Developing future-ready commercial buildings to be sustainable and efficient

Today’s commercial buildings must balance many needs from supporting an ever-growing number of connected devices, to minimizing their environmental impact, to creating an optimal and differentiated experience for tenants.

By Matt Powers December 8, 2023

Office building insights

  • Future-proofing commercial buildings demands scalable infrastructure exceeding current needs, integrating varied technologies and prioritizing sustainable design to adapt and excel amid evolving demands and standards.
  • Achieving optimal efficiencies in commercial buildings involves leveraging integrated technologies like PoE and LED lighting for reduced energy usage, operational automation and enhanced tenant experiences to help set buildings apart in a competitive market.

Changes in the world and workplace in recent years have redefined what’s essential in commercial buildings. Seamless collaboration between in-office and remote workers is now a must. Buildings also are expected to be more sustainable in their design and their operation. The problem is a growing number of connected devices are putting greater demands on buildings’ network infrastructures.

Developing a commercial building with an eye only on these needs could put it at risk of not being able to meet the needs of tomorrow. Commercial buildings after all are long-term investments for owners and tenants alike. To be successful, they must be able to adapt to the evolving and often difficult-to-predict needs of the people who occupy them, not to mention comply with new standards, regulations and societal expectations.

Will the building, for example, be able to support the next iteration of technology-enabled collaboration, whatever it looks like? Will the building be able to satisfy not only today’s pressures, but also tomorrow’s regulations to be more sustainable? Can the building still give tenants a comfort level and modern work experience that’s so exceptional they can’t imagine working anywhere else?

All of this is why it’s important that commercial buildings, whether they’re retrofits or new buildings, be developed with the future in mind. Many of the considerations that go into a commercial building today also must extend to their connected parking facilities. No longer concrete caverns with minimal needs beyond lighting, these facilities now must accommodate a wide range of needs, including access controls, security cameras, and electric vehicle charging stations.

Developing a holistic approach for commercial building design

Designing a future-ready commercial building involves far more than merely selecting the latest technologies for its integration. Today’s smarter and highly connected buildings, for example, require infrastructures that can deliver more power, higher bandwidth and reach extended distances. Technologies must also be able to integrate into the infrastructure and with other technologies with little or no effort.

Given how fast technologies evolve, it’s worth considering alternative deployment options like a hardware-as-a-service model. This can help engineers and building owners keep up with new innovations as they hit the market.

Keeping up with the latest industry standards is also important. Choosing and implementing technologies in compliance with standards put out by groups such as BICSI, TIA, IEEE, ISO and ONVIF enables engineers to meet current expectations in areas like scalability, safety, security and availability.

Keeping these considerations in mind can help the development process go more smoothly and with less risk of changes down the road.

At the same time, delivering smarter, more sustainable and more efficient commercial buildings can feel like an uphill climb. That’s why it can be helpful to focus on the three most crucial needs in a modern commercial building: A scalable infrastructure with integrated technology, optimal efficiencies and a sustainable design.

Figure 1: Technological advances and IoT enablement improve operations of environmental controls, lighting, safety and security for commercial buildings. Courtesy: Wesco

Figure 1: Technological advances and IoT enablement improve operations of environmental controls, lighting, safety and security for commercial buildings. Courtesy: Wesco

Scalable infrastructure and integrated technology

Research company Memoori estimates more than 1.5 billion connected devices were installed in smart commercial buildings in 2022. And the company forecasts that number will more than double by 2028 to 3.25 billion connected devices.

To support the continued buildup of connected devices – and avoid the costly “rip and replace” of cabling that happens when bandwidth capacity is reached early – a building should be equipped with an open and scalable, standards-based communications infrastructure that exceeds the tenant’s current needs.

To anticipate and satisfy tenants’ requirements over the next 10 to 15 years, the infrastructure will likely surpass their current needs. For instance, it may use 10-gigabit Ethernet cabling, even if the bandwidth isn’t required yet. A layered approach that matches different types of infrastructure — from copper and fiber cabling to Wi-Fi and even private 5G networks — to different customer needs can also help make sure the infrastructure is fit for purpose.

When it comes to the building subsystems deployed on this foundation, don’t settle for the most basic functionality. Instead, unleash new and better capabilities in them by integrating them with other technologies.

