Learn about what it takes to design a smart building

By integrating a variety of systems within a building, engineers can design a building that can tackle the future

By Billy Marigold May 24, 2023
Courtesy: HDR © 2022 HDR


Learning Objectives

  • Understand what a smart building is.
  • Learn about the integration and interoperability required to design an effective smart building.
  • Review examples in which a building incorporated various smart technologies.

Smart building insights

  • Engineers and designers must achieve two things to create a smart building.
  • Smart buildings can aid in energy efficiency because all engineered systems are controlled and measured.

Imagine a workspace with smart controls. Book a desk, meeting room or informal breakout project space before leaving home via the office app, fully integrated with Microsoft Office 365 or Google Suite. If you choose to cycle to work, the app features route planning, hire sites and registration functionality and once you arrive you can access stacked pods for parking, door control, electric charging points and smart shower lockers.

Upon entering the lobby, you pass through security via face recognition system or Bluetooth and if you have visitors, you can share a QR code for smooth access. To reduce energy consumption and improve sustainability ratings, the power in the meeting room turns on only when you enter and at your discretion, you can choose to set the blinds, climate and mood lighting.

If you have a delivery to the office, there are personal Amazon-style parcel lockers as well as cool storage lockers for groceries. Everything around you is working seamlessly to improve your comfort, wellness, health and productivity, with all the data collected and analysed to advance future office designs.

The future of the 21st century office is here.

Imagine a building with smart controls. Facility management teams can view, control and measure mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) operating systems’ data in a transparent, single pane dashboard format, as well as incorporate new intelligent features and expand automation as operational needs evolve over time.

There is a significant reduction of installation costs due to the elimination of expensive standalone building management network infrastructures, a growing implementation of environmental initiatives in accordance with drive to net zero, such as reducing carbon emissions alongside decreased energy costs, as well as enhanced safety and security thanks to using data from sensors and controls to coordinate access control and improve fire safety.

A revolution in building maintenance.

Imagine a campus with smart controls. Building operators can track efficiencies based on live data across all real estate assets regardless of global location, including real-time carbon monitoring.

We now live in a world where it is possible to deliver efficient operations using artificial intelligence analytic tools for live equipment diagnostics leading to predictive maintenance cost reduction, as well as potential plant improvement identification. We are implementing a standard infrastructure approach across all buildings, including software, network selection and passive infrastructures, in order to be able to grow and flex campuswide smart operational solutions as client needs evolve over time.

Imagine all the progress within our reach once we advance to nationwide sites with smart controls and eventually global portfolios with smart controls. While smart technology is revolutionising nearly every aspect of the human experience, the way we socialize, communicate, travel or work, are the spaces we move through keeping up with the trends?

Is the built environment truly embracing the future with respect to smart technology?

Figure 1: Smart-ready meeting rooms enable businesses to streamline day-to-day operations. Courtesy: Wind and Foster © 2022 HDR

Figure 1: Smart-ready meeting rooms enable businesses to streamline day-to-day operations. Courtesy: Wind and Foster © 2022 HDR

What is a smart building?

It is essential to define a smart building. It is not enough for a facility to be equipped with a building management system (BMS); those have been around since 1970s. BMS is the starting point, yet ultimately deciphering smart classifications is the level of integration and interoperability of the building network, both user and management side, which in turn provides efficiencies and allows building owners to make live decisions about their facilities.

We can distinguish three smart stages according to the key technology features implemented. The first one is a basic nonintegrated building, with standalone incoherent systems, independent reporting and multivendor supports contracts.

The second is a digital-enabled building with integrated information and communication technologies (ICT), audiovisual (AV), security, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) and BMS networks. Benefits include integrated ICT/building network, reduced vendor support contracts, Internet of Things cloud connectivity and app-ready properties.

The third and final stage is a smart building, characterized by interoperability across all MEP and ICT systems with real-time data processing and interpretation tools, featuring big data collection and analytics, proactive reporting, device adaptive infrastructures for futureproofing and self-learning proactive maintenance, all while providing operational efficiencies with mapping out of assets for sustainability and resiliency increase, reduced costs and agile and healthier environments for more productive users.

In short, a smart building has the ability of different systems to talk to each other and interpret data.

