Smart buildings: Structures that think

Smart, networked real estate will house the long-term living and working environments of the future. However, for this to happen, traditional building automation needs to transform into forecast-based management using data generated by sensors and AI technologies.

The world has been in the grip of COVID-19 for a year. And we recognize how important digitalization is – or would be – in overcoming crises such as this. This isn’t just about the smooth transition into remote working and home schooling – rather, more pandemic-resistant schools and office buildings could make a significant contribution to reducing the risk of infection right now. For example, switches and door handles can be swapped for contactless, voice-operated or automatically triggered equivalents. Modern air conditioning and air purifying devices would also guarantee somewhat normal operation in many indoor areas. But the things that are relevant to the pandemic likewise increase energy and work efficiency, as well as comfort under normal circumstances.

Smart buildings are becoming the norm

So it’s no wonder that “smart buildings” – for example, those with WiredScore certification (assessment of digital building infrastructure) – are now in high demand in the real estate industry. 75 percent of the people asked in the Deloitte study “Commercial Real Estate Outlook 2020” expect that intelligent buildings will become the norm within the next five years. And according to Gartner, the greatest growth in IoT devices is occurring in building automation. In 2018 there were around 230 million networked devices around the world. In 2022, that number is to rise to 483 million.

But buildings with intelligence are still the exception. The Cube in Berlin is among the few pioneers, with the highest category of WiredScore certification. Since spring 2020, an artificial intelligence (“Brain”) has been fed data from 3,750 sensors, 750 beacons (small Bluetooth transmitters) and 140 mobile communications antennae in this eleven-floor “smart commercial building” designed by Copenhagen-based architectural practice 3XN. Based on this data, it manages and optimizes the entire building and caters to the individual needs of the users. Air conditioning, access controls and room reservations can all be operated using an app. And last but not least, the volume of data accrued combined with the AI results in entirely new applications, services and business models.

Among these flagship smart buildings is also “The Edge” in Amsterdam, with around 28,000 built-in sensors. The 40,000-square-meter large office building consumes 70 percent less electricity than its traditional counterparts. For that reason, in 2016 it received the prize for the most sustainable building in the world.

Smart buildings – the key to the energy transition

This already shows what an important role the upcoming generations of buildings will play. According to the German Ministry of Economy, they currently still account for 35.3 percent of the energy consumption in Germany. The aim is to reduce this by 80 percent by 2050. Experts estimate that 30 percent of the current usage could be saved by adjusting the actual technical building services alone. Smart buildings take care of this automatically and in real time. At the same time, thanks to the installation of charging infrastructure for hybrid and electric vehicles, they support electric mobility directly in the building.

In fact, the Smart Buildings Study by the German Association for the Digital Economy (BVDW) identified the trend toward sustainable energy and resource usage as the greatest driver for the Smart Building concept. The area of “improved usability through digital assistance systems” only came in second place.

In third place, however, came an aspect that will gain relevance in future: The “integration into a smart city ecosystem” and “platform economy.” Thereby, by using smart meters and networking with the smart grid, buildings will be able, for example, not only to optimize their own energy consumption, but also to act as power generators themselves and feed excess energy into the network.

All in all, digitalization in the building industry is still in its infancy. The study by the German Association for the Digital Economy (BVDW) demonstrates this. In the two highest levels of a six-level maturity model there is very little real estate. The main reason for this is the unfavorable cost-benefit ratio for achieving the next “smartness level.” A factor the makers of the study consider to be less relevant, but nonetheless significant, is the lacking know-how for the implementation. And data protection, cyber security and interface management present a further obstacle. But procuring and managing data are prerequisites for smart buildings. So far, there is no set of rules for simple and, above all, secure access to data. In this area, planning and operating concepts in which cyber security is recognized as an integral component, need to be developed.

Knowledge base

BVDW/Otis: Smart Buildings March 2021

Smart Buildings in the Internet of Things February 2019

Deloitte: Commercial Real Estate Outlook 2020