We spend eighty percent of our time inside buildings. This is a remarkable figure; for the vast majority of our lives, our environment, what surrounds us, is a set of walls and a roof. What is most remarkable, however, is how little time and attention we pay to making that environment better.
It makes sense, in a way. A lot of our time is spent in our workplace, often a large, drab office building where we have little control of our environment other than tweaking the thermostat. When we visit other buildings, they are often public spaces where we are transient, so we have little interest to change anything. Even at home, many of us live in rental properties where we can ́t redo or fix many basic features of the building. We might not like what we have around much, but it will have to do.
Even when we can change things and make the building around us better, however, we quickly realize that it is not as easy as it looks. We know that for our own experiences at home, and how infuriatingly non-intuitive it can be to try to link our smart speakers, thermostat, tablets and TV in a barely coherent, functional way. The promise of smart homes and appliances remains more often than not a promise, as competing standards and ecosystems makes everything more like a kludge than a coherent network.
For large buildings like conference centers, hotels, or office facilities, the problem goes beyond unreliable standards or stubborn Wi-Fi chips. The big issue, in this case, is not so much the equipment (although it is often part of the problem, as we will see) but how little do we know about what makes a building actually better.
The core problem with many buildings is that they do not offer good data to their users or managers. Buildings do not capture information from its occupants effectively; they don't have built-in systems to receive feedback on how they are operating and performing. When they do, that information is crude and lacking context; we have a few thermometers around running thermostats and maybe some errand comments made to staff, but we lack a centralized, coherent way to capture and synthesize any data in a useful manner.
Smart buildings strive to create that feedback loop. Instead of relying on the design intuitions of engineers and those that manage a facility, smart buildings rely on constantly gathering, processing, and responding to data to improve their environments. Gone are simplistic, standalone thermostats randomly distributed across rooms. Smart buildings instead gather information from multiple sources, taking into account what is inside and what is outside. They process the data, and constantly adapt their systems to ensure pleasant spaces, minimize energy use and constant feedback to its managers.
Truly advanced facilities go beyond sensors – they seek to incorporate occupant feedback to the data the building gathers and responds as well. Each interaction that a guest has with the building, like adjusting the temperature on a hotel room, opening or closing the blinds, using some of its green features (like dedicated recycling systems), or reaching out to staff to complain about the temperature, air quality, smells or noise can be recorded, analyzed, and incorporated into the smart loop. How they use their workspaces, common areas, how and when they enter and exit the building, or how often they linger to chat after meetings can be tracked to measure what is working, what is needed, and what it can be done to improve.
For large facilities with huge volumes of traffic, like conference centers, airports, rail stations, or hotels, engineers and building managers can encourage travelers and guests to download an app for the event or to facilitate their travel. The software can provide visitors with useful information and can generate real-time feedback on how things are working. Where are passengers going? What are they looking up? If visitors systematically check the map in one location, that spot might need better signaling. If they linger in a waiting area but barely stay in another, this might flag that something is quite not right in that spot.
Generating huge amounts of information, however, does little to make a building smarter. The key feature of effective smart building design is how that data and information is processed and how it is turned actionable. Having an app that generates ream of spreadsheets with location coordinates is not enough; what we need is a set of tools that allows managers to visualize the data efficiently and do it so we can merge all the data streams in one place.
For instance, room occupancy sensors can tell us that a waiting area in a terminal is usually quite empty. We can combine that information with app location data to see that foot traffic is comparable to other areas, but passengers do not linger once they sit down. By looking at lighting data, we realize that that side of the terminal receives much more sunlight than the rest of the building during the afternoon, and the sun glare makes the space uncomfortable. We can then adjust the system so the blinds remain closed for longer, making the space comfortable again.
Smart buildings require bold engineering, advanced materials, and careful design, but that is not enough to make a building smart. What makes a difference is the tools that combine all those elements and calibrate and adjust how they work with the people actually using the building. An effective design combines engineering, data, and user feedback, and gives building managers the tools to respond in real time. What makes a building smart is its software and how it interacts with those using it, not the hardware behind it.