December 2018

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The Smart Building Method

A New Perspective on a Fragmented Industry

James McHale

James McHale,
Managing Director,

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Smart buildings should be more focused on outcomes for their occupants, rather than on implementing the latest technologies. That is what the industry has been pushing towards in recent years, resisting a trend towards ‘technology for technology’s sake,’ in order to create more human-centric buildings

But what if it wasn’t the technology or the outcome that defines the smart building? What if the smart building is actually better defined as a method of making places better? And how would embracing that idea change the industry?

“The defining characteristic of a “smart building” isn’t the application of technology—systems integrations that leverage data analytics, Internet of Things (IoT), etc. Neither is the building’s “smartness” a function of its outcomes—lower energy usage, better occupant comfort, less costly to maintain, sustainable, etc.,” says Matt Ernst writing for IoT For All.

“I would argue instead,” he says, “that the defining characteristic of a “smart building” isn’t the tech; rather, it’s a commitment to leveraging the scientific method to achieve the goals that inspired the building.”

The Scientific Method: “A method of investigation in which a problem is first identified, and observations, experiments, or other relevant data are then used to construct or test hypotheses that purport to solve it” – Collins English Dictionary.

A step-by-step approach consisting of (1) identifying and defining a problem, (2) accumulating relevant data, (3) formulating a tentative hypothesis, (4) conducting experiments to test the hypothesis, (5) interpreting the results objectively, and (6) repeating the steps until an acceptable solution is found” – Business Dictionary.

While many versions of the ‘scientific method’ exist, they all embody the same goal; to discover cause and effect relationships by asking questions, carefully gathering and examining the evidence, and seeing if all the available information can be combined into a logical answer. In other words, sensing an environment to gather data and analyzing that data to generate actionable insight. A familiar concept in the smart building sector, and one that demonstrates that the scientific method is at the heart of the BIoT.

The smart building also leverages the scientific method by utilizing science itself more than previous incarnations of the building. Biologists, not architects, designers or business theorists, are now inspiring lighting solutions that improve our health or identifying the temperature that is most conducive with productivity. They test solutions and measure occupant responses more than ever before, to generate scientific conclusions that shape design and technology. The building can become smart by applying cutting-edge science to develop technological and non-technological solutions that make a building better at whatever it is trying to do.

If the building is a school it should help teachers teach, and students learn, if it is a hospital it should help doctors and patients heal, if it is an office, it should help employees be more productive and help managers manage. Instead of concentrating too much on what technology advancements can achieve, we must focus on how we can support the objectives of the space using all the tools available to the smart building.

“I’ve seen brand new, state of the art, high-tech buildings that are really just a waste of money. Many aren’t “smart” at all,” says Ernst. “If the building’s technology doesn’t change the way people do their jobs (for the better) in a quantifiable and provable way, it isn’t a smart building,” he added.

We are continually re-defining the smart building as a facility that can achieve this or a space that can help people do that. This lack of a common definition is holding back the industry by presenting a confusing solution landscape for buyers according to many commentators.


“If smart buildings are to take hold, the offering needs to be simplified, so the people who are expected to invest in the technology understand what they’re buying,” we wrote in an article in September. “However, before we can expect that to happen this fragmented industry needs cohesion. If smart buildings are to take hold, we must first have a unified view of what a smart building actually is,” the article continued.

contemporary If we to look at the smart building, not as a structure but as a method, we could begin to develop a strict core definition akin to the scientific method. The smart building method might be epitomized by gathering as much data as possible, creating a digital twin, utilizing big data-style analysis, and carefully selecting and developing insights to support pre-defined objectives of the space.

The smart building method would not be confined to a building. The same solutions developed for the indoor environment might be transferable to outdoor urban and rural settings, it may even be applicable in non-spatial contexts. It may be preferable to use the smart building method over the smart city method when attempting to boost the comfort or productivity of parking attendants, road construction workers, and other field-based workplaces, for example.

The smart building as a defined approach unites the sector under a methodology. Solution providers would adapt their method to differentiate from the competition, but the core structure would stay the same, simplifying the product and service offering. Building owners and managers would better understand what they are buying, thereby increasing adoption, sparking consumer demand for new features, and triggering a new phase of growth for the sector. Potentially.

Be it a method or a structure or a process; the smart building needs an identity before it can mature into the mass-market, earth-saving, new-normal it has long promised to be. So why not a method that gets down to the core of what the industry is really doing, embraces all the tools available and underlines the need to keep true objectives in focus?


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