Advances in technology are ushering in an exciting new interactive era for the built environment. We now hold in our pockets more computing power than what launched us to the moon and back in the sixties, and it will enable building occupants to increasingly interact with buildings in ways not previously imagined.

Buildings are becoming more occupant aware, and can now be configured to know where people are located inside of the building, their personal preferences—and can respond accordingly. New services can be created through the explosion of data that can be collected from buildings— providing rich actionable information to occupants and building operators alike—indicating both how a building is being used and how it is performing. Simple, intuitive building apps allow the occupant to be more building aware; to reserve a room, workspace or parking space on the fly; to indicate whether they are happy with the internal environment; and to learn about building locations that may better meet their changing needs.

To help unlock the potential from the building technology standpoint, we are witnessing the evolution toward physically and virtually converged building systems including security, building management systems and lighting control, and a leveraging of low-cost sensor arrays that can be deployed within spaces at greatly increased granularity relative to today’s business as usual. Local and cloud-based aggregation of this data provides a key to discovering usable information and gaining new insights about the space and its occupants.

Where is the nexus between smart buildings, smart phones and sustainability within the built environment? One example is in the area of building operational energy performance. The old paradigm for understanding and benchmarking building energy performance across different typologies and locations relied on utility bill data entered manually into databases developed and used by private enterprises and more open platform, public tools. The databases provide value at a macro scale, but are archaic, often incomplete or inaccurate, sometimes statistically questionable, and do little when it comes to enabling a deeper dive into understanding an individual building’s performance.

The remedy that is now maturing within many markets is the increasing deployment of energy sub-metering in buildings with backend platforms that manage and store the data, provide analytics and a graphical means of visualizing the information. These enable improved energy management, but are not yet fully scalable to all buildings given costs relative to energy cost reductions. And, with utility sub-metering alone the opportunity of understanding and linking to how occupants impact building performance by their individual and group behaviors is not easily discerned. With more data rich, occupant-aware buildings, operators of buildings and design practitioners are poised to be much more informed than ever before. Once it’s easier to understand what’s going on in a building, we can take the right actions in terms of sustainability, whether it’s turning off the lights or making a repair to eliminate waste. And, we have an opportunity to not only improve an existing building’s operational performance, but as design practitioners we can, through maintaining a “relationship” with the buildings we have previously designed, gain an increased understanding of how to better design future buildings.

As we step into this new era for the built environment, it is important to keep in mind key factors that could hamper both progress and sustainability. We must recognize at both a building and societal scale that the fossil fuel world we’re living in is finite in terms of how long it can last. Whether you want to believe the science that says there is climate change or not, we’re doing something that the earth’s natural carbon-cycle isn’t prepared for—and that is, putting a billion years’ worth of sequestered carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in a very short stretch of time. Properly attaching a societal cost down to individual and building levels to address macro changes is a political and economic challenge, but as models are developed, the incentives for deeper reductions in building energy use will find drivers to help enable smart building deployments.

But sustainability runs deeper than just energy, and societal and direct economic benefits can be increased in smarter buildings by orders of magnitude if space efficiencies and indoor environmental quality and occupant health opportunities are captured. Demand within the competitive marketplace is already there, and growing. Depending on how and who has access to more in-depth building performance data, and the types of core smart or “smart ready” building services offered by landlords, future tenants will be able to make better, more competitive choices when leasing space. Just as the objective of energy performance disclosure laws today is to create an incentive for building owners to improve operational energy efficiency because they are being compared against peer properties, the services and the deeper level of performance metrics available in the occupant-aware building will make tenants savvier.

As these potential “beyond utility bill savings” strategies are proven in smart buildings, there is opportunity to address the much larger, and challenging, issue of dramatically improving performance in existing buildings. Lacking a complete and aggressive modernization, energy efficiency improvements are incremental in the existing building stock as capital renewal of aging assets occur. Owners generally lack economic incentives to make improvements beyond a simple life cycle cost analysis using energy savings alone. The chances for an improved return on investment and a more compelling business case—to creating a competitive advantage in the marketplace relative to peer properties—could lie in capturing the benefits that smart buildings are poised to provide.

Many have spoken about the “3-30-300” associated with the smart building business case. This has been effective in explaining, and changing mindsets around, the enhanced sustainable return on investment. The “3” in this equation represents the utility cost for a building on a square foot per year basis. A retrofit energy-saving project in an existing building might save ten percent of that, or 30 cents a square foot per year. At approximately one magnitude of cost greater, the “30” represents the cost per square foot of rental space. A deeper knowledge of tenant space usage characteristics, as determined through data collected using smart building technology, could help justify an increase in tenants’ space efficiency as part of a new fit-out of a building space. If this savings is even only ten percent, and it can be shown to enhance or change operational efficiency, that could result in savings of $3 per square foot per year. Finally, the building can be a catalyst for giving employees the means to create the space they want based on their preferences, resulting in increased health and wellness and productivity, working against a cost for people of $300 per square foot. This focus on the health and comfort of a building’s occupants is a new priority for the next generation of buildouts. There is a lot of interest, especially among more progressive companies, to emphasize the wellbeing of employees, even if the benefits are, for now, indirectly measurable. Once that value proposition is understood in existing buildings, then there is a whole new economic model.

Despite these advances, the psychology of people can still make or break a culture of sustainability. Entrenched power and political systems can hinder progress; there will be people who see its benefits and move forward, and people who don’t. Even when their values seemingly align with environmental awareness, it’s not always their top priority in many situations. Even where there is the clear desire to create a better future for their children, the impact of investing in their environment somehow gets abstracted, out of the operative decisions made by business entities consisting of those same parents. Society—and the A/E/C industry—seems wired for selfishness in the present over concern about short-term business and personal gain rather than on posterity and the true costs associated with decisions made that have long-term negative, clearly non-sustainable ramifications. Can the power unlocked through smart buildings address a small part of these barriers? Maybe.

Another concern and potential barrier is around the privacy and security of this richer connectivity with people and buildings. People still have a fear of letting the world (or those managing the search engines) know who they are, where they are, and their preferences, at least on a constant basis. There are also questions about how to deal with large amounts of data on people and buildings in a way that is interoperable; what if the systems invested in become obsolete? What if the proprietary system suddenly stops being supported and you end up with a data swamp no one knows how to use? These are fundamental concerns.

In spite of these psychological and societal barriers, changes are happening all around us and we’re recognizing and embracing that changes are inevitable. So our focus can and should be about trying to design occupant-aware buildings for building-aware occupants. We can focus on providing better and smarter buildings, since we can anticipate the occupants will let everyone know, by their actions, whether we are successful.

Smart building technology is not limited to inside the walls of a building. Smart districts, neighborhoods, and the grid should ideally be a part of a more seamless whole. There are many possibilities surrounding the technological interactions and exchanges at a building-to-building, or building-toneighborhood, or building-to-utility grid level. And district-scale solutions are increasingly being recognized as a way to further unlock sustainable and more resilient opportunities.

By integrating these new frontiers of data into sustainable actions that both protect the environment and the wellbeing of occupants, the future of building design holds exciting prospects beyond physical construction. If we can open minds to these possibilities and set a progressive pace for the market, the smart building will soon be as much our reality as the smart phone. The responsibility, however, does not lie solely in an intelligent building and the data it collects; people still must be cognizant of our environmental reality and do their part to conserve resources. I am grateful for the companies who have made a sustainable future part of their organization’s vision, and hope many more will join their ranks in the years to come.


Tom Marseille is senior VP of building systems for WSP.

This article is excerpted from the 4Q 2018 issue of DesignIntelligence Quarterly.