Like nearly everything else, commercial buildings didn’t emerge unscathed from the COVID-19 pandemic. With the commercial real estate market in flux, and remote work prolonged indefinitely, many are left wondering about the future of office buildings. How will the industry emerge from these disruptions, and are there opportunities to be had?

Here at ASHB, we (and the many industry-leading companies we work with) believe plenty of opportunities still exist for smart-building participants and their customers—and that COVID has actually made the idea of intelligent buildings even more pertinent for the future. But we also understand there’s a lot of uncertainty around intelligent building concepts and how things are likely to change moving forward.

So, we asked three experts—Gina Elliott of Switch Automation, Bob Allan of Siemon, and Joseph Aamidor of Aamidor Consulting—to weigh in on everything from the meaning of an intelligent building to the current state of intelligent buildings to the impact that COVID-19 is likely to have on the industry. Let’s dive in.

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What is an intelligent building?

This is the obvious place to start, but unfortunately, there is no single definition of an intelligent building—the meaning varies depending on who you ask. But from our perspective, here’s a general definition:

An intelligent building gives building owners the flexibility to integrate individual building systems to deliver an enhanced working or living environment for occupants, and optimal equipment functionality and better management of resources for owners.1

As the above definition would indicate, we can define an intelligent building from two viewpoints: the technical perspective and that of the end user.

The Meaning Of An Intelligent Building: The Technical Perspective

“Building systems, for the most part, tend to be very proprietary,” Elliott explains. “HVAC, lighting, elevators and security systems all speak separate languages, and to get them to work together, you have to be able to translate the languages they all speak so they can communicateand work toward common goals. But that’s difficult, because there are lots of manufacturers out there that don’t want to open their system up to communicate with the others.”

Now, she says, we’ve realized that if these previously standalone systems could communicate, it could actually improve the health and well-being of the building and its occupants. “Access controls, lighting, and security, for example—if they can talk to each other, it would provide a better way to manage that building and produce more positive results.”

The integration of a variety of data sources would allow a building’s systems to optimize their own performance based on the information they’ve gathered. This type of intelligent building infrastructure can’t happen, Allan says, without eliminating as many proprietary elements as possible. “Intelligent buildings allow more flexibility in the built environment; it’s allowing the buildings to be more dynamic.”

He compares the concept to that of a smartphone. “The genius of a smartphone is not that I can call you on it—we’ve had that capability for years. It’s the operating system and the ability to go to the app store and download an application that solves a problem for you, or enhances your productivity, or entertains you, or whatever the case may be. That’s the way we need to start looking at our buildings—the genius of an intelligent building is not about steel and bricks and mortar. Rather, it’s about that plug-and-play approach both from a hardware perspective and a software perspective.”

It’s understandable that some manufacturers, who have invested time in writing specific programs, would be reluctant to embrace interoperability and the idea of opening up their systems to “talk” to others. But the programming isn’t what building owners need to access; instead, they need the data being generated. And that data comes from the originator—the building itself.

For existing buildings, accessing that data is the key. Rather than replacing every system in a building that’s been around for decades, you can attach smart technology to those systems that will help you access the data, translate it, and standardize it into one language. That usually requires the purchase of drivers, gateways, and other tools. This isn’t the case in an intelligent building, meaning the systems are open and the data is already standardized, without the need to purchase other tools for compatibility’s sake.

The Meaning Of An Intelligent Building: The End User Perspective

All of the above speaks to the advanced technological capabilities associated with intelligent building structure and design. But what does the open systems infrastructure of an intelligent building mean for end users—the occupants and building owners?

Allan says that, from an end user’s perspective, an intelligent building is different for everyone depending on the use case in question. Today’s most intelligent buildings offer a multitude of potential benefits for occupants. For example, employees can use a smartphone app to easily adjust the lighting and temperature of a room, find a convenient parking spot, locate a workspace that matches their personal preferences, and more.

Aamidor neatly sums up the benefits for occupants by saying that workspaces will be “healthier, safer, and more functional.” He uses schools as an example, noting that nearly half of K–12 schools in the U.S. struggle with poor ventilation. The result is a buildup of CO2 in the air, which makes students drowsy. Intelligent buildings avoid this problem with CO2-controlled ventilation, automatically maintaining the appropriate CO2 levels according to occupancy.

Ideally, an intelligent building should also be more profitable for building owners. The result of having systems that can access and share data is they essentially act as one “brain,” producing a plethora of data that owners can measure, record, and analyze for insights. They can then use those insights to improve energy efficiency, lower the cost of operations and maintenance, and generate higher satisfaction ratings among tenants.

“Ultimately, the people who are going to decide whether or not a building is ‘smart’ are the ones who are paying to be in it,” says Elliott. “If you’re going to be renting a first-class office space, what do you want in that building? Of course, you want a fair rent. But this type of tenant now wants something more,—a safe environment, or parking, or temperature control. Overall, people have an idea of what a smart building should be, but I think because it isn’t narrowly defined, we can develop and innovate technology that exceeds industry and occupant expectations.”

Where Intelligent Building Design Is Headed

The intelligent building concept has been around since the 1990s, but “it was very raw back then,” says Allan. “We didn’t have the capabilities that we have today.” He explains that today’s intelligent building became possible due to factors like the increased capacity of data cables, open protocols, and the cloud, among other things. The cloud, in particular, is enabling better analytics and easy-access integration platforms, giving building owners the chance to do more (and at a lower cost) with the output of an intelligent building.

