Why buildings will become ‘sensorsational’

Article by Jim McClelland
sensors in modern building
Image credit: Shutterstock

In many small ways, we are becoming accustomed to buildings responding to our physical presence, almost without realizing: doors open and lighting comes on in hallways, toilets flush automatically in restrooms and water flows into basins when our hands approach. Slowly but surely, we have entered a whole new wireless world of sensors.

The Internet of Things is booming. As a result, the forecast date for hitting one trillion sensors worldwide has already been brought forward from 2030 to 2025. Tiny tech will soon be big business and the latest industry research forecasts a tripling in global advanced sensor revenue to more than $3.2 billion over the next 10 years.

Sensors will connect us to the buildings in which we live, learn and work, the shops where we buy goods, and all modes of transport in between. Within a decade, that degree of connectivity will see around 120 sensors in operation for every human in existence.

For property and construction, however, the smart revolution seems to be starting small. “Smart building ‘connectivity’ is in its infancy, with very few buildings having systems that would be considered intelligent,” admits Leo O’Loughlin, SVP, Energy & Sustainability Services at JLL. “The volume of legacy buildings with disparate systems unable to communicate effectively platform-to-platform is nearly equal to the total number of existing buildings.”

His frank assessment is echoed by IBM Distinguished Engineer for Internet of Things, Dr Andy Stanford-Clark: “There are quite a lot of sensors, but not many are currently connected to anything useful. Old Building Management Systems are often proprietary, difficult to integrate and lack interfaces for analytics.

“A truly smart building will understand occupancy, what people inside are doing, and will optimize behavior to support activities. An example could be lifts that detect when you’re near and proactively summon for you – little things like that which make it easier to do your job.”

Progress towards sustainable building design

Some pioneering projects are already lighting the way and it is no coincidence that many modern buildings championed for sustainable design excellence also boast intelligent use of sensors. In Seattle, the Bullitt Center has sensors to monitor light levels, CO2, indoor and outdoor temperatures, plus wind and sun.

In some cases, the smart option is simply driven by a desire to save energy spent on unnecessary and inefficient lighting provision, as at The Gurdon Institute, University of Cambridge. There, a pilot targeting ‘unloved spaces’, with sensors to dim and switch off lights automatically, showed power consumption could be cut by 100,000kWh a year, saving 54 tonnes of carbon and £10,000.

For business tenants, building sensors can also help optimize use of available space, as in the London offices of UBM, where a system of ‘hot lockers’ and desk booking helps manage access and agile working.

Such advances have particular application for large-scale commercial office developments where occupancy is a key cost factor, as well as maybe luxury hotels. For Franz Jenowein, though, Director of Sustainability Consulting & Research at JLL, the metrics go beyond technology: “The more you move into occupancy, wellbeing and productivity, the more it is about business processes and design of spaces. It has less to do with sensors and the pure technology side. It is about rethinking spaces.”

Protecting what’s inside buildings

Away from the more obvious commercial applications, sensors can also prove key in conservation and heritage markets, where they might assist in humidity and temperature regulation to protect exhibits at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, or underpin security measures at historic National Trust buildings in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

It is not just people movements and behaviors being monitored. In the highly competitive field of logistics where delivery times are critical, automated smart warehouses, such as the Cisco-enabled facilities for sportswear retailer Lids staffed by robots, depend on sensors to coordinate picking and dispatch of product without damage or delay.

Looking ahead, though, it may be the emerging pull-through of market demand across all sectors that eventually tips the scales in favor of the mainstreaming of smart innovation, suggests O’Loughlin.

“We expect a great deal more activity in investor market segments, as tenants begin to expect more technology and service from their buildings,” he says. “We will see a transition away from focusing solely on energy cost-reductions and incremental operational efficiencies, to the way that smarter systems engage tenants, building operators and owners of portfolios.”

To contemplate where sensors might be leading us in the future takes us to The Edge, literally. The ‘greenest, most intelligent building in the world’, located in Amsterdam, is packed with no fewer than 28,000 sensors. From licence-plate recognition and hot desking, via thermostats on staff smartphones, to robot vacuums, this is the sensor-rich real estate of tomorrow, today. It even has hot drink machines that memorize how you take your coffee – now that is smart!

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