Problems with today’s Smart
Buildings

Smart Buildings in a Smart City environment

The words Smart Buildings and digital Real Estate Management refer to open and networked data streams in buildings that are evaluated and analyzed fully automatically. An AI controls media flows and infrastructure in order to provide people with optimal living and working conditions. Strategic decisions in building and site development are made on the basis of transparent data and with maximum security within information technology. Sounds too good to be true? It is! In this article, I would like to discuss problems in the design process of Smart Buildings and what consequences it has for digital real estate management. In short, it’s not a technological problem today to make buildings intelligent — it’s a human problem. I would like to go into this problem more detailed and explain strategic approaches with which it can be tackled in the short to medium term.

Current Status in Smart Building Strategies

Buildings account for around 40% of global energy demand. They occupy the largest part of our urban space and, due to their consumption of resources, form a very important building block for sustainable and future-oriented site and urban development. The buildings’ data form the basis for intelligent and efficient regulation and control of information and resources. Not least due to climate policy demands and the focus on energy and resource conservation, the building sector is increasingly coming under scrutiny. It is therefore not surprising, that the market is showing great interest in smart buildings. The economic interests of the building owners are hard as nails, while the slogans of the technology providers are effective in advertising. Out of pure ecological interest, buildings will not become smarter in the future if, on the other hand, there are no monetary advantages, e.g. in value development. According to a recent study by trend:research, the annual market volume in the smart building sector is estimated at around 10 billion euros by 2025.

Real Estate Management in companies and public authorities focuses on value preservation and, above all, value development as part of its portfolio planning. Sound decisions are to be made on the basis of transparent data. And this is where the first problem arises: Data availability. Persons who have been entrusted with the management of buildings for years should make their data accessible at once. Suddenly several stakeholders have an interest in the data in order to offer system and software solutions. In the past, nobody but the technical department was interested in building data — today people talk about open interfaces and an unhindered exchange of information. This fact inevitably leads to fears of loss among many people. If one is no longer the sole holder of information, he becomes more easily replaceable. If this finding meets with a fundamental skepticism towards new technologies and processes, lengthy discussions and decision-making processes are already inevitable. It requires people to be aware of what new technologies can achieve and what they can support. They must not be seen per se as a danger.

The problem often isn’t, that technologies aren’t known, but the question arises, how they can be used. What is the exact implementation process? How are the working processes changing and what results can be expected? These questions are often very important for people and have to be answered right at the beginning of requirements engineering.

The question of concrete implementation is also part of the overall strategic planning of real estate management, which must be answered. A Smart Building is not simply bought, it is created and continuously developed. The next problem is immediately apparent: When does a building become a smart building? Which use cases must be fulfilled and which technologies must be installed so that a building can call itself a smart building? This question will be looked at in detail in a separate article — at this point we would simply like to point out the problem, that a uniform understanding of the terms is needed in order to talk about the same thing in the end.

Our vision and its obstacles on the way to smart buildings

You can’t fool yourself: There has been talk of increasing digitalization for many years now, so you can hardly hear it anymore. Furthermore, it isn’t limited to one type or technology, but is omnipresent in all areas of our lives. It is therefore not surprising, that it is the same in the building sector. So you no longer have to ask yourself whether you should think about the digitalization of buildings, but only to what extent — depending on your own interests and areas of responsibility.

In the future, it should therefore be the case that a strategic digitalization plan must be available in every project. Questions will be answered like:

  • Which technologies will be used?
  • Who is in charge of the technical operation and ensures availability?
  • What are the data structures and processes like?
  • Who has access to the data and how is it secured?
  • Which processes use the data and what added value do they generate?
  • Who takes care of general data maintenance and updating?

In order to be able to answer all these questions, it is necessary that there are no more data silos in the future. Data silos and information silos can cover the following two areas:

  • Technological silos
  • Human silos

Technological silos mostly concern interface problems, when data cannot be exchanged without problems. Particularly when proprietary software is used, data (formats) are often used, that can only be exported and imported with increased effort. Many manufacturers realize, that customers no longer only (can) use one system and therefore offer openly accessible APIs to facilitate the coupling of other systems. Startups in particular are forcing large software providers to rethink their approach by making their offerings so open by default that they can be linked to other systems without any problems. Each application is a specialist in a specific area and cannot possibly cover all customer requirements.