Figure 2: Designing a truly smart building requires early smart adoption to ensure a comprehensive interoperability of systems, as shown in the London office. Courtesy: Wind and Foster © 2022 HDR

Figure 2: Designing a truly smart building requires early smart adoption to ensure a comprehensive interoperability of systems, as shown in the London office. Courtesy: Wind and Foster © 2022 HDR

Smart buildings require two things

There are two crucial factors that building engineering professionals need to focus on to deliver truly intelligent buildings. No. 1 is early adoption, backed by clear and open client communication from the conception stages.

Lessons learned during the ongoing delivery of a 33-story, 550,000-square-foot insurance market skyscraper in London, aiming for a BREEAM Excellent certification, is a vivid example of the difference between a smart adjusted building and a building born smart.

In an early adoption scenario, the process to developing a smart building strategy is agreed at Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Stage 1, with signed off strategy report and high-level budget available before RIBA Stage 3 developed design, as well as limited spatial changes at RIBA Stage 4.

Detailed value engineering review can take place during tender period and medium-scale integration (MSI) contains detailed MEP and BMS interfaces, with mapped out topologies, scalable infrastructure and single network and vendor solution. This is the desired outcome when we work with an enlightened client who has the foresight to introduce smart building design principles at the start of the project.

The late adoption timeline, with the decision to employ a smart building strategy post-design stage, reduces available options and introduces additional cost late into the project. A smart building strategy is developed in isolation, not coordinated with other design packages and thus carries a high risk, with imprecise client budget reporting and smart coordination with design team not possible until post RIBA Stage 4 design.

At time of adopting the smart solution all associated MEP BMS are already appointed, so as not to delay the construction program standalone multivendor MEP silo networks must be used, adding cost and complexity and limiting the choice of qualified vendors. Onboarding the MSI at pre-construction stage presents cost and technical challenges not previously identified to the client, thus putting an unnecessary strain on the long-term client relationship and negatively impacting retention. This scenario, an example of how not to do it, is typically experienced in the industry, resulting in effectively retrofitting a new building.

The No. 2 item for delivering real smart buildings is the employment of a single engineering design solution enabled by open protocols. In the past, clients would get locked into long contracts, receiving software that they could not modify and tailor to their needs. Things have changed and now there is a requirement for protocols to be open. And here is where a uniformed smart multidisciplinary offer comes into play.

Figure 3: Visualizing a smart building is a valuable stage, allowing clients and engineers to pinpoint the most desirable solutions. This shows the visualization in the Chicago office. Courtesy: HDR © 2022 HDR

Figure 3: Visualizing a smart building is a valuable stage, allowing clients and engineers to pinpoint the most desirable solutions. This shows the visualization in the Chicago office. Courtesy: HDR © 2022 HDR

How can a digital twin help in a smart building?

For example, many vendors offer the popular digital twin modelling, yet often this amounts to merely adding an extra overlay of sensors and software on an engineering design conceived and built by someone else. The cooperation or unification, of building engineers and the smart team is crucial for features such as digital twin to work effectively and subsequently for achieving the sustainability targets in a clearly demonstrable manner. Smart is not just a representation of the physical, it is a mirror image.

Regarding digital twin technology, it is important to stress that it is an analytic tool, which sets out the parameters of the data the software is looking for. This can be put to good use when a digital twin provides asset management capability and information source for staff to view and make the final judgment call. With all the advanced technology, the people factor is still crucial and can be hindered by nonuser-friendly analytics, therefore uniformity and coherency of how data is articulated is essential.

The right mindset is necessary to avoid the mistakes of late smart adoption, while a set of standards for data unification and demand for open protocols is needed to benefit from a truly unified smart approach. As technology evolves this will encourage and enable clients to be empowered, educated and in true collaboration with industry partners, who strive to design and deliver real smart buildings until this becomes the norm.

Truly intelligent buildings are the way forward in the worldwide sustainability race to achieve net zero by 2050. With the growing amount of voluntary and obligatory initiatives, standards and legislations, fully integrated and smart management strategies allow developers and operators to strive to be ahead of the curve.

Smart building examples

Dynamic simulation, sustainable information charts and tracking of energy efficiency historical data help to identify and analyse a building’s predicted energy consumption based on predicted and actual usage as well as different user profiles and various design options can be tested and assessed to understand their in-use operational benefits before physical implementation. The aim is to close the gap between compliance predictions and in-use operational energy; a truly connected building provides the network to achieve and exceed sustainability targets.

