Where have we gone wrong?

Karl Walker
Karl Walker

Karl Walker of Beckhoff and Mike Brooman of Vanti discuss where we might be going wrong with smart buildings 

The property and construction industries are facing serious challenges; buildings now account for 40% of the world’s CO2 emissions, tenants want more flexibility in their commercial terms and are demanding higher quality experiences. The problem is that digital transformation of both industries is occurring extremely slowly.

The past decade has seen technology in buildings take huge leaps forward, resulting in more efficient spaces through connected systems. However, these connections are typically made in a point-to-point fashion, making changing or upgrading systems difficult and expensive. These deployments can’t easily facilitate data extraction or analysis either and certainly don’t support industry demands for self-optimising buildings enabled by machine learning.

What is smart?

The debate has raged on as to what constitutes a smart building and it will show no sign of stopping if we continue down the path we’re currently on. Various clients will have an idea of what smart means to them, but will not be sure, others will say their building is smart as long as it does what they want it to and, perhaps most worryingly, there will be clients that will faithfully believe their building is smart because they have been told it is by whoever installed the so-called ‘smart’ technology. However, the end product is only as effective as the sum of all its parts, and up until now too many building projects have got the approach to creating a smart building all wrong.

A smart building, in its truest sense, should be designed around its occupants, using technology to deliver useful and consistent experiences as well as spatial and energy efficiencies. The lifecycle of a commercial building can be broken down into three key stages:

• Design

• Build

• Operate and maintain

Sometimes, end users are ‘wowed’ by a fancy new innovation claiming to be smart. Buy lots of different smart objects and you might think to yourself that because your building is kitted out in smart technology it means your building is smart, but that is not necessarily the case – unless of course all those expensive gadgets are working together for the benefit of the building as a whole. We buy technology going into our buildings like we would buy a toaster for our kitchen; we buy the toaster, it sits in our kitchen, toasts our bread, it breaks and we buy a new one.

Technology within buildings needs to last. Take the Jumbo Jet; its infrastructure is modular, meaning parts can be upgraded and replaced multiple times to extend its lifespan. Our projects use a similar methodology, in that the technology within them is modular. This is vital because not every system has the same lifespan; more often than not they need changing and replacing at different timespans. However, unlike a Jumbo Jet, with a building there is an expectation that it remains in use whilst maintenance work is being carried out to minimise downtime. You wouldn't try to fix a Jumbo Jet whilst it's in flight, but that’s not the case for a building; there is a need for it to be usable whilst work takes place. Using a modular approach can also minimise this downtime and is therefore doubly important.

End in mind

So how should we approach a smart building project? Our advice here is to begin with the end in mind. Who is going to be using the building and what are they going to be doing there? According to the UK Green Building Council, 80% of the buildings that will exist in 2050 have already been built. Building projects today can be divided into five main ‘Smart’ sectors. For the end user, they must consider carefully what they are buying, what they want the building to do for them, as well as the potential for change in use in future.


Silo; Systems deployed in isolation with no control or analytics

Smart silo; Systems deployed in isolation with the ability to control their own behaviour and look at their own data, e.g. a closed lighting system that can be controlled and may generate a limited data set for analysis.

Mike Brooman
Mike Brooman

Smart building – data; Building systems are still deployed in isolation with integration between them achieving data extraction, facilitating collection of data and viewing analytics in a central location, potentially cloud based.

Smart building – experience; Building UX (“User Experience”) defines the technology experience. Systems are selected for their utility and contribution to the vision. Integration achieves two-way communication, facilitating unified in-building and mobile app control as well as centralised analytics.

Smart building; Building UX defines the technology experience; devices are selected for their utility and contribution to the vision. Integration achieves two-way communication, facilitating unified in-building and mobile app control as well as centralised analytics. Multi-protocol area controllers communicate with a single orchestration layer providing one building interface. Components are designed to be easily upgradeable over time.

By grouping functionality and building systems we can facilitate smaller, more focused conversations during the design and construction phase. There are lots of efficiencies to be gained if we begin to restructure how we procure our buildings.

Buildings contain most of the same kit when it comes to the systems used to run and manage them - physical access control, heating, ventilation, resource management/booking and energy control. Design patterns in software offer ‘generally repeatable solutions to commonly occurring problems’ – but we can extend these to cover the network infrastructure and hardware that runs buildings too.

Potential to integrate

The systems that exist in buildings are nearly all now comprised of IT components and are network-based, meaning the potential already exists to integrate them and their devices with one another, in standardised ways. This unlocks the ability to create the experiences the next generation of building users expect. Huge financial and energy efficiencies can also be realised by re-thinking how technology is installed and commissioned into buildings.

If more thought is given to how people use a building, and the potential improvements to technology and working style are taken into consideration, then time and money can be saved on adapting the building in the future. Our industry is gradually coming to realise that while a building is built to stand for 50+ years, the technology systems within it will nearly all be refreshed on three to ten-year cycles.

With this in mind, Vanti is developing Smart Core, a building technology platform and framework designed to standardise the approach people take to integrating systems and make it much more sustainable for the future. After Smart Core has been deployed, clients with the requisite skills can continue to make changes as and when required.

We see huge risks for building owners and operators locked in to poorly executed projects and proprietary products, both with associated long-running contracts. As such, the Smart Core Foundation develops approaches to achieving genuinely open building technology interoperability to ensure these expensive assets deliver exceptional user experiences through their entire lifecycle – from concept to demolition.

Karl Walker is Market Development Manager at Beckhoff Automation

Mike Brooman is CEO of Vanti

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