We need to create buildings that don’t contribute to increasing climate change and can adapt to the climate change that is happening. Buildings that are energy efficient and resilient. Many people point to ‘smart buildings’ as a solution; a technological fix. This worries me because they talk about smart instead of efficient, comfortable, usable, desirable and low-carbon.

I have always been nervous about the concept of smart homes and buildings. Using technology to get more out of buildings makes sense, but the business proposition for most smart technologies seems to be that we can actively drive the building to its optimum state, overriding its natural behaviour.

Active control makes sense for modern fighter aircraft, where direct computer control of a fundamentally unstable airframe gives incredible agility, known as supermaneuverability. Blindingly fast control systems stop the aircraft falling out of the sky.

Buildings shouldn’t need that sort of control. It would make more sense for buildings to passively adapt to changing conditions. Homeostatic buildings using control of solar gain, insulation, heat and cool stores, passive stack ventilation and many other design principals from traditional buildings.

The real benefits of smart building technologies

So I was very interested to listen in to a panel discussion – “Smart Buildings 2030: An Accelerated Decade for Innovation” at the recent Cleantech Forum event in San Francisco. Here were four top specialists in the field; developing and promoting smart buildings technologies. What would be their position? Promote technology as a solution to creating buildings that are fit for the future, or see technology as a way of making good buildings great?

“software can’t fix a broken building”

The discussion impressed me. The panel constantly emphasised data as a major output from smart building projects. By closely monitoring a building with IoT sensors you can learn how people use it, and how they interact with the building. You can begin to overcome the silos between design, construction, operation and usage. Better understanding of how a building works in practice feeds back into better designs for the future.

Three quotes from the conversation stuck in my mind:

  • “software doesn’t solve problems, it educates”
  • “software can’t fix a broken building”
  • “smart systems in a poorly designed building are like putting lipstick on a pig”

Smart building technologies are not a bolt-on to overcome the limitations of the building. At their best they get the most out of a building and create better designs for the future.

The economic bneefits of high-performance buildings

The panel also talked a lot about creating the business case for investing in better buildings. Traditionally, we make the case in terms of energy savings and reduced maintenance costs. But the big benefits are for the people who live and work there.

A recent report, “The Financial Case for High Performance Buildings”, looked at the commercial benefits of efficient well-run buildings to the bottom line of the business. Their conclusions were startling. A high-performance building is worth an additional $3,395 in annual profit per employee and $18.56 per square foot of building, at an additional construction cost of $20 per square foot. The breakdown of these benefits is:

Enhanced employee productivity 43%
Increased employee retention 41%
Improved employee health and wellbeing 7%
Utility savings 7%
Maintenance savings 2%

Only 9% of the total benefit comes from savings in operational costs of the building. Over 90% comes from increased performance, satisfaction and wellbeing of the workforce.

A high-performance building is worth an extra annual $3,395 profit per employee

This study focused on commercial buildings, but the same will be true of housing. The benefits to the people and the avoided costs to society far outweigh the direct savings in utility and maintenance costs.

Three take-home messages

Three important messages to take away from this discussion:

  • Smart systems can’t fix a poor building
  • The real benefit of smart buildings is understanding how buildings work and are used, and creating high-performance buildings
  • The real economic benefits from high-performance buildings come from improvements in the lives of the people who use them

That feels like a realistic assessment to me.

Smart Building Technology CAN Produce Great Buildings
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