Smart Buildings: It’s Still About The People Inside

In this age of data collection, measuring occupants’ response to the smart building is as important as the information on the facility's operational performance.

By David Karpook

There has been no shortage of chatter about benefits that smart building technologies can bring to the business world and workplace. For years, buildings have been upgraded and outfitted with new technologies that improve building functionality and performance, but at the same time those new technologies have also added complexity to the way buildings are managed. With every new system that improves energy usage, propels sustainability efforts, or enhances security, comes new appliances, hardware, and software that must be maintained, managed, and accounted for. Often times, the business case for these new systems is dependent on the ability to report the numbers, savings, and improvements, so data collection and its management must also be taken into account.

smart building
Image: Planon

However, no matter what the benefits and challenges are, the future of smart buildings is ultimately all about the people inside. Innovations must be about making buildings more comfortable, safe, and attractive to the occupants. If a building has no occupants, what is the motivation for improvement? On a similar note, if a business isn’t taking into account how its office environment is affecting its workers, it’s missing out on huge opportunities to improve its recruiting and brand loyalty efforts. According to the latest research from the University of Warwick, happy people are more productive. Research from Gallup on U.S. employees shows there’s lots of room to improve that happiness — with employee engagement holding steady at around 32% and employee satisfaction ratings hanging out at 33%.

To address these challenges, many businesses are looking to make their offices smarter, more efficient, and more user-friendly with the goal of attracting and retaining more top talent — and for good reason. Almost 70% of the millennial workforce responded they want to be in a smart office within the next five years, according to the Dell and Intel Future Workforce Study, conducted by PSB. Of that up and coming workforce, 42% said they would quit a job with substandard technology and 82% said technology in the workplace influences the jobs they take. Out of all employees surveyed — not just the millennial demographic — 60% responded that they believe they will work in a “smart office” with higher-tech capabilities within the next five years.

The message is loud and clear. People are looking for work environments that embrace technology to enable seamless, collaborative, healthy, and comfortable working experiences. Employees aren’t the only ones with high expectations for tech-enabled, smart buildings. Customers, end users, patients, occupants, etc. are all watching and should be taken into account when evaluating any smart building concepts and plans.

Given the cost of real estate and the amount of time individuals and teams spend working, these types of investments are becoming more necessary and popular. Navigant Research estimates that the global revenue of the smart building technology market will reach $8.5 billion in 2020, a considerable spike from $4.7 billion in 2016.

Smart Buildings And Happy People

Buildings are already complex, interlocking systems of systems: structure, power, lighting, heating, cooling, plumbing, drainage, fire alarm, security, and circulation. What makes a smart building interesting is the additional ability to connect all these operational technologies to the internet and to each other to detect, regulate, and automate steps and systems that were once only manually managed. In order to do this, operational technologies now include chips, circuits, sensors and beacons that create data and in some cases “learn” from the data they generate. This interconnectedness is all part of the Internet of Things (IoT).

This IoT-enabled automation is helping building operations and facility management teams address issues with heating, ventilation, A/C, lighting, security, and other systems more efficiently. It’s only common sense that detecting and fixing issues quicker reduces the amount of long term damage to expensive assets and building infrastructure. For instance, if a facility manager can receive a notification from the machine when it automatically detects that a water or gas leak is occurring, the facility manager can react to minimize water damage or risk of a fire or explosion. If an elevator breaks down, the capability to self-diagnose and identify the problem as well as communicate with the appropriate technician or employee to get it fixed quickly is immensely beneficial. These capabilities can help reduce the time spent addressing potential problems, as well as decrease dissatisfaction and complaints about inefficient or failed facilities among employees and building occupants.

smart building
Photo: Planon

Those examples describe high level and important safety concerns, but there are also other milder irritants that smart building and IoT technologies are solving to make buildings and offices more enjoyable for the people inside. Sometimes trivial occurrences are the biggest factors affecting the mood and well-being of a building’s occupants. Automatic notification of low supplies in the bathroom, or something as simple as ordering paper automatically at the printer can improve day-to-day activities for building occupants. Integrated room booking management systems can help employees find open meeting and collaborative space faster. Sensors integrated in those spaces can also help reduce the negative impact of no-shows and meetings that run long. At the most fundamental level, smart buildings should be designed to make occupants happier, whether it’s optimizing aesthetics, lighting, thermal comfort, air quality, security, space, or sanitation.

Office inhabitants aren’t the only people benefiting from smart buildings and technologies in the workplace. In manufacturing and construction, smart innovations primarily in robotics are helping employees with dangerous, injury-prone tasks, such as heavy lifting and strenuous operations. Smart buildings that house these types of operations are also taking advantage of smarter HVAC and energy saving systems that help these companies save money and make less of an environmental impact.

In newly designed medical space and hospitals, physicians, nurses, and patients are benefiting from better privacy and safety with the help of IoT-enabled devices and robotics. Important medical equipment can be connected to the internet and set up to self-report on its status and location. The timeline for routine maintenance on this equipment can also be connected to make it easier to monitor, which reduces the number of duplicated or missed maintenance steps. Other repetitive, routine tasks such as dispensing medication can be done more precisely with robotics, which frees up nursing staff to attend to urgent matters that require personal attention. Dashboards check-in stations improve wait times and allows for better patient privacy, and connected sensors allow nurses and staff to recognize where a specific patient is in the waiting area without having to call out his or her name.

In busy settings such as airports, installing smart features—like clean/not clean buttons—in restrooms can help elicit better feedback from people who are in a rush. Someone trying to catch a plane probably won’t take the time to track down an employee to complain about bathroom or facility conditions, but they can press a button on their way out of the restroom to make the same sentiment immediately known.

A New Era Of Smart Buildings

The smartest buildings of the future will be those designed with people in mind. In an age where data collection is everywhere, it’s important to realize measuring occupants’ responses to the building is just as important as the building being able to measure on its own how the light and heat are performing. Buildings designed to maximize space, must also take into account how people feel within that space.

The “Sentiment Cocoon” is one example of how this technology is evolving in the workplace in an attempt to improve, or at the very least, monitor employee well-being. This award-winning project from the independent design group Arup is an interactive structure that uses color and light to reflect the mood of employees in the space. Employees interact with the structure by answering questions on dashboards around the office. The structure is installed like artwork in the workspace, but doubles as a great way the business can use analytics and smart technology to identify the level of happiness or frustration in the office.

This is just one way the workplace of the future is evolving to create a more unique experience for its users. The next generation of smart buildings is all about finding the right mix of innovation to improve infrastructure, technology, and occupant well-being. One of the biggest impacts a company can make on an employee or potential customer is the experience they have when they walk into the building. Employees have responded that they’re already looking for tech-enabled smart offices. Employers that can offer a smart building experience, can look forward to the cost and energy savings those buildings produce, but also to a happier, more engaged and productive workforce that resides inside.

smart buildingKarpook is vice chairman of the Open Standards Consortium for Real Estate (OSCRE) and an industry expert of technology solutions for facility management and real estate. He is an active contributing member of IFMA, and a strategic business consultant for Planon, a global software provider that helps organizations to streamline business processes for buildings, people and workplaces. A 20-year industry veteran, he has been a customer, vendor and system implementer, trainer, and strategist, managing workplace technology projects around the world. He is the marketing committee chair for IFMA’s Corporate Real Estate Council. A graduate architect with degrees from Harvard University and the University of Florida, his additional experience includes seven years as a facility manager and construction project manager at the University of Florida.