The smart building concept is one of the most radical innovations to come to building design in generations. But smart buildings are just emerging, and we still don’t have a single, shared definition. Within the architecture, engineering and construction industries, smart buildings generally refer to buildings that are equipped with the latest IoT and sensor technology, giving users new levels of control over the built environment.

While the total number of truly smart buildings around the world remains small, an impressive array of technology has been developed for this emerging market. The future looks bright. These innovations promise to do for buildings what smartphone technology did for the telephone, radically altering the way people interact with the built environment in ways that we cannot wholly anticipate.

Buildings are different from mobile phones however, since they are designed as shared resources for families, organizations, neighbourhoods and communities. This means buildings should be held to a different standard than we apply to other areas that are similarly being transformed by "smart" innovations.

Given the social importance and impact of buildings, we should strive to create something more broadly positive and outcome-focused than just a collection of smart devices and technologies. Instead of stopping at creating buildings that are digitally advanced, we should focus on creating buildings that are agile for people. This kind of building is responsive to the changing needs of its users, enables communities to become stronger and more resilient, and is ultimately better for people and the environment.

What are agile buildings and how do they work?

As urbanization trends lead to an ever greater percentage of the world’s population concentrating into cities, agile buildings will become essential platforms for promoting healthy and resilient communities. They can create stronger and more interconnected urban environments, by supporting office workers during the workday; sustaining neighbourhoods and communities with locally grown food from green rooves and gardens throughout the year; promoting smart land use with flexible and open floor plans; maintaining energy independence; and dispersing additional energy into the grid.

The first step toward creating a generation of agile buildings is defining the principles and establishing the outcomes that agile buildings need to embody and achieve. To truly make a difference, agile buildings should be carbon-neutral, energy positive, technically sophisticated, and support a diverse mix of uses and activities. They should embrace the concept of total building performance, which evaluates performance based on six core categories of design experience: spatial, acoustic, visual, thermal, indoor air quality (IAQ) and building integrity.

Agile buildings should leverage big data and real-time monitoring to make buildings safer, healthier and better for people and the environment. They should make extensive use of the latest sensor technology, and they should lean heavily into principles such as interoperability and passive design.

Agile buildings should embrace biophilia, or the innate human drive to establish connections with the natural world. They should be attuned to the unique demands of their local climates and natural environments. Agile buildings should encourage walkability and provide easy access to mass transport while embracing transit-oriented design.

What's the impact of an agile building?

Agile buildings can improve our lives through three major impact areas: environmental, physical and digital. Each of these speak to different aspects of building design, but they have complimentary (and sometimes overlapping) positive outcomes.

Environmental impact

Buildings contribute one third of global greenhouse gas emissions and consume 80% of global electricity. Agile buildings such as Glumac LA use innovative design to operate at carbon-neutral levels and produce enough energy to be "energy positive", helping to address important challenges such as climate change.

Located in a 62-story, modernist skyscraper in the centre of Los Angeles’ Financial District, Glumac LA’s 17,500-square foot office produces three times more energy than it consumes, providing water and air heating for 20 additional floors within the building. A new heat-recovery chiller specifically designed for the building harvests waste energy created by a lower-level data centre, converting it into heat that provides hot water and temperature control for each office located in the central 20 stories of this 45-year-old building. LED lighting and extensive use of daylighting throughout Glumac LA’s floor plan further reduces the office’s energy needs.

Physical impact

Indoor air quality can be significantly worse than outdoor air quality, having negative long-term effects on the health and wellbeing of building occupants. Another key factor in how buildings impact human health and well-being relates to how their design influences overall mobility. We should strive to make it easier for people to move around different spaces and utilize different amenities. The Tower at PNC Plaza in Pittsburgh uses several agile building design features to improve indoor air quality and user mobility, creating a positive physical impact for its users.

The Tower at PNC Plaza also has an innovative "double-skin" façade, a multi-layered glass exterior that surrounds the entire building. The façade acts as a natural ventilation system, opening and closing multiple layers of glass panels based on outside temperature and humidity, allowing healthy outdoor air to circulate throughout the building.

 The Tower at PNC Plaza in Pittsburgh
The Tower at PNC Plaza in Pittsburgh

The Tower at PNC Plaza also has a central control unit or Building Energy Management System (BEM) that runs the building’s different mechanical systems and is programmed to ensure occupant safety in the event of fire or a natural disaster. A solar chimney keeps the building insulated during Pittsburgh’s cold winter months, utilizing rooftop panels to capture warmth and transfer heat throughout the entire building. The combined effect of the building’s façade and solar chimney means that the 800,000-square foot office building uses almost no outside energy for 42% of working hours.

An integrated stairway system allows for easy mobility, opening pathways to large "collaboration neighbourhoods" located on every second floor of the building. Located in Pittsburgh's central business district, the Tower at PNC Plaza contributes to the positive densification of its urban core, providing easy access to mass transport. Multiple bike racks and a self-service maintenance centre help people use alternative, low-carbon options for their daily commute.

Digital impact

As BEMs become more sophisticated, their ability to serve as interoperable platforms for a wide array of smart, IoT technologies improves. Buildings can harness the growing power of digital technologies to save energy, improve indoor air quality and enhance user experiences. The Houston Advanced Research Center’s (HARC) campus was designed to be a living laboratory for ground-breaking research into the built environment, and features a range of innovative and interoperable building systems that help the building improve the experience it offers.

The Houston Advanced Research Center
The Houston Advanced Research Center

Smart sensor technology tied to HARC’s BEM gathers occupancy data, which is subsequently converted into big data tables that inform the building’s heating, cooling and air purification systems. Additional research is going into the development of a machine learning system that will automate building systems in real-time based on occupancy rates, and pre-set user preferences for temperature and lighting. Extensive wifi throughout the campus enables user mobility in the office and on the grounds outside, and CO2 sensors are used to ensure healthy indoor air quality.

Making life better, one building at a time

If current projections hold, there will be 2.87 billion smartphone users by 2020 (up from 2.53 billion today). That's roughly 38% of our global population. Indeed, smartphones have become such a dominant feature of modern life that it can be hard to remember what things were like before Apple launched its iPhone in 2007. There are almost no historic analogies that parallel the smartphone’s incredibly fast rate of adoption only 13 years after being introduced. But fully digitized buildings may be the next great innovation to accomplish this feat.

A single building, whether it’s an office space, retail centre, school, museum, university campus, government building or civic centre, can serve hundreds or even thousands of people each day. These places have a tremendous impact on people’s daily lives, especially since we spend most of our time indoors. Results vary across countries, but we know that Americans spend an average of 90% of their time inside buildings, for instance. This means that the transformation of just 10% of the buildings sector can significantly impact the lives of a broad range of people, very quickly.

Agile buildings can be an important part of the solution to so many important challenges ahead of us, including climate change, improving human health, and creating inclusive and open cities that provide opportunities for everyone. Agile buildings have the potential to do for entire communities what smartphones have done for individual users. That is something that we can all be very excited about.