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‘Smart buildings’ describes a completely new way for businesses to think about the property they own or rent. It’s more than just evolving those environments to be more technologically advanced through the likes of swipecard entry systems and high-speed fibre to every desktop. It’s more than a plethora of automated sensors to detect temperature and movement so that lights and heating can be switched up, down, on or off.

It’s about making the building understand the people who work there

Property costs occupy a big part of any business balance sheet, as do people costs for that matter. Getting them working in harmony is the ultimate aim of the smart buildings revolution. The results potentially equate to vast savings for large organisations, as space utilisation and work/time productivity are maximised to new levels.

Much of the early evidence for this brave new world comes from Australia, where foresighted planners and developers have been putting the theory into action, according to this report in The Guardian.

The South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute, for example, uses an integrated system that coordinates all of the building’s technologies – heating, cooling, hydraulics, fire monitoring, lighting, security – from one place. It has reportedly helped to save 18% in energy savings alone.

Deloitte’s Sydney office goes one stage further by requiring staff to use an app showing where they are sitting to help management identify “live” and “dead” spaces, plus how many people are in the building at any given time. ANZ Bank has something similar, using sensors to identify occupancy in individual areas and bringing in new, modular furniture (such as locker bays on wheels that doubled as room separators, and mobile kitchens) to maximise space.

These approaches look set to deliver even more value in the UK where office space comes at a bigger premium. According to the latest edition of the British Council of Offices Guide to Specification, the average density of workspace in the UK is 10.9 sq. m. per person, down from 11.8 sq. m. in 2009. The worldwide average is 14 sq. m. Rises in UK property costs show no signs of abating.

Users need to engage for the full benefits to be realised

But the benefits of smart buildings are cut short when people don’t sufficiently engage with the process. Development of good user interfaces is key, as is finding ways to surface the information that provides the greatest value to individuals. Facilitating the increased appetite for flexible working practices is a critical component of this effort.

Getting this wrong can be counterproductive, as users become concerned about their privacy and how ‘Big Brother’ could even be undermining their job security. A notable example is the case of The Daily Telegraph, which one day decided to install sensors on the desks of journalists and other staff without explaining what they were for. Intervention from the NUJ, and a spate of negative press coverage, forced an immediate climbdown and an erosion of trust between employer and employees. This could have been avoided by clearer communication, an invitation to ‘opt-in’, or an assurance that personal data would be treated anonymously.

Software is key to integrating complex, multiple data sources into intelligence that businesses can act upon

Software developers love a broad new canvas to paint upon, and smart buildings looks set to occupy them for many years to come. But behind the slick user interfaces and the beautiful graphical representations of space utilisation and productivity is something more important: the ‘heavy-lifting’ integration of disconnected data flows and information sources.

Research by law firm Charles Russell Speechlys found that 65% of real estate developers believe smart buildings’ ability to capture valuable data will increasingly be factored into the valuations of commercial property. We at illumo digital have enough experience to understand that’s a pipe-dream if data integration isn’t successfully executed. The question is, do they?