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Smart Buildings: A Blueprint for Connected Living

By July 11, 2018 No Comments

The future of living will be shaped by one thing more than any other: data.

IoT technology and ubiquitous internet access are allowing us to capture data like never before. Data makes our lives easier by saving us energy, automating common tasks, and helping us find more time to do the things we love.

So far the future of living has been defined by smart devices like smart thermostats and voice assistants. But to see real changes in the way we live– for residents as well as property owners– we need to start below the surface. We need to weave intelligence into our walls, ceilings, and air ducts.

Smart buildings will help us capture and utilize data to the fullest. Let’s take a look at smart building technology and what it means for property developers.

What are Smart Buildings?

Smart buildings combine internet infrastructure, automated building systems, software, and smart devices into a single connected system. Building data is collected through smart sensors and funneled into a smart building platform, where property managers can use it to optimize performance and catch everyday issues before they become bigger problems.

Imagine a building that told you when the HVAC system needed to be repaired instead of you finding out when the AC quit. What if you could set the temperature of all vacant apartment units from a single dashboard? What if your lights learned the habits of your residents and automatically adjusted to save energy?

These are just a few of the smart building capabilities that already exist today. But like any transformational technology, it’s hard to predict all the potential uses cases of the future. No one expected companies like Airbnb at the dawn of the internet.

Benefits of Smart Buildings

Smart buildings improve property management in several key areas:

  1. Data collection. Smart buildings aggregate all data in a single platform, giving property managers a system-level view of their building. With separate systems, data is siloed and much less valuable.
  2. Energy savings. Smart HVAC, lighting, appliances, and water systems automate energy usage without the manual labor of traditional systems. Power over Ethernet (PoE) lighting goes even further by saving buildings money on raw conduit material on top of the energy savings. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy found that smart building technology will save the commercial and manufacturing real estate sectors over $50 billion over time.
  3. Safety and Security. Smart security systems analyze surveillance video in real time and can alert staff of suspicious activity immediately. Remote access control allows property managers to securely manage access for residents, guests, and package delivery.

  4. Improved Maintenance. With self-diagnosing building systems, maintenance staff will spend less time hunting down problems and more time fixing them. Building systems can even alert staff prior to a major issue, like when a water pipe begins to leak in the basement. For multifamily buildings, staff can use remote access for in-unit maintenance instead of running back to the leasing office.

Smart buildings can learn, adapt, and turn data into insights. Because of this, smart building technology adds significant monetary value to any property.

How to Build a Smart Building

Clearly, we can’t cover all the schematics of a smart building in this article. Instead, let’s look at the technology layers that make a building “smart”. This section applies to both new construction and retrofits (we’ll touch on that more at the end).

At a high level, smart buildings are just like any other connected device, so let’s look at layers of smart building technology through the lens of another, fairly popular smart device: the smartphone.

Smart Building Infrastructure

Smartphone technology was transformational on a lot of levels, but it all started with the phone’s hardware. Without wifi antennae, computer chips and GPS, smartphones wouldn’t be very smart. Additional hardware like gyroscopic sensors and accelerometers enabled some of the most popular smartphone use cases– games, maps, and fitness trackers, among countless others.

Like smartphones, smart buildings wouldn’t be smart without infrastructure. First and foremost is internet connectivity. Wifi and ethernet connect all other smart technologies to the system without having to rely on an expensive cellular solution (although cellular connection could be used as a backup). Along with plumbing and electricity, connectivity should be one of the first things installed in a new smart building.

Next are the sensors. Smart sensors are the eyes and ears of a smart building, recording everything from air temperature to water usage to carbon monoxide levels. Without sensors, smart buildings would not be able to collect system-wide data that gives smart buildings their advantage over regular buildings.

Next are security and access control systems. These are standard technology in all buildings today, but in a smart building they are connected to the network along with all other systems.

Finally, smart buildings need a secondary low-power network like Bluetooth. Bluetooth allows nearby devices to connect to each other, like smart lights in an apartment unit. This secondary network saves energy and wifi bandwidth.

Like a smartphone, the infrastructure of a smart building is essential for the rest of the technology to work.

Smart Building Software

homebase smart building software

Homebase smart building platform lets users interact with their smart building through a user-friendly dashboard.

The operating system for a smartphone is just as important as the hardware infrastructure. The same is true for smart buildings. Connected infrastructure is no use without smart building software to tie it all together.

Smart building software has three key functions: technology integration, user interfaces, and application platform.

