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Occupant-Centered Tech for Smart Buildings
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Smart living technologies like speakers, thermostats, security cameras and doorbells have been popular with homeowners for years—and slow to catch on in commercial buildings outside the hospitality and multifamily sectors.
But smart living technology is increasingly moving into office towers, healthcare facilities, and other commercial and institutional buildings. Lower device costs and advancements in building automation systems enable a greater degree of individual control.
“People spend a significant portion of their lives in workplaces, which they want to be more comfortable and engaging,” explains Sudhi Sinha, vice president and general manager for digital solutions with Johnson Controls.
“They are looking for technology solutions that will help them focus and be more productive in their job. People like these solutions because they give employees a sense of power to control their own spaces and use those spaces within facilities more effectively,” he explains.
Retrofitting smart living technologies into an existing building doesn’t have to break the bank. Here’s how you can incorporate occupant-facing tech affordably.
Understand Occupant-Facing Technology for Smart Buildings
Technological innovation is creating new opportunities to integrate smart living technology in places you may never have considered using it. Zoned lighting and HVAC controls have been in use for some time, but technologies targeting individual comfort and convenience are rapidly taking their place.
Today’s smart building options include:
- Booking desks, meeting rooms or lab equipment
- Finding open parking spots
- Controlling lighting down to individual receptacles
- Opening or closing shades and drapes
- Adjusting audio systems
- Tracking the location of equipment
- Navigating routes through the facility
- Measuring satisfaction with services, such as restroom cleanliness in airports
“Technologies targeted at individual comfort are also very useful for building management staff,” explains Sinha. “They can now get real-time feedback about preferences, issues and, more importantly, building utilities like HVAC and lighting can be better optimized through occupancy-based usage. Through such technologies, facility managers can make workplaces more inviting and productive while learning how to reduce energy costs and increase sustainability.”
The hospitality and multifamily sectors emerged as early adopters of smart living technology. That represented a natural progression from the single-family residential sector, especially in hotels, which are meant to be comfortable, luxurious homes away from home.
“My home is fitted with a lot of smart technology, so it's nice to be able to go to a hotel that has similar features,” says Nora Swanson, director of design technology at AKF Group. “You become accustomed to the conveniences of voice-controlled automation in particular. We’re actually starting to see voice-controlled automation being incorporated into healthcare facilities, which makes sense. Voice control tied into nurse call systems, the shades and drapes, the TV, the temperature in the room gives patients the ability to adjust their surroundings to optimize their comfort.”
Mobile apps also play a prominent role in the transition toward smart living capabilities. People rely on apps to control many aspects of daily life, from ridesharing services to food delivery. Hospitals are gravitating toward more welcoming, patient-centered design, and part of that move has involved implementing patient care apps, says Kurt Gokbudak, solution architect for Schneider Electric.
“Patients will have the capability to have some direct monitoring and control over the environmental conditions in their room,” Gokbudak explains. “Patient apps can integrate into the AV in that room, open and close the blinds, change the lighting level or see what’s for dinner at the hospital.”
Tenant portal apps that allow users to adjust lighting levels, create temperature setpoints and make other comfort-related changes are often incorporated into client projects, Gokbudak says.
On the other side of the tenant equation, property managers are embracing apps that make it easier for tenants to request services and for property professionals to deliver them. A few taps on a smartphone speed up tenant tasks like:
- Paying rent
- Requesting after-hours HVAC services
- Communicating with the property management team
- Adding newly-hired employees to the building’s access control system and issuing them credentials for private parking
“At the same time, you can say ‘Well, there are two new employees, but I only want to give the manager access to be able to override the air conditioning and change temperature setpoints,’” explains Gokbudak. “You’d still give other people access to the parking lot, but perhaps they don’t all need access to controlling the air conditioning because there’s a cost to the building potentially associated with that.”
Analyze Your Smart Building Needs
Integrating smart building technology that targets individual occupant comfort starts with taking stock of your current operations. Where could you save time, money or headaches? What do people complain about the most? Where are the inefficiencies in the way people interact with each other and their environment?
“Every business and building has a different mission. They also have different types of constituents in forms of occupants, visitors and support personnel,” Sinha says. “The definition and usage of smart living technologies differ by building and application types.
“For example, in office buildings people may look for capabilities around meeting booking, wayfinding, personal environment control and easy usage of facility services. Patients in hospitals might look for personal environment control, communicating with nurses and doctors, finding locations within healthcare facilities or learning more about patient care. In universities, students might look for wayfinding, identifying similar interest groups, booking spaces, and finding academic or entertainment resources.”
Smart living technologies must enhance your building’s mission, Sinha adds. You may want a few key technologies that make occupants’ and facilities managers’ lives easier, or you may want a highly sophisticated setup with all kinds of functionalities.
