Oliver Iltisberger, division president, ABB Smart Buildings looks at the evolution of the smart building

The last 12 months have seen an acceleration in digitalization across many aspects of work and home life as the need to stay virtually connected increased. Home spaces became workspaces, and commercial buildings had to adapt to changed use and lower occupancy rates.

However, we can’t necessarily assume that the need for office space will decrease. Research by property firm CBRE among 126 senior level global real estate executives found that 41 percent believed the importance of the physical office will decrease only slightly, while 38 percent said it will remain as important, if not more so. That said, there will be a much greater focus on how the building impacts employee wellbeing in the design and construction stage of new projects, and older buildings will need to be retrofitted to adapt to new ways of working.

For example, we see a clear need for more flexible spaces as many companies move towards remote working models and need for physical workplaces for every employee is reduced. In the future we may visit our offices less and typically for periodic collaborative interaction, thus reducing the demand for permanent space allocations and increasing meeting spaces for colleagues and guests.

There is also a need for HVAC systems that support health, with increased air flow and room air changes as well as greater amounts of fresh air from natural ventilation (windows). At the same time, this requirement for more fresh air flow can also result in an increased need to heat the fresh air and more frequent filter changes. Underlying these needs is improved energy efficiency to support the new demands.

In short, there has never been a better time to adopt smart building technologies. The ability to turn a traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ building into an agile asset that can learn and adapt to its surroundings will become increasingly important as we adapt to our new reality. Smart offices will become independently intelligent, learning how occupants use the space and services, adjusting lighting, HVAC and other systems to maximize health and comfort. This will ultimately create a trend for ‘healthier’ buildings that will have a positive impact in terms of improved quality of life and wellbeing of occupants, resulting in higher productivity levels.

At ABB, innovation is in our DNA and we have already shifted our own approach. In one of our head offices, we are trialing a new way of working, having evolved our working spaces based on employee feedback to foster greater creativity and collaboration. Featuring designated zones linked to behaviors, we will evaluate use and feedback for six months with a view to adapting the design for future roll out. We fully recognize though that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach and that we will need to tailor our designs for different locations to reflect local needs.

Intelligent buildings that would have been unimaginable a few decades ago are now a reality. And, as technologies including 5G and IoT advance, the possibilities become even more exciting, with buildings learning to adapt to their occupiers’ needs, becoming intuitive and agile assets with connectivity at the core.