What role do smart buildings play in the new normal?

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As we reappraise how we use our buildings, a combination of traditional and smart building technologies will play a critical role in safeguarding people’s health and improving business sustainability, says George Adams, director of energy and engineering at SPIE UK

Whether for new projects or in buildings where smart systems have already been installed, it is clear that pre-pandemic usage patterns will not hold once lockdown restrictions are lifted.

With the increasing focus from customers and the investor community on environmental and social governance practices, taking action to be as sustainable with your energy use as possible can have a direct impact on your investment prospects and bottom line.

The past 12 months have caused us to fundamentally re-evaluate the importance of the buildings we live and work in and the impact that they have on our lives, our wellbeing and their relationship with the environment. For the most part, office use has been minimal but in instances where commercial premises have been open, it has been imperative that they are improved with systems designed to reduce the risk of people falling ill.

From low-tech options, such as door handles that dispense hand sanitiser, to ventilation and air filtration systems, and intelligent building occupancy and contact tracking solutions, businesses and their employees are now acutely aware of the potential impact, both positive and negative, that their working environment has on their health.

More challenges, more data

Even before the onset of the pandemic, there was a risk of being overwhelmed by the amount of data that could be produced by buildings. Numerous different metrics can be collected from sensors, wearable devices, identity cards, mobile phones and laptops. This can make the process of deciding between data that is useful and data that isn’t as complicated as deciding how to act on it. This challenge still remains for businesses and building managers, who need to ascertain which are the most effective data sources for their needs.

Collecting data is one thing, using it effectively is another. It is crucial to study how the building is used. Whether for new projects or in buildings where smart systems have already been installed, it is clear that pre-pandemic usage patterns will not hold once lockdown restrictions are lifted.

Those using smart systems to improve building efficiency and employee welfare need to study users to understand likely occupancy. From here, they will be able to decide the best way to use technology so that it is fit for purpose. Through the use of data collection and analysis, much of this refinement can be automated. Using a range of solutions from simple monitoring to artificial intelligence, management costs can be reduced and deliver a better RoI over time as usage patterns change.

Now data is personal

One of the major issues facing anyone who wants to implement simple or smart building technologies is privacy. Employees and those that represent them have concerns, such as whether the data collected will be used for purposes beyond the stated function of the process.

The pandemic has brought this into sharp focus because data is now being collected that is related to people’s wellbeing, and this data can be sensitive. For example, some public and private buildings have installed thermal imaging technology to automatically detect people who have a high temperature so they can be segregated from the premises, helping to reduce the risks of spreading infections.

While data collection methods offer a clear benefit to the building occupants and/or operator, it does raise a number of challenges. Firstly, are those that use the building aware of the data being collected on them? Do they understand the reasons and benefits of why it is being collected and why their consent is needed? Secondly, are safeguarding measures in place to ensure the data collected is not used for purposes beyond the stated use? Moreover, what records are kept of the data, how it is used and disposed of. All of these considerations are central to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) protections on data privacy and must be factored into the use of data collection methodology.

Rebuilding for the future

Notwithstanding the challenges, there are some real benefits to be gained from creating buildings that are smarter, particularly in how businesses and facilities managers operate their buildings.

One obvious driver of the need for smarter building technologies comes from the need to ensure efficient use of space in the era of flexible working. Businesses are inevitably going to find that their office is rarely, if ever, at maximum capacity.

The challenge for businesses is that as the level of occupancy changes from day-to-day, so the use of the office space needs to be managed in the most efficient way possible. Smarter building systems will be critical to ensuring that running costs do not spiral out of control and environmental impacts are reduced. Moreover, costs for ventilating, humidifying, heating and lighting can be further managed through systems that automatically optimise system operations to the changing occupancy patterns.

As well as delivering RoI and good reputations for businesses by reducing risks and costs, such systems also play an important role in a business’ sustainability. A sustainable business is not simply defined as one that creates environmentally responsible products or services but can be any business that adopts sustainable corporate social responsibility measures. With the increasing focus from customers and the investor community on environmental and social governance practices, taking action to be as sustainable with your energy use as possible can have a direct impact on your investment prospects and bottom line.

The importance of smart building technology was already increasingly evident but the past 12 months has shown just how important it can, and will, be in the future. Human society and working practices are becoming far more flexible, the natural environment around us is changing at an incredible speed and, as such, our buildings have to be able to adapt as well.

The task of tackling such big challenges concurrently is a daunting one, but the correct application of smart building technology is undoubtedly part of the solution. There has never been such a widespread recognition of the profound impact the buildings that we live and work in have on our health; the task now is to turn this awareness into action so that our built environment is fit to serve both us and the natural world for a sustainable and prosperous future.

 

 

George Adams

Director of energy and engineering

SPIE UK

Tel: +44 (0)207 105 2300

www.spieuk.com

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