The term "smart building" gets thrown around a lot. But what about a building makes it "smart?" How can a building even be intelligent?
We're going to unravel these questions: our goal is to make sure you, as someone building, buying, designing, or investing in smart buildings and their underlying technologies, know what's available for you.
What exactly is a smart building?
The word smart concerning buildings or their related technologies is essentially a product of marketing.
It's a simple phrase that masks the complexity of specialized design, labor and technology. It makes it easy to sell to the technically uninformed and uninterested, only focusing on the outcomes and benefits you can get out of it.
But if you're reading this, we're assuming you want to be a bit better informed about all the options and what might be best for your building. So you need to know what's what.
All smart technology has two intertwined goals: awareness and control. For a building, this means knowing more about what is happening in and to the structure and increased control over its operations and environment.
In practice, this usually involves three technologies:
- Sensors and other data-collecting tools measure different aspects of a building.
- Networking infrastructure collects and monitors the gathered data and relays this information to users.
- Automation software and tools optimize the building's systems in response to incoming data, usually for comfort, safety, and efficiency. Human operators can also use these to intervene in the building's operations as needed, often remotely.
Additionally, many smart technology vendors, particularly those selling networking and automation, will usually include tools that analyze data about the building (and sometimes around the building). These will frequently employ algorithmic or machine-learning processes to assist a facilities manager in making decisions about the building's systems.
The smart technologies you need to know about
This is perhaps the most familiar smart technology for most people. It's been heavily marketed to residential homeowners by the likes of Google (with its family of Nest devices) and Amazon (with its Honeywell-built smart thermostats).
It's also one of the most straightforward kinds of smart technology to implement. For decades, buildings have digital wall-mounted controls for a building's heating, cooling, and air quality control. Making them smart is often just a matter of adding controls with networking capabilities.
For commercial buildings, there are several features available to you that go beyond what you can do in your home. For example, you can remotely keep your building's occupants comfortable and save money by not needlessly heating or cooling rooms no one is using.
Commercial building sensors include monitoring aspects like humidity, air pressure, and CO2 levels. In the case of Siemens Variable Air Volume system, it can manage air purification systems to limit virus and bacteria spread.
This is the other kind of smart technology that most people are familiar with. It's already been heavily marketed to consumers in their homes.
The main draw of smart lights is cost savings. The energy costs of lights out add up quickly when you realize how many kilowatts you use illuminating rooms with no one in them. But smart lighting capabilities can go much farther than a motion sensor that checks if anyone's in the room before turning the lights out.
Manufacturers have long been able to make lights with adjustable light balances. Integrated into a smart building's systems, you can have lighting inside that mimics light conditions outside. It makes living and working inside more comfortable and uses less energy than the harsh fluorescent bright lights common in commercial and industrial buildings.
Smart Water Management
After energy, water is the other utility that building owners and facilities management focus on for efficiency savings. Smart water management is easy to deploy – all buildings have key points where water enters and leaves.
Much of the work comes down to strategically placing sensors to give you the earliest possible warning of a leak or flood. This needs to be paired with a robust local network to provide you with vision into all the spaces where water damage can occur – many of which you don't see.
Smart water management protects and saves on three levels:
- Reducing the cost from water loss (known as non-revenue water).
- Warning you early, limiting possible damage from leaks or floods.
- Creating reduced insurance costs due to the significantly lower risk the system brings.
We've previously written about the different kinds of water sensors and how they can benefit you. We also pair our water sensors with our Surface to Cloud™ system that manages liquid leak sensors and integrates this with various other data sources from your building.
Smart Occupancy Management & Security
Introducing any of the above smart technologies we've covered above will likely include a need for occupancy sensors. This isn't very new technology – building security needs have already put cameras and motion sensors in almost all modern commercial buildings.
What has changed is the development of more advanced and sophisticated systems that can help you improve occupant comfort. Sensors, like those made by Purple, can now near-perfectly track how many people are in a room. If it gets too crowded or noisy, you can plan and move people to quieter, less busy spaces.
Smart windows are probably best paired with smart lighting and energy management. Also known as smart glass, windows, like those made by View, can respond not just to occupancy needs but also to light conditions outside. They can dim themselves without the need for blinds to reduce glare from direct sunlight and adjust for optimal lighting over the day in concert with your lighting inside.
Additionally, smart windows can help enormously with controlling heat levels, supporting your HVAC system by reducing the radiative heat effect of the glass. With this technology integrated, you can also turn your windows into built-in digital displays and send you a security warning should anyone try to break one.
Smart Disaster Management
This last one might be a bit dependent on where your building is. Still, there is an ongoing development of smart building technologies that can warn you about threats and assist you in identifying damage and assessing structural integrity after a disaster.
For example, Grillo makes sensors and networking tools that can monitor for and give you an early warning of an earthquake long before you can physically feel it.
They also make sensors that monitor your building for damage. One effect of earthquakes on multi-story structures is called inter-story drift, where one or more levels of a building move out of alignment with each other. This causes structural weakness that may not be visually apparent but is a danger to anyone reentering the building. Grillo's sensors measure the building's alignment, warning you if the structure is too damaged or unstable to reenter safely.
Learn more about smart building technology
Many kinds of smart technologies are available, all designed to make your building more efficient, safer, and more comfortable to work and live in. If you found this interesting and want to learn more, we have more articles about the different aspects of the sensors and tools we use, including LoRaWAN – the type of wireless technology our sensors use to communicate with the local network – and how these technologies can be used to improve the work environment and efficiency of office buildings.