Mike Hook, executive director, LMG looks at digital transformation in the smart buildings industry

Digital transformation is a term used – some may say overused – across the business spectrum to describe the potential of technology to completely overhaul the way we work. With regards to the built environment, the phrase is often uttered alongside another favoured term – smart buildings. This is not just a passing phase – new standards are now being introduced to support and regulate the development of smart buildings, and many businesses are now looking to either upgrade current premises or create new ones which meet these new standards. But what do either of these expressions actually mean, and how can these concepts make a real impact on businesses and their workforces?

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced every business to rethink and re-evaluate the role and capacity of their built environments, our expectations for the buildings we occupy were already shifting. The current situation has accelerated this change and has forced health and wellbeing way up the agenda for businesses and facilities managers alike.

This is where smart buildings can play a crucial role – premises which are equipped with the technology and capabilities to improve the user experience and provide occupants with a safer, healthier and more secure place to work. Taking the COVID-19 situation as an example, smart building features such as thermal cameras to detect fever in employees; access control features to monitor who is entering or exiting the building and desk or room booking facilities to manage occupancy levels will all be instrumental in workspaces going forward.

However, buildings cannot deliver these or any other outcomes on their own. The pivotal ingredient, which organisations are only just beginning to understand and appreciate, is data. For example, having access control or room booking systems is useful as a feature, but the real value comes from the data they produce, allowing businesses to analyse spikes, spot trends and make arrangements accordingly. Only once we learn to truly harness and maximise the power of the data in our built environments, will we really know the meaning of the phrase, smart buildings. So how can we go about making sure we capture this information and use it to maximise our buildings’ potential?

Building smart foundations

Historically, discussions around data in built environments centre around specific technologies. For example, building management systems (BMS) have been heralded as the solution to digitise a building.

However, this approach is only partial. It does not give you a holistic view of all of the data you want and need in order to make the building work better for you. It leaves too many systems that could provide additional insight left in their own siloes. You can install all the sensors and systems you like, but without a centralised way of collecting, analysing and using information from every aspect of a building, you won’t get the outcomes you need.

Instead of going straight to talking about the technology, we need to talk networks and integration. If you don’t get the platform right, nothing can be joined up and you won’t be able to manage and act on data in order to realise the building’s full potential. Without the right platform, you risk creating confusion, inconsistency and ultimately, a loss of efficiency and productivity.

This is where IP-based networks are so valuable. By putting the focus on the network, you can create a much more fluid, adaptable approach which prioritises interoperability and multiple connected systems, rather than one technology. In turn, this then enables the collation of more data, and therefore more insights into the building and its potential to deliver more to its users. In short, a ‘web of value’ is unlocked which allows for more detailed data analysis and the creation of more efficiencies and services.

This level of aggregation goes far beyond what is possible with a traditional BMS and requires the flexibility of an IP-enabled network. Integrated IP-based solutions provide the backbone of connectivity that collects data from multiple sources and pools this data into one stream of insight.

What makes this approach so powerful is the exponential increase in information it generates. As a result, building operators can access and utilise cross-referenced insights from multiple sources, which in turn facilitate predictive maintenance and optimised use of space and resources. It is also paving the way for hyper-personalised experiences for each building user – a world of invisible buttons, where using their credentials, real-time events in the local environment will automatically happen around them, all tailored to their own preferences and needs. The result is a personalised, digital environment where user data is converted into bespoke experiences, improving the safety, security and wellbeing of each employee.

IP-enabled networks in practice – from access control to energy efficiency

Viewed through the lens of the network, the definition of a smart building is simple: one that operates at a higher, more sophisticated level thanks to insight-driven capabilities. As a result, it runs better, faster, is more productive and is a more attractive, enjoyable and healthy place to work. By implementing an integrated IP-enabled network, you can elevate what was once a simple function into a rich source of data and potential.

For example, access control is a core security system feature, allowing and monitoring access in and out of a building, exactly as the name suggests. However, by migrating that system onto an integrated building network, it suddenly becomes something that not just manages who can go where in the building, but in conjunction with mobile and Wi-Fi data provides a detailed, real-time stream on occupancy and activities, knowing what spaces and services are being used and when. Again, once this data has been analysed, personalised features can be generated to improve the experience for every occupant.

Knowing this level of detail is not only a ‘nice -to-have’ – it can actually translate into actionable efficiencies for the business. Now that you have a clear picture of when certain rooms and services are being used, you can make more intelligent decisions on issues such as energy saving or repurposing under-used spaces. It also provides insight into where end user services – like AV equipment – could be more usefully deployed.

Wide-reaching benefits

Small changes like this can have wide-reaching and long-lasting benefits both to building owners and their occupants. Indeed, the whole experience of the building can be made more attractive to its users through the delivery of more personalised services, more flexible workspaces and smart automation. In today’s wholly uncertain times where businesses and individuals alike are weighing up how often they will return to the physical workspace if indeed if at all, benefits such as these are surely to be welcomed and celebrated.

Wellbeing in particular will be a big priority for employees and businesses alike, so any systems which can improve health and safety will be welcome additions to smart building infrastructure. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that the platform is vital – you can’t do anything ‘smart’ if you don’t have a platform to provide the data you need to maximise both comfort and security. Having a converged platform approach enables businesses to intelligently integrate building management and IT systems and push the digitised buildings of the future to reach their full potential. This is the true meaning of creating smart buildings – using the information offered up by the spaces themselves to develop tangible solutions which will reduce operating costs, drive sustainability, and optimise the workspace for everyone.