of a digital twin – a virtual replication of the building itself – Frasers Tower is helping pave the way for future buildings of its kind.

2. Empire State, New York, USA

The Empire State is one of the most iconic and widely-recognised skyscrapers ever built, yet despite being considered a historical landmark, it’s become an excellent case study for how to make an existing building smart.

This 100-year-old, 102 storey building has been retrofitted with advanced technologies with the goal of reducing energy consumption by 38% and saving $4.4 million on energy costs per year. Through the introduction of a building management system and smart sensors, the Empire State has consistently beat its efficiency performance targets in the last ten years, proving that not all smart buildings have to be new and freshly built structures.

Learn more: A guide to retrofitting (and how it could help us reach net zero)

3. The Edge, Amsterdam, Netherlands

The Edge, while not as famous as some of the other examples of intelligent buildings listed, is perhaps the most revolutionary. It’s so revolutionary, in fact, that it received a 98.4% sustainability rating from British green building certification agency BREEAM – the highest rating ever awarded.

The most interesting feature of The Edge is that it has its own smartphone app, which connects to your schedule, recognises when you arrive, books you a desk, and alters a room’s environmental conditions to your preferences.

4. Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, London, UK

UK football club Tottenham Hotspur FC replaced White Hart Lane, their home ground since 1899, with the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in 2019. This new ground is considered to be one of the most advanced stadiums on the planet, and is another prime example of a smart building.

Tottenham’s stadium makes significant use of automation and connection to minimise friction and optimise the fan experience. Along with being the world’s first cashless stadium, it has Aruba Access Points underneath every seat to ensure wireless connectivity and, most strikingly, has a retracting pitch to allow it to host American National Football League (NFL) games.

5. Burj Khalifa, Dubai, UAE

The Burj Khalifa needs no introduction, being the world’s tallest structure at over 829 metres. However, this remarkable structure is also considered one of the ‘smartest’ buildings in the United Arab Emirates, and the centre of Dubai’s mission to become a smart city.

Through Honeywell’s Outcome-Based services system, which collects real-time analytics and creates performance dashboard and reports, the Burj Khalifa can accurately and continuously track its heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. This has helped reduce total maintenance hours by 40% for mechanical assets, and improve availability by almost 100%.

10 benefits of smart buildings

1. Optimised energy and resource usage

Perhaps the most significant benefit of smart buildings for the built environment is what they could mean for sustainability.

Operational emissions – the greenhouse gas resulting from a building’s usage post-construction – account for 28% of all global energy related carbon emissions. Designing new structures (and retrofitting existing ones) with smart building technology can help dramatically reduce energy consumption, resource usage and, subsequently, reduce their carbon footprint.

2. Cost-savings

Smart buildings can also provide a solution to the spiralling cost of energy for business and occupants alike. Using sensors to focus energy usage only where it’s needed, and reducing consumption in areas not in use (even for specific times of the day), can help save on unnecessary operational costs.

What’s more, the insights derived from smart technology could lead to broader business decisions that have an impact on their bottom line. It may identify new opening times that align more closely to employee working patterns and, simultaneously, help improve energy savings and reduce operating costs.

3. Predictive maintenance and real-time monitoring

If left undetected, building defects and faulty equipment can have a significant impact on safety, energy usage and wellbeing. It can be catastrophic for both an organisation’s finances and its reputation, with the recent RAAC concrete crisis in the UK being a prime example.

Smart technologies can continuously monitor and collect data from each system within a building. They can also use sensors to identify potential weaknesses or faults, helping to improve maintenance and ensure any problems are dealt with quickly and at a far lower cost.

4. Real-time insights and analysis

Continuous monitoring and collection of real-time data also provides useful information and actionable insights for building managers or occupants to help them make informed decisions.

From adjusting energy usage and temperatures to lighting and indoor air quality, smart building technology can help buildings become flexible and reactive to needs and demands, ensuring both optimised comfort and efficiency. They can also help facilities managers and teams make broader decisions based on workplace behaviour, improving the day-to-day running of the overall business as well as the building itself.

5. Automation and integration with other systems

Integration and connection with systems within a building make automation a reality for building owners, managers and occupants. This can have significant ramifications for building managers and facilities management teams, as automating simple and repetitive processes can save them time and allow them to focus on higher-priority tasks and objectives. When these automated processes are based on data, they also reduce the risk of human error.

6. Greater occupant comfort

A major selling point of smart building design is how it can be used to create a comfortable environment focused on wellbeing. Automation allows a building to respond to external weather conditions, ensuring the right temperature for its occupants. Lighting and air conditioning systems can also be adjusted to provide the highest level of comfort.

7. Increased productivity

The COVID-19 pandemic brought greater awareness to the importance of wellbeing and the relationship between health and productivity. For businesses in commercial buildings, smart technologies can be geared towards creating healthy environments and optimal working conditions, resulting in more content and more productive employees.

8. Improved space utilization

Alongside energy, expenses and resources, space is another commodity that property owners and businesses value highly, and smart buildings can help facilitate this. Everything from parking spaces to desks and meeting rooms can be tracked, organised and allocated through this digital technology, ensuring that office or even residential environments provide the necessary access and resources for all of their occupants.

9. Enhanced security

Another important aspect of a building is its physical security. Smart building design can utilise IoT technologies like security cameras and sensors and integrate with control and security systems to detect potential intruders or threats. A facility manager can be alerted to any activity and, through the use of automation, be able to respond quickly and promptly.

10. Increased building value

The growing popularity of smart technologies makes any building equipped with them an attractive proposition. With the benefits of improved efficiency, greater occupant comfort, enhanced security and predictive maintenance, investors, owners and even occupants will pay more for properties and assets equipped with smart building solutions.

Smart buildings and the future of the built environment

From the carbon emissions created in the construction process to the energy used once a building is operational, the built environment needs to address the entire building lifecycle to make net zero a reality by 2050.

Alongside pioneering new construction techniques and retrofitting ageing buildings instead of demolishing them, our sector needs to champion smart technology and the significant benefits it promises, both for sustainability and for the wellbeing of the people that inhabit them every day.