Sounding out the digital building revolution

ECA, Electrical Contractors' Association, Cloud, IoT, Internet of Things
Major market opportunity — Steve Martin.

There is no doubt of the digital building revolution, but how well are clients keeping up with it? The Electrical Contractors’ Association has carried out a survey, as Steve Martin explains.

Digitalisation is set to disrupt the status quo through the mainstream adoption of the ‘cloud’, the rise of the ‘Internet of Things’ and more and more connected technology. In fact, the value of the global Internet-of-Things market is expected to rise substantially to $1.7 trillion annually in the next four years, according to market analysts IDC.

However, just 20% of the UK’s commercial buildings are considered to be ‘smart’ at present. As a result, it’s likely that as this vast market grows, many building clients in the UK may not be ready for this technological revolution.

But what does ‘smart’ or ‘connected’ technology really mean? Raising awareness of the scope of connected technology among clients, such as facilities managers, architects and consultants, is certainly key to a more comprehensive approach to the opportunities on offer.

With this in mind, the Electrical Contractors’ Association (ECA), the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE) and Scottish electrical trade body SELECT launched a ‘connected technology’ survey for clients in November last year, to help understand the current state of play

Overall, there were 229 responses to the survey over a 3–week period in November and December; they included responses from consultants, engineers, end clients and facilities managers.

To help increase understanding of ‘connected technology’, the survey initially provided a working definition: ‘Connected technology effectively refers to any technology that enables devices within a building to communicate with each other, be controlled remotely through a connection to the internet and undertake automated and reactive tasks.’

Over half of respondents (57%) said they ‘completely agreed’ with the above working definition, while a further 38% said they agreed ‘to an extent’. 5% said they ‘did not know’, while not one respondent disagreed with the working definition.

However, four in 10 clients said they were ‘not familiar’ with the term the ‘Internet of Things’, which has become widely used in the industry in recent years. This finding shows that there is much more to be done in terms of raising awareness of the technology and opportunities that exist to clients. Respondents were, though, overwhelmingly aware of the term ‘Power over Ethernet’ (some 82%).

Broadly speaking, respondents said that buildings across a range of sectors (including residential, commercial, retail, leisure and industrial) had at present adopted ‘a limited amount’ or ‘very little’ connected technology. Significantly, looking forward five years from now, over half of clients said that ‘a significant or overwhelming majority’ of buildings in the above sectors would have connected technology installed, highlighting the major opportunity that exists in the market right now.

In terms of the technologies themselves, ‘CCTV and security’ was highlighted as the technology most likely to be installed in buildings in five years’ time (78% of respondents). Heating (74%), fire systems (69%) and building energy management systems (67%) also featured prominently.

The main reason why clients said that they would be willing to install connected technology at present is to ‘improve energy efficiency and reduce energy bills’ (58% said it was their top priority). However, with ‘CCTV and security’ being the technology most likely to be installed over the next five years, there now appears to be a shift in attitudes towards prioritising safety and security.

In terms of the main barriers to installing connected technology in buildings, clients identified ‘the cost of installing it’ (82%) as the main one, with ‘lack of clear advice/knowledge (55%) and cyber security (49%) also considered major factors.

Perhaps tellingly, almost four in 10 clients (39%) said that they didn’t take any steps to protect smart installations against cyber threats. This number is huge when you consider the inherent risks in the modern day of not securing your business from hackers. Clearly this is an area which clients urgently need to address, given the anticipated growth in smart installations over the next five years.

The recent advances in technology within lighting controls, energy storage and smart meters, and the growing use of BIM now present major new opportunities for clients and contractors. Given this, there is actually a growing need for clients to take a proactive role in the design of their buildings and systems. This will allow them to have access to the data and have the control they need, with an infrastructure to support it. Effectively, if clients have a comprehensive smart building solution designed and installed, this will allow for enhanced building monitoring and maintenance.

We hope the survey results paint a picture of the state of play in the built environment and whether the buildings around us are ready or even starting to adopt these technologies. Alongside industry partners, including CIBSE and SELECT, the ECA will now be looking to establish how installers and clients can work together more effectively on developing the connected buildings of the present and future.

To find out more about the ECA/CIBSE/SELECT connected-technology survey, please visit the link below.

Steve Martin, is head of specialist groups at the Electrical Contractors’ Association.

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