Creating buildings that care about us

For the first time, building management systems now have the capability to learn and even anticipate their occupants’ needs, according to a new Royal Academy of Engineering report published today. Based on a roundtable held at the Academy, Smart Buildings: People and Performance highlights both the opportunities and the risks associated with these advances in smart technologies.

By 2020, there will be an estimated 50 billion networked appliances and sensors worldwide, constituting a vast global network of data-generating devices such as sensors and their URLs, known collectively as the ‘internet of things’. These sensors enable building management systems to respond to their occupants’ needs and preferences for light, temperature settings and other services. They can help to save energy and other resources by switching devices off when they are not in use.

Healthcare promises particularly interesting opportunities for this technology. Sensors could extend the length of time that elderly people can remain in their own homes by allowing remote monitoring of their daily routine and of their health through blood pressure and heart monitors.

However, it is vital that buildings can evolve and adapt to accommodate their users and allow them control over their environment. Architects and engineers need to anticipate the needs of users, consulting with them at the start of the design process. Bennetts Associates Director and Architect Simon Erridge says:

“People want to engage with the controls, rather than feel at the mercy of a technological hand of God.”

Establishing public trust in smart buildings will depend on reliable systems and instinctive interfaces. Arup Global Research Director Professor Jeremy Watson FREng, who chaired the meeting, notes that:

“smart is about the building beginning to anticipate your needs – it is about living in a machine that cares about you.”

The systems in a smart building also need to be engineered to minimise the impact of cyber security threats and to allow updates over their life cycle to cover new risks. Users’ willingness to provide or share personal information and use applications increasingly depends on whether they trust the data processor to protect their privacy and to use the data in a fair, legal and accountable manner. In multi-occupancy or multi-use buildings this will need to be addressed in the design and operation of any shared infrastructure applications, particularly if they impact on health and safety.

As building service networks become more integrated, they also become prone to cascade failures that affect the comfort and productivity of the occupants and at worst could endanger their safety. Preventing such failures will require continued investment from the owners.

“Even the smartest buildings can become dumb if the building management system is not maintained,”

says Professor Doug King FREng.

“If we don’t provide the service, then no amount of machine smartness can overcome the inventiveness of the human users. People are very good at making decisions and weighting them on criteria that machines cannot replicate.”