One of Swanson’s clients, a tech campus, opted for the latter. The 700,000-square-foot office complex uses more than 10,000 sensors, many of which constantly monitor occupancy and temperature to maintain efficiency. The badge-based security system is also integrated with several personal amenity technologies.
“When someone enters the building and badges in, they’re linked with the digital desk display system so the end user can choose where to work that day. The floors load and unload on a maximum occupancy basis, so they don’t release floors for use until a floor is full, which saves on lighting and HVAC,” Swanson says. “They also tie in personal amenity functions with the security badge, like having coffee orders ready or if you’re going to a focus space that day, having personal lighting and temperature preferences tied in with the systems in that space.”
The most important thing is that your smart living technology choices make sense for your building, occupants and facilities team, adds Peter Costanzo, director of facilities management for IMAGINiT Technologies.
A full suite of comfort and convenience solutions may be a perfect fit for a tech office with young employees who have grown up using these technologies, but a setting with many users who are older or less tech-savvy may not need many personal controls.
Plan a Smart Deployment
Roll out your smart living technology and integrate it with your building automation system in a thoughtful way that will be minimally disruptive for building occupants.
Gokbudak recommends working with a project manager on an installation schedule that makes sense. The new technology in your smart building should also be commissioned at the end of the process “to make sure that what you are receiving is what you purchased,” Gokbudak adds.
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“It’s also really important to make sure that you receive training on how the system you purchased functions. Most manufacturers are used to supplying training. Also, make sure that as part of the system installation, you address how the system will be maintained on an ongoing basis.”
The implementation plan should address how to integrate data from building systems that are traditionally siloed, Sinha says. Vendors should be able to address three key elements:
- Measuring outcomes and improvements
- Integrating systems and sensors from different suppliers
- Developing a platform strategy that future-proofs your investment
Post-installation, getting people to use the new smart living technologies will be your next hurdle. Some will catch on quickly, such as using voice commands that are similar to what they already use with voice assistants Alexa, Siri, Cortana or Google Assistant. Others may need more active marketing and change management.
Clearly communicate the benefits and functions that people can expect and make sure people know the message is coming from your organization’s senior leadership, Swanson suggests.
“Higher usage is driven by addressing the most important needs of occupants, constantly adding new features and capabilities, monitoring usage, responding to feedback and continuously refreshing the experience,” Sinha adds.
Apps that put these functionalities on personal mobile devices will also help encourage people to use your new technology.
Ask your vendor if they can develop an app that puts the occupant-facing parts of your smart living technology into your occupants’ hands. One of Gokbudak’s clients, a commercial property developer in California, is pursuing this route and is using the app’s existence to market their buildings as modern, high-tech workplaces.
“They’ve got the capability through the app to see what’s happening in the space,” Gokbudak explains. “They can change their temperature setpoint. They can change their hours of operation. Typically lease provisions will state that a tenant will receive air-conditioning services for X number of hours per week, but this gives the tenants the capability to say ‘Well, our hours are different’ and adjust the hours of operation. They have the opportunity to save a little on their lease, or if they’re using additional services, they can request them and the manager receives the appropriate level of extra income from the extra services.”
Maintain Long-Term Benefits
Commissioning smart living technology will help ensure long-term benefits, but you still have to maintain it efficiently and use the data to enable better decisions. These two keys to success will help you get your money’s worth out of the investment.
1. Think about scalability.
You don’t have to roll out a huge smart living amenity package right away. Sometimes the best investment is infrastructure that can support more improvements in the future. “It may be inherent technology that resides in a core closet for the time being until you’re ready to expand on it,” says AKF Group’s National Residential & Hospitality Practice Leader, Mark Richter.
“There are a lot of devices that can be installed and work ‘dumb,’ so to speak,” adds Swanson. “You can install smart light fixtures but have them work off of a switch or occupancy sensor so that in the future, when the stakeholders decide that they want to start making their building more intelligent, that infrastructure and those devices are already there. It’s a future-proof design that gives you the dynamic ability to make decisions at any point along your building’s lifecycle.”
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2. Derive data you can use.
Data is useless if you can’t interpret it. Invest in a system that can funnel the tidal wave of incoming information into actionable insights. Occupant-centered technologies can yield savings for owners and managers if it’s collecting useful data.
“Let’s say that something is broken or running the way it shouldn’t,” says Gokbudak. “You’ve got the capacity to have the system automatically flag the fact that on Tuesday you used a lot more energy than you typically use on Tuesday. That could mean someone left an air conditioner or a boiler on. You can spot problems early in the process instead of on your utility bill.”
Occupant-centered smart living technologies don’t have to bust your budget. Choose carefully and integrate them thoughtfully to create a responsive building that increases occupant satisfaction and operates efficiently.
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