Introduction to Smart Buildings

Real Estate Industry context

Since the beginning of the 2000s, the digital revolution, first led by Web technologies, then led by Mobile technologies reached and disrupted most parts of the economy. The Real-Estate industry is one of the few that did not hop on the digital transformation wagon. This delay is caused by multiple factors, here’s a list of the main ones:

  • Buildings are designed to last for multiple decades. Only a small fraction, about 1% in developed countries, is rebuilt every year making it a market with a huge stock and few new edifices. Consequently, most of the buildings have been designed and constructed before the digital age.
  • The building industry has a complex value-chain that involves multiple stakeholders: developers, builders, realtors, property managers and finally occupants. Until now, the needs of the latter were not the main concern of the other players.
  • Real Estate has been a very profitable business especially for developers and brokers. Therefore, innovation was not a requirement to maintain profitability.
  • Most of the Construction and Real Estate industry employees are not tech enthusiast. The consequence of this has been to curve the adoption of new technologies comparatively with other industries.
  • The lack of open technical standards led to the proliferation of proprietary norms with consequent major interoperability problems.
  • In the past, Building Automation tools have been considered as a gadget because of poor user experience and reliability issues. This fueled skepticism about the benefits of digital technologies inside buildings.

Numbers show that buildings aren’t efficient places: about 30% of energy is wasted in US commercial buildings and private offices are not used 70% of the time on average. Under the combined rise of Real Estate asset prices and the new needs of both companies and employees, The Real Estate Industry is now under pressure to deliver more value per dollar spent. Building Digitalization a.k.a. Smart Building is the only way to get there which is a great opportunity for technology providers.

Domains of the Smart Buildings

New digital technologies can be used to improve building usage and occupant experience in four areas. The first area is Energy Management which is a 2-fold subject. On the one hand is Energy Saving, which is a way to use occupancy data to improve knowledge of how and when buildings use energy and therefore adjust consumption accordingly: automatic light management when people leave or enter a room, temperature management for occupied or unoccupied rooms, etc. On the other hand, is Energy Production. This point involves using buildings to produce energy by installing equipment such as solar panels and then using them either for self- consumption or for reselling on the local grid. The second area is Occupant Services which includes all the services provided to visitors and employees such as indoor location, way finding, colleague locator and meeting rooms / workspace management. The third area is Facility Management which is about operating buildings with activities such as cleaning, mail management and basic maintenance. The fourth area is Safety and Security to manage access control and fire/hazard safety.

The way toward Smart Buildings

Before deploying digital services inside buildings, several prerequisite need to be met in the following fields: sensors, network, mapping and positioning.

Building managers first need to gather all the possible data within and around the building: presence, temperature, air quality, etc. Those data have to be collected on a recurring basis and in as many places as necessary in order to define building usage and create a behavioral model. Sensors are the key component to gather those data, therefore it is delusory to do anything before having a reliable sensor network. Unfortunately, in most buildings there is a practical problem that comes from already deployed sensors. Most of the time, those sensors are embedded or linked to existing proprietary equipment such as HVAC or security devices. As a consequence, temperature sensors work well to directly regulate heating systems but it is complicated if not impossible to retrieve their data from the outside. Therefore, Open Sensor systems are preferable to deploy new digital services. Consequently, many companies deploy redundant autonomous sensors to overcome this issue.

Network availability is another prerequisite to setup new digital services. To begin with, networks are necessary to transmit data from sensors toward other components. Depending on multiple constraints such as energy consumption, range or throughput, it is possible to choose to use different kind of networks: LAN (Ethernet, Wi-Fi), WAN (LTE), LPWAN (LoRA, SigFox) or PAN (Zigbee, Z-Wave). Then, users need networks to access digital services. Most of the time, this is done using a smartphone with an LTE or Wi-Fi network access. That’s the reason why network coverage is a critical point in a Smart Building strategy. Besides, it is important to remember that it is far more complicated and expensive to design and deploy digital services with offline capabilities.

Floor plan ubiquity a.k.a. indoor mapping is necessary since most of the new digital services need to use building maps to display directions or data to either provide way finding services, or to show meeting rooms and workstations status in real time, or to help maintenance teams to locate technical devices or security officers to manage patrol itineraries. Floor plan management is a complex matter due to the fact that floor plans need to be kept up to date with data coming from multiple databases (BMS, CMMS, Directories, etc.). There is a strong need for a centralized indoor mapping platform able to manage floor plan data, version changes, and synchronization toward other applications. The lack of an indoor mapping leads to a proliferation of issues, an increased complexity and significant additional costs. Last but not least, the mapping platform should process any floor plan format such as BIM or DWG and should be open to third-party software.

Indoor positioning is the best way to locate people or devices inside buildings. Since the standard GPS technology doesn’t work inside building, alternative systems have to be used. There are numerous technologies available to do so, some re-use existing technologies to figure out user position (e.g. Wi-Fi, Li-Fi), others rely on dedicated devices (e.g. BLE, UWB). Indoor positioning is required for both interactive uses (i.e. providing the blue dot on the map or showing equipment positions) or for analytic purposes (e.g. Heat maps). Along with indoor mapping, indoor positioning is an essential component to provide Contextual Services to building occupants.

Simply stacking up high level digital solutions such as workspace management software isn’t sufficient to fulfill occupant needs. Those services have to be carefully selected, should communicate together and be based on a common ground of sensors, networks, mapping and positioning services. Additionally, they have to be deployed on a consistent and delimited perimeter. The Smart Building movement is not just an evolution for the building industry, it’s a complete revolution of the way to design, build, operate, sell and use buildings.

Key points to remember

  • Building and Real Estate industries are lagging behind in digitization.
  • Buildings are very inefficient places and occupants are waiting for quick breakthrough.
  • Smart Building isn’t just a passing trend and has numerous benefits especially for occupants.
  • Open sensors are preferable and network availability, indoor mapping and positioning are pre-requisite.