An important challenge industry leaders need to be mindful of is that a single smart design approach does not fit all project types. There are two primary applications. The first one is developer shell and core with public spaces, commonly referred to as Category A, mostly concerning multipurpose multitenant buildings. This involves main plant efficiencies, carbon neutral building monitoring, converged building network and building analytics.

The second approach is Category B tenant space fit-out, including user apps, local comfort controls, desk booking and integrated meeting spaces.

An insightful example of the multitude of possibilities on offer for clients is HDR’s work on a 60-story people-centered skyscraper spanning more than 1 million square feet. The HDR designers provided two teams on the project:

  • Team one: Working with the main contractor, responsible for the commissioning of Category A shell and core fit-out of the entire building. This involved commissioning a significant amount IT cabling, including fiber optics and ensuring smart usage output on each level.

  • Team two: Working on holistic building engineering services design and Category B fit-out for a tenant leasing floors nine and 10.

The skyscraper is one of the most advanced smart buildings in the world, with its own dedicated occupant app, using Bluetooth, facial recognition and QR codes instead of traditional passes. Floors nine and 10 feature a subtle combination of a high-end working space and a gallery experience, where connecting ICT together with AV and electronic security has allowed the office to be smart ready.

Define the building’s final outcome

In some cases, however, intelligent technologies are not immediately required, yet as an industry we should strive to equip these buildings for the future. The desired outcome is to deliver buildings that are smart-ready.

In London, 80 Strand is a stunning art deco-style building originally opened in 1932, located on the banks of the River Thames and Grade II Listed. HDR completed the building engineering services design together with ICT, security and provision of critical services for tech space, breathing new life and introducing 21st century technologies into one of London’s most famous historic buildings.

The designs included supplying new technology equipment rooms to support the new working environment’s high-speed voice and data networks, with a new fiber optic backbone to further allow for future expansion. The general office areas have a high-speed Wi-Fi infrastructure for agile working and the new CCTV and door systems, meanwhile, have been designed to be discreet yet also included onto the client’s network, to take advantage of the new passive and active infrastructure, enabling flexibility with respect to cameras and door access position.

The 80 Strand, a truly smart-ready building, represents the two aspects of the engineering industry crucial to many clients: preserving the sophistication of the time-honoured design while simultaneously making a technological leap into the future.

Engineers and designers are experiencing the most significant change to how buildings are designed, built, managed and supported and more importantly how landlords and tenants use the spaces. The key for building technology design is ensuring that the external building connectivity and internal networks are both well planned tools that continue to provide scalable flexible infrastructures meeting Day One requirements and subsequently continuing to adapt and support Day Two end-point growth.

Technology in relation to building systems, such as ICT, BMS, EMS, security, HVAC and AV, will continue to advance resulting in interface and endpoints being replaced and upgraded for the life cycle of the building. It is therefore essential that the ICT infrastructure can be relied upon to accommodate changes and upgrades seamlessly in terms of bandwidth and resilience.

Increasingly as buildings become smart, the carbon footprint will reduce and sustainability targets will be achieved and exceeded. smart solutions also support well-being and community, themes central to most commercial office projects, evidenced by the rising importance of certifications such as WELL Building Standards. Technology enhances user experience, human interaction with the whole build space as well as COVID-safe workplace planning and helps to embrace structural and cultural shifts in how people work and live, thus allowing tenants to benefit from the direct correlation between happiness at work and quality of workplace, increasing individual productivity and creativity.

Smart buildings are like fingerprints — they might seem similar, yet each project can have a unique approach around cost, program, client brief and intended use. To deliver timeless quality and a competitive package, it is essential to prepare a smart building strategy early in the design stage.

User experience, building information dashboards, smartphone apps, cybersecurity, open standards, sensors and integrated communication networks are key factors that inform the strategic thinking of how the building will perform. This approach has helped HDR to create value for clients, meeting their business needs while successfully integrating technologies.

Author Bio: Billy Marigold is ICT Divisional Director at HDR. He has four decades in the engineering industry and more than 30 years as an information and communications technology professional.