Smart architecture: Data-driven design for smart buildings

Smart technologies have come a long way from lights on timers. Today's home and office systems are intelligent, automated, networked, even influencing building design and architecture.

graphic of cell phone communicating data with buildings, internet of things

Patrick Sisson

August 28, 2023

min read
  • Smart architecture taps into new tech and tools to make architecture projects more efficient and sustainable and design today’s buildings to be optimized over their lifecycles.

  • BIM, digital twins, and the data feedback loop from networked building sensors provide the automation for architects, designers, and engineers to build smart, sophisticated, and streamlined projects.

  • Optimized, or intelligent, architectural design yields less construction waste; better operations; safer, more comfortable buildings; and more resilient and responsive homes, offices, and public spaces.

  • Projects like The Edge, an app-enabled smart office in Amsterdam, or the recent renovation of London’s Westminster Abbey, illustrate how digital controls and data lead to more sustainable, efficient, and enjoyable interiors.

Creative advancement in the design and construction of new buildings comes from a complex intermingling of architectural vision and technological progress. The new age of smart structures, where the building is the machine, requires an understanding of smart architecture and how new technologies inform and improve the design process. Using smart processes can also yield better systems to maintain buildings and make them more efficient after the construction phase and throughout occupancy.

What is smart architecture?

Two women use an iPad in architecture firm.
Making the most of smart architecture starts with understanding how new technologies inform and optimize the design process.

A smart building employs a collection of sensors, materials, controls, and data collection tools to be responsive, sustainable, safe, comfortable, and efficient; smart architecture is the practice of using tech to build such structures, relying on technology to iterate and improve the process.

Smart buildings can be compared to computers, and even living systems. Projects such as the Capital Tower in Singapore, for instance, track occupancy with motion detectors and air quality via sophisticated HVAC systems, constantly monitoring activity and air quality. Smart architecture is the application of advanced systems to understand and design buildings and these interactive systems—and also to build in ways that can gather more information to evolve and improve future design projects.

Technologies used in smart architecture projects

digital 3D model of a city with construction vehicles
Digital twins help teams simulate design scenarios before a building is built.

Planning smart structures taps into an array of new and evolving technologies. Existing tools such as building information modeling (BIM) allow architects and engineers to capture images, create 3D models to rapidly prototype and test building designs, and efficiently use space based on geographical or financial limitations. The use of digital twins—complex, typically cloud-based model simulations of a planned or existing structure​​—helps the design team simulate different scenarios to determine the shape, structures, features, and aesthetics of a building before it’s built.

Smart architecture and design increasingly use a feedback loop from previous smart buildings. Recent developments in technology allow the integration of a growing, sophisticated web of sensors and controls that can measure a building’s energy efficiency or how certain spaces or rooms are used, among other factors. This can help architects make smarter, more efficient design decisions. Even generative design—which uses an algorithm and set parameters to rapidly cycle through design concepts, allowing a digital design process to iterate and evolve toward a more efficient blueprint—can create unexpected but effective new buildings.

These tools, and the occupancy and operational data analysis they provide, can also inform how buildings are constructed. Prefabrication and modular construction techniques, which use factory-built materials and repeatable parts assembled on-site, can be fashioned using these planning tools to cut down on cost and construction time.

Benefits of smart architecture

construction workers with prefabricated panels for buildings
Combining smarter design with modular and prefab techniques can eliminate construction waste and accelerate project timelines.

The desired result is a building design that has evolved from extensive data on past projects, which can significantly cut project costs and material waste. Combining smarter design with modular and prefab techniques can eliminate many sources of construction waste and rapidly accelerate project timelines, saving labor costs.

Learning from past mistakes and optimizing performance through data collection also simplify long-term maintenance. Increasingly, sensors can collect data across a hotel chain or series of office buildings to better inform architects about how new buildings should look and function. Smarter designs make structures more resilient and can make it easier to repair and replace worn-down parts or old mechanical systems. Data-rich design decisions can eliminate excess heating and cooling needs, shaving off building emissions, realizing a 30–50% (PDF, p. vi) savings according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE).

Techniques like generative design, which can help devise novel ways to use fewer materials, eliminate unnecessary waste. Traditional construction techniques, shapes, and processes still dominate the building trade; generative design can help designers lean into new approaches like biomimicry, which copies the form and function of nature to achieve greater energy efficiency and better performance. The Frontier Project, a green demonstration building erected in Rancho Cucamonga, CA, showcases an array of nature-focused solutions, such as evaporative cooling and high thermal massing.

3 examples of smart architecture

Westminster Abbey's sophisticated lighting and HVAC controls
Westminster Abbey was retrofitted with sophisticated lighting and HVAC controls. Courtesy of Xicato Smart Lighting Controls.

Smart architecture technology tools have enabled incredible diversity in architectural design, and may even create types of spaces that offer a more responsive, fluid environment for entertainment or creative work.

In a historic neighborhood of Beijing dominated by traditional Hutong and Siheyuan, narrow alleyways that open into courtyards, the Baitasi House of the Future showcases a sleek adaptive reuse that gives a historic home multiple personas. Commissioned by Dot Architects, the Baitasi House uses a clever system of automation, which can change the dwelling from a three-bedroom home to an office via a series of movable modules. Much of the design can be fabricated from open-source online plans found on WikiHouse, a system of shared design access and inspiration where each new build refines the most recent version of the home.

In Amsterdam, The Edge office building features a network of more than 28,000 sensors controlling every aspect of the building’s operation, from booking conference rooms to adjusting light and temperature preferences in workstations. Home to a Dutch office for consulting multinational Deloitte, the advanced building was designed to be an ultra-efficient and responsive environment that constantly learns, self-diagnoses, and self-corrects based on usage and performance feedback from employees and the personal app that controls their workspaces.

Adaptive reuse, versus new builds, is gaining popularity in recent years; retrofits have become more common and are a cost-effective way of cutting emissions. Xicato, a San Jose, CA-based lighting and controls manufacturing firm, recently retrofitted London’s Westminster Abbey. Wireless controls and LED lighting helped the famous former monastery conserve power and better control HVAC systems. There are inherent challenges in updating older structures, but thoughtful application, paired with evolving material science and improved facades, can make a dent in the inefficiencies of decades-old buildings.

Smart architecture, smart cities

There’s no reason to stop at individual buildings. Neighborhoods, districts, and entire smart cities have the potential to tap into tools and data collection efforts to increase walkability, sustainability, resilience, and resource consumption as they grow and change. Many recent urban planning efforts have used digital simulations and design tools to create more transit-oriented, pedestrian-friendly, and energy-efficient mixed-use developments.

This article has been updated. It originally published January 2020.

Patrick Sisson

About Patrick Sisson

Patrick Sisson is a Los Angeles–based design and culture writer who has made Stefan Sagmeister late for a date and was scolded by Gil Scott-Heron for asking too many questions. His work has appeared in Dwell, Pitchfork, Motherboard, Wax Poetics, Stop Smiling and Chicago Magazine.

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