A surveillance system, for instance, can do more in a smart building than monitor and log activities that happen on premises. It can be combined with artificial intelligence (AI) software to identify and proactively alert building operators of suspicious activity. It also can be integrated with other building subsystems to unlock greater operational efficiencies.

Of course, activities like deploying a scalable, standards-based infrastructure or integrating technologies from different vendors may require more effort than the design team has to spare. This is why it might be time to start asking more of the partners building owners and engineers work with.

Distributors, for example, should no longer be seen as just procurement experts. Instead, tap into their depth of knowledge and capabilities to benefit the project. Perhaps they can verify technologies under consideration have been tested for interoperability. Maybe they’ve even done that testing on their own. They also may be able to fill gaps in the team’s knowledge about the latest standards. Many have members on standards boards and can provide unmatched expertise on current and future standards.

Optimal efficiencies for commercial buildings

The efficiencies unlocked in a commercial building can be key to setting the building apart from others on the market. In a smart and sustainable building, efficiency can take on many forms and functions, including in commonly sought-after areas such as reduced energy usage.

Power over Ethernet (PoE) can reduce power consumption in the form of plug load during periods of low usage. Each port on a switch can power down when devices are not in use. PoE also can determine the length of the cable and adjust power usage accordingly.

When a PoE infrastructure is combined with LED lighting, even greater savings can be realized. Whether converting existing lighting to LED fixtures or deploy them in a new build will deliver better results because LED lighting is a brighter, whiter light source. On top of that, LED lighting can deliver a 50 to 70% reduction in energy usage over its lifespan.

However, the advanced capabilities of a smart building also can drive efficiencies by simplifying and automating aspects of its operations to help tenants be more productive. Building owners may be able to create a special work experience companies will pay a premium for.

Imagine this scenario that’s already possible: An office worker scans their security keycard to enter a building. Because the building’s access-control system is integrated with the lighting system, the scanning of the keycard can trigger the lights in that person’s office to turn on. If that person has a meeting that’s about to start, everyone on-site and participating in the meeting can be alerted that they’ve arrived. The video conferencing technology in the assigned conference room also can be activated for their meeting. All based on the swipe of a keycard.

A smart building can also make activities like maintenance more efficient. For instance, IoT-enabled current transformers can track the amount of power coming into mechanical systems like an HVAC system. Over time, the transformers may identify the systems drawing more power. This can alert maintenance teams something is wrong so they can address the issue before the underlying issue causes an expensive breakdown.

Figure 2: For future-ready infrastructure aligned with the building lifecycle, IT and OT design approaches must converge. Courtesy: Wesco

Figure 2: For future-ready infrastructure aligned with the building lifecycle, IT and OT design approaches must converge. Courtesy: Wesco

Developing a sustainable building design

Engineers can use a smart building’s data and connectivity in several ways to reduce the building’s environmental impact and create a comfortable environment for workers.

For example, LED lighting can improve a building’s sustainability by reducing its energy usage and increasing the time to replacement. But there are ways to use this lighting more efficiently in a smart building.

For example, buildings can use daylight harvesting, in which the lighting system automatically dims the lights as more daylight enters the building. It’s important to remember this approach is most effective when used with other measures such as when a building is designed to let in the maximum amount of sunlight.

Technology integration is key to driving sustainability. When a building’s access-control system is integrated with the HVAC system, for instance, it can allow a building’s temperature to be controlled more efficiently based on the number and location of people in the building.

Of course, sustainability measures only have value if it can be measured. By collecting and logging the data for energy and other utilities, engineers can establish a baseline to know what consumption rates are today, identify areas for improvement and track any improvements made. All this information can also then be reported in an environmental, social and governance (ESG) or sustainability report. It also will be accessible for future regulations that require energy or emissions disclosures.

Developing a building that stands out

Even as return-to-office mandates continue to grow, office vacancy rates remain high. The national vacancy rate was 17.5% as of August 2023 — up from a pre-pandemic low of 11.4% in 2019 — and multiple metro areas continue to have vacancy rates above 20%. Developing smarter, more efficient and more sustainable commercial buildings can not only help better meet tenants’ expectations and needs in a workplace, but it also can give buildings a critical edge in a competitive market.

Author Bio: Matt Powers is vice president of global technology & support services (TSS) for Wesco. Matt leads a technology team of global engineers who partner with international teams specializing in supporting complex customer applications.