It seems like everything in the modern world is getting smarter – from watches to gym equipment.

The buildings we live and work in are also becoming intelligent.

The office block of today sounds a lot like the Star Trek bridge of tomorrow, with artificial intelligence, movement tracking sensors and Internet of Things (IOT) connectivity.

And while smart buildings might tick a lot of boxes for the technology lovers out there, they are also unleashing a revolution in improved ventilation and air quality.

Brian Turner, the chief executive officer of Buildings IOT, says fully automated buildings have been commonplace in the downtown areas of major cities, like New York, London and Miami for “decades”.

“In the last 18 to 24 months, we’ve started to see the evolution of IoT, where sensors became systems,” adds Mr Turner.

“So, an indoor air quality sensor used to be part of the HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) control system because it was pretty integral to the fresh air ventilation control strategy, but now they’re also making these sensors much more intelligent. Indoor air quality is quickly turning into indoor environment quality. More things are involved. The sensors are not just monitoring gas levels anymore, they are also monitoring things like light levels, sound levels and people counting.”

In the past, Mr Turner says the primary focus in smart building technology has tended to be around energy efficiency. However, this has started to change, to a point where energy and indoor air quality are now seen as equals.

“When you start layering in other IoT solutions like occupancy, then you can start being more intelligent about where that air is delivered,” says Mr Turner.

“If nobody’s in the space, then you can go back to a standby setpoint for ventilation, but again that means you’ve got to layer in more sensors, so you have more data.”

Thor Equities Group recently partnered with Buildings IOT to install a cutting-edge, cloud-based smart building system at its new 800 Fulton building in Chicago, Illinois. Buildings IOT’s onPoint Enterprise platform links 12 different building systems and integrates more than 8,000 data points from operational equipment and IoT sensors present in every part of the 500,000 square foot space.

Mr Turner says they use hardware from Atlasen, which have 15 different sensors in each device.

“We’ve got them layered all throughout the common areas and they’re also present in the tenant spaces. Thor Equities, the building owner, really wanted to make sure that the tenant spaces were equally as ventilated.”

Over the next decade, Mr Turner believes smart building technology will become the norm in high-rise buildings, corporate real estate and large universities, but he adds the challenge will be for buildings of less than 100,000 square feet. He estimates only 15% of those buildings currently have some sort of automation in place, with hurdles to overcome if those buildings were to adopt smart building technology in the future.

“The majority of commercial buildings in the US are under 100,00 square feet, but buildings of that size are starting to look at this issue too,” says Mr Turner.

“The owners of these smaller buildings realize that indoor air quality is not just a problem for big buildings, it’s a problem for every building. Covid-19 brought a new awareness of indoor health upon us all, and tenants need to feel safer indoors. The good news is, over the next decade, we’re going to see a lot of innovation with less expensive systems that are more approachable for smaller building owners.

“And I think we’re going to hear more from tenants in those smaller buildings. As they see bigger buildings and regulations start to take hold, they’re going to start putting the pressure on their landlords.”

But Arup’s digital services leader, Will Cavendish says that while there has been a “definite evolution of buildings and building control systems”, the actual benefits of smart systems have still yet to be realised.

“There’s a lot still to be done to really bring the benefits of intelligence, data and insight to how buildings work and how they benefit the people who live or work in them,” explains Dr Cavendish.

“One of the problems is that many smart systems don’t really talk to each other. You might have what are advertised as “smart” heating systems, ventilation systems, lighting systems or booking systems, but they are too often still siloed.

“There’s a lot of work to be done and at Arup we’ve been trying to create more common platforms that allow the benefits of smart to be to be brought to bear.”

Mr Cavendish says Arup has been developing smart building systems in its own offices around the world.

“For example, we started deploying air quality and bio-aerosol sensors in our Hong Kong offices, which collected data in a more systematic way, and integrated with other buildings data. We found we could train up an artificial intelligence model that could tell us in advance whether there is likely to be adverse air quality. We were able to forecast to 90% accuracy and 30 minutes ahead, when the air quality in the building was going to breach air quality standards.

“That gives you enough time to start turning on fans or changing the heating and ventilation systems. We managed to reduce the number of hours of adverse air quality internally by a third through deploying that prediction system.

“But even more importantly, we did this during the Covid-19 era, because Covid pathogens can be carried by airborne pollutants,” he adds.

“We also wanted to look at could we also be reducing the indoor transmission of Covid by being more predictive about air quality. The ability to reduce adverse internal air quality also reduces the spread of Covid pathogens within a building.

“We feel quite strongly that there is big opportunity here for smart buildings to improve indoor air quality, and importantly, the spread of Covid,” says Mr Cavendish.

While there might be some way to go overcoming data security and interoperability issues between different systems, smart buildings are here to stay. If they are can improve the urban environment around us, then that can be no bad thing.

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