Stop Calling Your Building Smart, Prove It

The term smart building gets thrown around so much that we have become desensitized to it. The concept seems so simple to us, living in our digitally connected paradigms, but the idea that a building can be smart is actually both old and new. While there is plenty of mention of “intelligent buildings” in the early 1980’s, the first public mention that I can find of the term “smart building” doesn’t come from a developer, an architect, or a research team, it comes from Tony Stark. That’s right, Iron Man. 

Way back in 1994, the first edition of the Force Works comic book rolled off the presses. In it, Iron Man describes his lair as a smart building because of its ability to defend itself from the types of problems that tend to befall superhero lairs. As far as I could find, the term “smart building” didn’t start popping up in scholarly publications until 2005 in a research report titled Structural Health Monitoring of Smart Civil Structures Using Fibre Optic Sensors.

Like many words that seem to spring up out of nowhere to become a shared piece of the lexicon, smart building is a term that we all understand on a superficial level. We use it without hesitation and nod in understanding when it gets used, assuming that the other party in the communication must have a full grasp on what it means. But that is the problem: we don’t agree on its meaning. 

There is no official definition for smart buildings. Even if there was, it would likely be a very low threshold, something like “a structure that uses technology to automatically improve its efficiency or respond to  its occupants.” By this definition, a garden shed with a motion-sensing light would qualify. More important than just labeling a building smart or not (people are going to do that regardless) is to be able to quantify how smart a building actually is. This is no easy task, there are hundreds if not thousands of different ways that a building can be considered smart. Recently, a team of researchers and industry partners formed a non-profit called the International Intelligent Buildings Organisation to help standardize and quantify a building’s intelligence using an Intelligent Buildings Index.

This research initiative conceived almost two years ago was recently unveiled at the Realcomm IBCON technology conference in Nashville. The main spokesperson, co-founder and acting-CEO for the organisation, Shen Chiu, also the National Development Director at Investa Property Group, one of the organization’s industry partners, presented the IB Index. He talked about the “lack of a globally accepted classification system for relative building intelligence” and how “frustrating it was as a developer to not have a clear roadmap or reference to assess the relative value of technology(s) within budget constraints.” This was a call to action for the industry to support this initiative with sponsorship, technical expertise and access to interrogate their “smart” buildings for field testing and calibration of the tool.

One of the other presenters at the conference was Josh Ridley, CEO of Willow, a company that creates digital twins for buildings and infrastructure. He has worked with some of the world’s leading commercial property owners like The Durst Organisation, Brookfield Property Partners and Oxford Properties. He sees pressure coming from investors to invest in sustainable, forward-thinking technologies for their portfolios, “The stakes are getting higher for property owners, as they are being asked to deliver more in areas including climate impact and corporate and social governance. Property teams need to know where to focus their resources and investment to make a difference to their organisation, and the community at large.”

Dr Julie Jupp, professor at the University of Technology Sydney echoed the same sentiment, “the need for greater understanding and transparency of intelligent buildings is required not only by the smart building market, but more broadly by society.” The UTS is the academic partner for the IB Index and Jupp thinks that for the maximum amount of benefit to be derived from all of the technology being put into smart buildings, that “the smart building market has no clear and accepted method to assess the value of building intelligence–how intelligence was realized and how it will perform throughout its lifecycle. Until we can make it easier for all parties to understand the links between the required enablers and real outcomes of building intelligence, then investment, planning and innovation processes will remain rudderless.”

One of the main proponents for this initiative is Microsoft. They are co-sponsors for this program and, as their GM of Applied Innovation Rimes Mortimer explained, have a number of reasons to want there to be a standard qualification for smart buildings, “The goal for Microsoft is to use the IB index as a way to help us evaluate buildings we might develop or lease for our employees and as a tool to help our customers improve their building’s “intelligence” and usefulness through technology integration.”

Microsoft sees smart buildings as a large part of their future. They are in the process of redeveloping their sprawling 500-acre campus in Redmond, Washington. Plus, they have made major changes to their organization to help them focus on cloud and IoT applications. The IB Index helps them on both of these fronts.

In order to maintain objectivity and independence, the IB organisation will be administered by a board of directors with technical direction driven by a committee of industry experts, with UTS the research lead. When I spoke to the chairman of the board, Dr Michael Easson, Executive Chair of EG Funds Management and Willow Technology Corporation (two of the other industry partners), he told me, “All of us present at the creation of the IB Index want this to be owned and used by industry, as an independent, research and evidence-based industry body: a not for profit that seeks and measures truth. Instead of assertions, we can now call on science and the deployment of actionable data-driven insights.”

The criteria are too complicated to fully describe in this article but they revolve around six pillars: Project Delivery; Instrumentation, Devices and Applications; Control, Monitoring and Management; Economic and Fiscal Impact; Social and Behavior Impacts; and Environmental Impacts. Each one of those pillars is carved into dozens of other criteria and weighted accordingly. At Realcomm, Chiu showed a slide of the assessment criteria that looked like a periodic table with dozens of boxes.

If this initiative takes off, the term smart building won’t just be fodder for press releases and marketing materials. It will come with a score and the gravitas that third party authentication brings. It will help developers understand where their investment is best made and asset managers know which buildings to acquire. Dr. Michael Easson emphasised this point. “The IB Index will become increasingly important to what EG Funds Management and other progressive property developers do with data-driven investment strategies. We can now for the first time measure a building’s relative intelligence and make informed decisions about to enhance a buildings value”.

There will likely be disagreements about the qualifications and modifications to the requirements as a result. These are good things in my mind. Technology is changing and what we need from our buildings is evolving. Creating a ranking system for something as complicated as the modern smart building will undoubtedly have its flaws. But at least we will have something tangible to use as a benchmark, not just a snazzy, made up buzzword that we took from a comic book.If you want to find out more about the IB Index and the organisation that is developing and administering it, you can contact them here.

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