How technology is keeping modern buildings on top form

As smart technology advances, it’s changing the way that office buildings operate.

From predictive maintenance to real-time energy monitoring, today’s buildings are getting smarter – and as they do, landlords and companies are questioning where this technology can best add value.

Across the world, sensors are gradually becoming a high-tech, behind-the-scenes feature of many modern offices to boost operational efficiency, employee productivity and sustainability.

In Munich, Watson’s HQ showcases the capabilities of the Internet of Things by creating a highly connected workplace that constantly learns and adapts to the needs and behaviour of the people inside to provide the right lighting and temperature. In Singapore, the Capital Tower uses a smart building management system with carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide sensors to maintain air quality.

“Smart technology can significantly help to create an attractive, customised workplace environment, as well as enhance the efficiency of building operations,” says Tomasz Mizera, CRE Technology Delivery Director, JLL. “It has huge potential for helping tenants get the most from their space, save on operational costs and meet their sustainability goals.”

Smart sustainability

With sustainability an increasing priority for companies and developers, many buildings make use of sensors for real-time energy monitoring to better understand their carbon footprint and how it can be improved.

Sophisticated features are also giving them a high-tech edge. London’s Crystal Building has smart windows that respond to external weather conditions, automatically adjusting to minimise energy consumed by air-conditioning, while the building is heated entirely from natural sources, reducing its heating bill to zero.

Smart microgrids, where a building generates, stores and distributes its own energy, are another popular choice; the Apple headquarters in California is entirely powered by its microgrid-generated renewable energy, while the EDGE building in Amsterdam generates more energy than it uses.

“Reliable smart infrastructure doesn’t only help building owners avoid overspending. It also shows the proactive environmental-friendliness of a building – and that is attractive to tenants,” says Mizera.

Technology for next-generation offices

As more companies embrace flexible workspace, smart technology has a major role in helping landlords and companies understand – and optimise – how various spaces are being used.

“In a flexible workplace, sensors make the office more accessible,” says Mizera. “The technology can deliver insights to better meet the needs of the people using it.”

The RBC Waterpark Place in Toronto uses sensors to facilitate many different aspects of the working day from smart elevators getting employees to where they want to go in the shortest time to keeping meeting rooms at optimal temperatures.

Such small but critical adjustments to the office environment can have a huge impact on employee productivity. At the Glumac building in Shanghai, air purification systems embedded in the walls improve air quality, while employees can check on indoor and outdoor air pollution using a customised app.

Within these systems, embedded sensors can monitor its condition to facilitate predictive maintenance, automatically booking in servicing before equipment breaks down to minimise repair costs.

Barriers to adoption

Yet as the cost of smart technology falls, and it becomes more widely used, it’s also fuelling concerns that increasingly complex buildings will require greater maintenance and specialist skills that could make them harder to sell on, Mizera notes.

“Developers are trying to build with the minimum of smart technology so that buildings can be sold more easily, say, every three years,” he says. “At the moment, there’s a contradiction between what tenants and building owners want. Tenants want smart technology for facilities management, but developers and owners can be hesitant to implement it.”

Even for landlords who are keen to invest in smart technology, some 90 percent of traditional buildings currently on market require substantial retrofitting to support features such as smart ventilation.

Landlords also need to consider compatibility issues with new tenants who already have their own technology infrastructure.

“Large corporates will have their own data privacy governance and IT security protocols, and their own apps that might not integrate well with built-in smart technology,” notes Mizera.

Another challenge lies in interpreting the vast amounts of data from an office full of connected technology.

“One of the most important things is how to make business decisions based on analysis of the data,” he says. “This is the main limitation on the market, more so than concerns that the technology may soon be obsolete.”

For example, technology investment might be guided by what data points should be collected - but landlords may not have a view on which metrics will continue to be critical in the future. “There is a lack of understanding around how to monetise this data which could be gold mine, or if not used properly, a sunken investment,” says Mizera.

Future office technology    

All signs point to growth for the smart building market, with over 80 percent of new builds involving at least one aspect of smart technology such as smart lighting or heating.

Furthermore, with flexible space on the rise, in the future, landlords could offer more ‘space as a service’ to retain control and therefore gain benefit from the smart technology they invest in.

However, for the technology to reach its full potential for a more sustainable, efficient built environment, a wider ecosystem must develop.

“Cities are trying to improve their infrastructure with smart buildings but we’re not there yet,” says Mizera. “There needs to be clear legislation and standards for how smart technology is to be designed into buildings, and education around the sustainability and efficiency benefits of smart buildings.” 

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