First, smart building software is the integration layer for all smart building technologies. This includes automated building systems, network infrastructure, sensors, data warehouses, and the user interface. Smart building software is similar to Apple Homekit, tying together disparate technologies so they can be controlled, configured, and communicated with (and so they can communicate with each other).

Next, smart building software allows users to easily interact with the technology. Smart building managers don’t manually control each smart water sensor; they use the smart building dashboard to access with smart sensor data and features. Residents see a different dashboard with controls relevant to them, like paying rent and seeing their water usage. Each smart building “user” has a unique set of needs, requiring multiple user interfaces and permission levels.

Finally, the smart building software is a platform for easy integration with future technologies. The operating system provides a standard protocol for outside developers to build compatible applications and devices. This helps smart buildings remain future-proof as smart building technology evolves.

Smart Building Devices and Services

When Steve Jobs revealed the first iPhone, the real game changer was the App Store. The multi-billion dollar app industry was formed practically overnight as companies raced to extend the iPhone’s functionality.

Smart buildings have their own version of the iPhone app: the smart device. From smart thermostats to voice assistants, these gadgets are compatible with the smart building software and plug right into the network. Some smart apartment buildings even have an on-demand amenities marketplace that residents can access from the smart building platform.

Smart devices are what most people think about when they hear the terms “smart building” or “smart home”. For multifamily buildings, the most common smart devices are thermostats, lights, and locks. Smart sensors are also considered devices even though they make up part of the infrastructure.

Smart devices, like iPhone apps, are useless without the underlying software and infrastructure layers. Smart building infrastructure connects devices to the network and feeds them data through sensors. The smart building platform makes it simple to onboard and offboard devices. When new devices are released, building developers can easily connect them to the network without massive overhauls.

smart home devices

Smart home devices are the primary way users, especially apartment residents, will interact with a smart building.

Retrofitting vs. Building New

Retrofitting an existing building requires weaving smart technology into the existing infrastructure, including wifi, ethernet, Bluetooth mesh, and smart sensors. Once the smart infrastructure is laid, a retrofitted smart building can return all the same benefits of a smart building built from scratch. It’s an incredibly valuable upgrade for any property developer.

Maintaining a Smart Building

One of the key benefits of smart buildings is proactive, automated maintenance. Thanks to smart sensors and automated building systems, your building can now tell you what needs maintenance and when. Smart buildings can protect themselves against critical system breakdowns, such as shutting off water when a major leak it detected.

Another benefit is smart appliances. Refrigerators, washers and dryers are big ticket items that usually require expensive maintenance. Smart appliances alert the staff when maintenance is needed. This can increase the life of appliances and minimize big, costly repairs.

Property Maintenance meets IoT

Smart buildings also bring new challenges to building maintenance. The number one challenge for property managers is to equip their maintenance staff with 21st Century skills.

In traditional buildings, maintenance issues are limited to electrical, plumbing, or handiwork. Smart buildings require a new skill set: IoT and networking. Smart building staff isn’t just called to fix plumbing; they are called when wifi goes down or sensors drop off the network.

Smart building managers have a few different options for handling smart building maintenance issues:

  • IT training for existing staff. Property managers can invest in IoT and networking training for their current maintenance staff. This training should be designed to help staff develop a base knowledge of IT and networking systems.
  • Hire new, IT-trained staff. This is the most difficult option because right now, these professionals simply do not exist (not many, at least). IT is still considered knowledge work, not a trade, and so we lack a critical group of workers that fall somewhere in-between. Another option (especially for larger properties) is to hire an IT professional whose sole job is to maintain the smart building system.
  • Outsource to IoT Service Provider. This is the most common option for property managers. IoT service providers can come out to fix problems on-site, but can also do certain projects remotely. Outsourcing is a common practice in property management already, as plumbers and electricians are called on to handle jobs too complex for maintenance staff.

Building Smart Buildings of the Future

Smart buildings are still a major challenge on many fronts. Because IoT technology is relatively new, there is still no single protocol for manufacturing devices and applications. This makes system integration difficult.

Security and data privacy are serious issues in today’s age. Buildings need the highest quality infrastructure and software to protect against data breaches and attacks.

Finally, there is still limited talent in the IoT service space for planning, construction, and maintenance of smart buildings.

Despite these challenges, it’s clear the Future of Living starts with smart buildings. The rise of smart apartments shows that residents and developers are extremely interested in the benefits of connected living. The advantages will only multiply as smart buildings become more common. Buildings themselves might become nodes on a larger connected network: the smart city. We are just beginning to imagine the advantages of this.

Smart buildings point to a future where homes become more than four walls and a roof. They enable us to live better lives and stay connected to the things we love.

This post was originally posted on Homebase.ai