Next-gen smart buildings: data-driven facilities will run cheaper and greener

Smart buildings use technologies like IoT, machine learning, automation, and BIM to optimize performance. Data-driven planning can make them even healthier, less wasteful, and more resilient.

IKON Global Innovation Centre in Ireland

Mark de Wolf

May 10, 2023

min read
  • Today’s smart buildings are equipped to know what’s going on room-by-room and floor-by-floor, optimizing energy use to boost sustainability.

  • Smart buildings are enabled by technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), machine learning, automation, and building information modeling (BIM).

  • People-centric buildings are here today. The next step: structures that anticipate scenarios to proactively make life easier for every occupant.

Buildings are like smartphones: They’re everywhere, built from complex components, and impossible to live without. But buildings are also kind of dumb, more drywall than digital.

That’s changing fast with the rise of facilities that “think” for themselves. Demand for smart buildings—houses, factories, and office blocks that can detect what’s happening within and react accordingly—is surging.

The motivation behind this trend is easy enough to grasp. Buildings cost a lot to build and even more to operate. There’s loads of variability in usage patterns, and there are long periods when buildings sit idle. What if a solution blending cameras, sensors, digital twins and building automation could keep the cost of running a building in sync with peaks and troughs in demand? Even better: What if making buildings more digital could also make them more sustainable?

The architecture, engineering, construction, and operations (AECO) industry is answering those questions with major R&D investments that promise one day to deliver buildings that not only react but also learn.

What is a smart building?

The reception area inside the IKON smart building features a video wall.
IKON’s reception area. This smart building provides the perfect setting to ask some of construction’s big questions. Image courtesy of Kingspan.

A smart building is just like any structure with walls and windows; the difference is, it has an extra layer of IT infrastructure to drive better outcomes for the occupants and the environment.

Lighting, HVAC, security, and alarms are all orchestrated by a central “brain” that uses IoT sensors and automation to optimize nearly everything from energy usage to comfort. It can detect current occupancy levels, track utility consumption patterns, and know where people are congregated at any given time.

If the sun is blazing on a hot August afternoon, the system will adjust shutters and air conditioning on both sides of the building, maintaining comfort and minimizing cost. If some rooms are full of people while others sit empty, the system will know it and make appropriate tweaks.

What makes a smart building smart?

At its core, a smart building is people-centric, or “occupancy aware.” By integrating a range of technologies including IoT, machine learning, automation, and building information modeling (BIM), building operators can visualize how efficiently a building is performing at any given time.

By anonymously gathering data pegged to people, behavioral patterns, and building systems, smart automation can ensure that systems from HVAC to lighting are responsive to the actions of building occupants.

Analysis of smart-building data can transform design and construction R&D, empowering smarter design decisions in the future. For example, an architect could improve insulation performance to free-up interior space to live or work.

Making occupant-simulation models more accurate, meanwhile, could inform the creation of energy-efficient buildings fully optimized for cost, comfort, wellness, and productivity.

How smart buildings benefit the AECO industry

An interior image of the futuristic IKON building
IKON's interior. Kingspan’s team hope that the detection of anonymized occupant movement can one day inform the creation of smarter, more energy-efficient buildings. Image courtesy of Kingspan.

The long-term aim is to make the AECO industry more data-driven by turning human activity into information and analyzing it by room or floor. Knowing how people socially occupy a space can lead to buildings that run cheaper and greener. Meeting sustainability objectives is a key driver, with huge potential benefits for the environment.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) reports that buildings are responsible for roughly 40% of global energy consumption and about one-third of global greenhouse-gas emissions. However, just one change to building practices—a 20% shift to building heat pumps that run on clean electricity—could reduce European CO2 emissions by 9%.

Imagine how many other small improvements are waiting to be uncovered by smart building analytics and taken to scale.

Considering that any large building constructed today will be operational for five decades or longer, decarbonizing existing buildings and ensuring new ones support a circular economy will be key to combating climate change.

The next era of smart buildings: dynamic data and machine learning

Smart-building sensors and cameras capture data so it can be turned into real-time 3D visualizations of rooms and systems. The information is automatically analyzed and then used to trigger any needed changes to heating, air conditioning, sun protection, lighting, water use, or security.

