The Fundamentals of Smart Buildings

Making decisions with data and learning the hard lessons from occupant feedback are the quickest ways to improve your smart building

Matt Ernst

Four walls and a roof: those are the minimum requirements of a building. We need shelter to survive and we create buildings to meet that need. So why build more than absolutely necessary? Why not build cheap, nondescript, gray buildings, with cube farms for everyone?

The truth is that the buildings we work and live in shape who we are; whether we know it or not. They influence how happy and productive we are. A better building enables more efficient workers, more inclusive relationships, and a healthier well-being for each occupant.

Smart buildings are the digital extension of architectural and engineering progress. As society now lives through the lens of technology, buildings are beginning to adapt to that framework to better serve their occupants. As our phones and apps shape our thoughts and feelings, new technology is shaping the way we feel about comfort, security, and enjoyment of our built environment. We are connected to each other in a way that was never before possible and now we can connect to our environment.

smart office space at wework labs
WeWork Labs

The Startup Mindset: Testing assumptions and proving with data

The idea of continuous improvement comes in many forms: Kaizen, Six sigma, and Lean have been around a while. The Smart Building intends to put these concepts to work to improve occupant experience.

The core problem with current buildings is that they are data poor. Buildings do not seek feedback from occupants or use technology to gather insights on the daily operation and function. A Smart Building has systems that gather this data and synthesize it in a way that can be useful.

Those who design, build, and operate our high rises, homes and everything in between get no feedback from occupants. How do they know if their architecture elicits the right emotions, or HVAC design is keeping people comfortable? I’m a proud member of the engineering community and will admit, we like to give ourselves awards on how innovative our designs are but rarely ever ask someone who uses the building… hey, are you comfortable? Is there something we missed? Is there a better way to serve you?

The Smart Building mindset is changing all that. The most important pilar of a smart building is that it is a closed feedback loop. The first step is not implementing technology, but accepting that all parts of living and working in a building can be improved and should be methodically approached.

The best way to reach that goal is to use technology to gather occupant feedback. There are many commercially available software applications that can gather occupant feedback depending on what you are looking to gather (overall satisfaction, comfort data, etc.). The general process of a Smart Building project/program looks like this:

  1. Set measurable goals and priorities of a building. i.e. “Increase participation in building wide events by 10% this year” or “Reduce temperature related complaints by 5% this month compared to last year at this time” or “Increase occupant awareness of building sustainability initiatives by 20%.”
  2. Put technology in the occupants’ hands and track the feedback in a repeatable and statistical way. Ask questions and make inferences on what occupants in the building do everyday, how they use the space, how they feel about their work environment, or how productive they are.
  3. Collect the data, create solutions and act.
  4. After a solution is implemented, track the results and see if the changes made the improvement that was expected. This is the most important piece. Smart Buildings use real data feedback to see if they are truly improving the wellbeing of the occupants.

This process makes sense intuitively but is a huge departure from the way the industry has functioned. For example, if you wanted a “sustainable” building you might follow the standard and certification set forth by LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, USGBC). Once you employed the sustainable practices suggested by LEED, and a reviewing body of experts agreed, boom: you have a sustainable building with many assumed benefits to the occupants.

But how do you know if your efforts actually did anything to improve occupant experience? You don’t!

The Smart Building mentality cuts out the panels of experts and middlemen. You measure whether your actions benefit occupants and use real data feedback to prove that it does or doesn’t. As you can imagine, this may terrify some managers. What if all the money we spent doesn’t improve our occupant experience?

Several innovative companies and organizations have made the realization that making decisions with data and learning hard lessons from occupants is the quickest path to improvement. You may recognize some of the names; Deloitte (The Edge), IBM (Munich HQ for Watson IoT), WeWork, Googleplex, Apple Park, Microsoft Redmond Campus, property managers like CBRE and JLL, and too many universities to name.

Four walls and a roof may be the minimum requirements for a building, but the most innovative and ground-breaking companies see opportunities far beyond what most see as possible.

smart building quote
Quote from WeWork
Matt Ernst
Matt Ernst
The digital infrastructure of building systems and our effective use of data can be 10x better than what it is today. My passion is applying cutting edge technology to operate the built environment more sustainably. I combine my hands-on experienc...
The digital infrastructure of building systems and our effective use of data can be 10x better than what it is today. My passion is applying cutting edge technology to operate the built environment more sustainably. I combine my hands-on experienc...