“We’re going toward an environment where the building reacts to the occupants rather than the occupants reacting to the building,” he says. “Now, if you’re cold and you walk into a building, you need a sweater. But we’re getting to a point where the building recognizes the occupancy—or a weather front coming through—and can cool itself accordingly. Conference rooms are a great example. We’re able to understand what the occupancy looks like in a conference room and condition the air quality appropriately. Everything has to do with enabling the building to be reactive—or even proactive at times—to the needs of the occupants.”

Bathroom facilities are another example. “We can monitor the traffic in and out with a simple red, green, or yellow alert system on the outside. A bathroom designed for four-person occupancy displays a green light if two people are inside, a yellow light if there are three, and a red light if there are four. So you know, sitting at your desk, if there is room for you in that space,” Allan explains. “We can also monitor the amount of paper towels or toilet paper being used so the facilities team is not wasting time or energy checking every two hours. We can tell when things are getting low, and we know when to dispatch facilities resources to accommodate that need.”

Has COVID-19 impacted intelligent building design?

Only time will tell how COVID has truly impacted the market. But industry insiders agree that it has made intelligent building design more pertinent and more valuable—intelligent technologies and innovative services will likely be in greater demand.

As noted in our recent research project on intelligent buildings and COVID-19, occupant safety by far emerges as the most important factor to focus on. Our data shows that 40% of occupants are very concerned with contracting COVID-19 in their building, and 32% are somewhat concerned. Elliott says that, before COVID, “people were less concerned about occupying a building for eight hours a day and what that environment is like. Safety is now central to the definition of ‘smart building.’”

Aamidor agrees that healthy buildings and indoor air quality will likely be big areas of growth. “But I think the risks moving forward are not specifically COVID; they’re more generally indoor air quality. Even post pandemic, people will just be more cognizant of air in the hotel or the office or the school, or wherever they are.” In fact, more than 95% of ASHB research survey respondents indicated they would be willing to pay for better air quality in their buildings. As a product management consultant for intelligent buildings and real estate technology, Aamidor is already seeing new “proptech” (property technology) being launched in this area—not all of which has been fully vetted yet, he adds. But we’ll continue to see “more investment, more solutions, and more technologies, ranging from just deploying sensors to actively cleaning the air.”

Going forward, there might also be some element of risk associated with not having such technologies in use, says Elliott. Being able to back up your claims of a safe environment with data is useful should an occupant suggest that your building’s air or water contributed to making them sick, as a group of parents and teachers suggested about their children’s school a few years back. “Some insurance companies are actually saying, ‘okay, I’ll increase or decrease your insurance rate based on whether it is a safe working environment.’ So it’s not just a COVID-19 thing. If someone unknowingly drinks contaminated water while inside a commercial building and gets sick, the liability will be on that building owner. More than just the physical safety of things—what about the things you can’t see? Are you, as the building owner, doing everything in your power to make sure that it’s a safe environment?”

From a technology perspective, the “plug and play” operating system model employed by intelligent buildings could be very valuable in helping future-proof our places of work. Implementing smart technology in legacy buildings often requires running whole new networks for sensors, software, and perhaps even servers. But with an operating system environment, ideally you will not need to introduce additional hardware—the data is already there; it’s just a matter of massaging that data accordingly.

Consider your iPhone, for example. “The data already exists on the phone for whatever app you’re installing; it’s just using that data to generate the output that the app is intended to deliver,” Allan says. “If the intelligent building structure is designed as an operating system from day one, the data already exists; it’s just a matter of putting an application on the server that will manipulate that data in a way that provides the output you’re looking for.” So if you’re implementing a UV disinfecting solution in the office, for instance, you already have power and communication capabilities; you’re just basically plugging in a device that already has everything it needs, and the software element can go on the network.

Looking for more information about intelligent buildings?

If there’s one thing most experts can agree on, it’s that now is a good time to educate yourself about both the challenges and opportunities associated with intelligent building structure and design.

Aamidor emphasizes that this is not yet a completely mature space. “It’s still early. People who are looking to buy technologies should recognize that there’s still a lot to figure out. That may create a perception of risk in some cases. But often the perception of risk may be worse than the risks themselves—or prioritized over the actual benefits. I have a lot of hope for the industry, even though it’s been slower to mature compared to some other industries.”

Despite that fact, most building owners expect to at least be able to evaluate intelligent building technologies. “They want to understand what it means to have an intelligent building, look at referenced properties, and evaluate what that’s doing for the building space,” says Allan.

“Technology coming into a market that has yet to decide what a smart building truely is will bring some operational disruption with it,” says Elliott. “But you often find that, when the dust settles, you’ve got something really great. And sometimes it takes that disruption to move things forward.”

Gina Elliott is Vice President of Strategic Planning at Switch Automation, a ASHB member. Bob Allan is the Global Intelligent Building Solutions Specialist at ASHB member Siemon, and also a Vice Chair of the ASHB Intelligent Buildings Council. Joseph Aamidor is Managing Director of Aamidor Consulting.

(1) ASHB’s Intelligent Building Energy Management Systems Research Report (2020) highlights that distributed control and information systems are key to emerging intelligent buildings. This capability “enables networks of intelligent devices to monitor and control the mechanical systems in a building while integrating data from existing building systems.”

To learn more about the intelligent building technologies market, visit the ASHB website. ASHB is the leading international association for the intelligent buildings market. Our nearly 400 member companies are actively involved in designing, manufacturing, installing, and retailing of products related to intelligent buildings and contribute to our growing library of in-depth, specialized research and industry trends. Check out our extensive free resources, or become a ASHB member today to access even more valuable insider information.