Advances in machine learning are also enabling smart buildings to learn from the data they collect and use it to model different occupancy scenarios. They can then generate responses that continually fine-tune the building’s user experience.

Smart buildings also support the creation of digital twins, moving beyond static 3D models to create a real-time holistic representation of a building’s current state, inside and out.

Smart buildings come to life

A photo of Mike Stenson, Kingspan's head of innovation
Kingspan Head of Innovation Mike Stenson. Image courtesy of Kingspan.

One great example of smart buildings in action is the IKON Global Innovation Centre. Created by building-materials leader Kingspan, it mixes current best practices in construction, design, and technology with future ambitions for a sustainable, self-managing workspace.

Nestled amid the lakes and rivers of Ireland’s County Cavan, IKON is a “living experiment.” The company says it provides engineers with the perfect real-world setting to measure a building’s energy-saving properties.

“The original idea for IKON was to combine research into advanced materials with digital technology,” says Mike Stenson, Kingspan’s head of innovation. “In doing that, we realized we could create a building that was both digital and sustainable from the ground up.”

The building contains sensors that enable Kingspan engineers to measure energy consumption and the efficacy of different approaches to natural lighting, rainwater capture and disposal, solar panels, and other sustainable technologies.

After extensive energy modeling, IKON was built from materials composed of recycled plastic bottles. Roof-mounted solar panels generate enough power to meet 35% of the building’s energy demands. The car park contains charging points for electric cars, and the building’s toilet systems use rainwater.

Live construction R&D

A photo of the exterior of the IKON building
IKON represents an investment in Kingspan’s commitment to a greener future. Image courtesy of Kingspan.

IKON is also home to Kingspan’s digital team, which conducts research aiming to bring more intelligence to the firm’s products.

That makes it an ideal environment for addressing some of construction’s big tech questions: What role will augmented reality, virtual reality, and IoT play in building management? How will artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning transform building design?

Inside IKON’s recyclable walls, Kingspan’s response is to make it the world’s first level-5 maturity digital twin. Leveraging technologies such as Autodesk Platform Services (formerly Forge) the company will soon be able to render an L5 twin that can be shared among multiple building stakeholders.

Drawbacks of smart buildings

A photo of the IKON building's soaring atrium and lobby.
Through technology partnerships and its own findings, Kingspan aims to make IKON the world’s first level-5 maturity digital twin. Image courtesy of Kingspan.

If there’s a downside to the smart-building explosion, it’s a case of technology benefits clashing with technology limitations.

With so much data being collected and processed by machine-learning algorithms, there are inevitably concerns about cybersecurityand data privacy. Smart buildings collect information anonymously, but there are worries that AI can create unintentional breaches by finding unexpected patterns between data sets and disclosing the identity of individuals.

Another potential concern is the need for reliable broadband internet connectivity to run smart-building systems. What happens to building security systems after a period of network disconnection? What happens in a major weather event if a crucial nearby cell phone tower is knocked down?

Finally, it’s fair to assume that smart-building tech will require investment and upkeep. Companies hoping to benefit will need to have the knowledge and skill sets to understand and use the technology to its full potential.

The future Is buildings that learn

Stenson says that IKON’s use of data, reliance on sustainable materials, and living laboratory structure will continue to drive innovation for years to come. The company has already made plans to recycle between 300 and 400 million plastic bottles each year in its manufacturing facilities.

According to the IKON research team, one day, smart buildings could use machine-learning algorithms to respond to behavioral and environmental inputs proactively. Modern, interconnected building subsystems could predict changes and maintain comfort for building dwellers while also minimizing energy use.

Smart buildings like IKON may also help construction blend into the circular economy. With access to hyper-detailed building data, companies dismantling or refurbishing properties will know exactly which materials and components have been used and where they’ve been installed. That will make material recovery easier, turning demolition sites into resources rather than waste dumps.

“IKON allows us to explore new directions with data,” Stenson says. “We’ve only scratched the surface.”

This article has been updated. It originally published in July 2020.

Mark de Wolf

About Mark de Wolf

Mark de Wolf is a freelance journalist and award-winning copywriter specializing in technology stories. Born in Toronto. Made in London. Based in Zürich. Reach him at markdewolf.com.

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