Human silos are more difficult to handle. When people or colleagues do not share information openly and/or only upon explicit request and if information is only partially and then also incorrectly released, it can lead to enormous complications. The reason for such behavior is often the fear of loss. This can be one’s own areas of responsibility and competences, as well as general responsibilities. Loss at this point means the fear, that one’s job will be omitted in the future or change too much. People meet this fear with disgust and try everything to prolong the process as long as possible. Such an attitude can only be solved with many discussions. It is important to mention at this point: Nobody feels wrong! Noone can be accused of his feelings. At this point, joint conversations have the goal of finding out why someone feels this way and what can be done about it. However, it should also be pointed out, that not everyone is ready to change his or her rejective attitude and to deal openly with change. If such an attitude hampers the result too much or causes too much unrest in the team, it is best to part with this colleague. The use of new technologies and processes has in history always led to the fact, that certain job profiles were no longer needed or had to be changed. It is the responsibility of each individual to face these challenges and to react accordingly and not to close oneself off per se (e.g. from further and additional training).

Increasingly networked technological structures have an impact on qualifications, that require certain occupational fields. Our vision therefore is vocational training, that combines the following special skills:

  • Plant and supply engineering
  • Information technology
  • Electrical engineering
  • Measurement and control technology

There are already initial initiatives by companies in cooperation with universities to implement precisely these requirements and to satisfy the needs of the market. In order to be able to meet the shortage of skilled workers today, it is the responsibility of the companies and each and everyone of them to conduct continuous further training.

In order to open people up to the topic of intelligent buildings and to counter scepticism and fears, it is becoming increasingly important to make technology a tangible experience. A constantly growing number of sensor systems in buildings inevitably leads to prejudices and dislikes. Prototypes of first applications, which can be shown publicly, ensure that basic dislikes do not arise in the first place, which could endanger the further course of the project.

Prototypes or pilot projects not only ensure, that people are picked up during new technology deployments, but also that the catalogue of requirements is made more concrete. The more precise it is, the more precisely technologies can be selected and the later use of software can be specified. Nothing would harm the project more, as if the use of new sensor technology did not live up to expectations. Above all, the area of development from existing buildings to smart buildings requires a precise utility value analysis and target definition.

The key point of utility value analysis leads to the budget constraint. How much does a Smart Building get me? As mentioned earlier, smart buildings are not an end in themselves, but are subject to economic considerations. When do investments pay off and when do smart buildings pay off? These are important questions, that have to be reworked and answered according to the user’s ideas. There is no model business case for a smart building, just as no building is like any other.

However, what is needed at the beginning is a budget for the deployment of human resources, when a company wants to deal with the topic of Smart Building: In addition to day-to-day business, this topic cannot be dealt with in a clean and well-founded manner. The necessary investments and effects are simply too large for this. This requires specialist personnel, who are entrusted with the strategy, project execution and operation of Smart Buildings.

Before hiring personnel, you always need first movers. Companies, institutions and people who are courageous. Those who dare to initiate and test projects without a detailed ROI calculation. The requirements of buildings and stakeholders are so heterogeneous, that drivers and visionaries are always needed. These “early adopters” must stick to the visions of their smart buildings and generate understanding among people. How can a smart building be experienced and which short- to medium-term things can be implemented?

A look into the future

With all the visions and obstacles, the question arises, where to start, if Smart Building is relevant for you? We got to the bottom of this question in a workshop. As you can see from the tenor of this article, the technology was not considered a problem. It was rather working with people. The main point was to open the mindset of people to this concern through the following methods:

  • Offer of continuing education.
  • Promoting open forms of communication.
  • Addressing fears openly.
  • Developing solutions together or openly sharing and justifying results.

Above all, the use of internal incubators has proven its worth. These are small teams that promote and develop the topic within the framework of many interdisciplinary teams.

Summary

We have seen, that Smart Building will play an increasingly important role in the future. Not only in building development, but also in strategic overall considerations in the entire real estate management. The change process must not be forgotten, since it is about people, staying in the building and using it. Additional training and qualification offers will help to ensure, that the necessary know-how is available. A qualified group acts as a driver to create awareness of the topic and to sensitise people.

The enormous market for this topic underlines its importance and why it is important to keep an eye on it when dealing with buildings. This is also shown by various company cooperations, such as those of Microsoft on the subject: As the actual provider of software solutions and network infrastructures, new solutions in the field of smart building are developed together with planners and suppliers. Microsoft is expecting 1 million new IoT devices (sensors) per hour to be connected to the grid worldwide by 2020. The amount of data involved is enormous and exemplifies the potential of new business models:

  • Smart Home: 250GB/day
  • Smart City: 250PB/day
  • Smart Office: 150GB/day

In order to make Smart Buildings a success, I would like to briefly and concisely summarize the visions and wishes that I consider important for the future of Smart Buildings:

  • Open data and information structures (technological and human).
  • Qualified specialists for the planning, execution and operation of Smart Buildings.
  • A visionary mindset for the people who are interested in the topic and who are affected by it.
  • Secure infrastructures and facilities.
  • Openness of system and technology providers in data access.

I hope you enjoyed the article and I would appreciate your feedback.

✦ Helping Visioneers to shape the digitized future and bring their ideas to life. As an engineer and entrepreneur I would like to inspire and generate sparks. ✦