Intelligent buildings to boost productivity, efficiency and wellbeing

The emergence of digital technology is driving the creation of more efficient, sustainable and productive workplaces. Intelligent buildings expert Tony Buckingham discusses some of the latest digital tools and trends set to shape our current and future workplaces.

You’re travelling to an unfamiliar corporate office for a crucial meeting. But it’s a smart-enabled building, so you’re relaxed. The company app on your smartphone, containing your profile, enabled you to prepare last night and the building is expecting you.

Facial recognition cameras identify you as you enter the reception and you present a security matrix-barcode boarding pass sent to your smartphone for second-level verification. Knowing your meeting room destination, the building calls the lift.

At your floor, a location-sensing system leads you to the meeting room. As you’re early the system suggests, via your smartphone, you get a coffee. You accept and take a detour to the automatic vending machine. “The usual?” it asks, politely, with cashless vending takes care of payment.

On your return, knowing the type of device you’re using, the meeting room’s audio visual (AV) systems automatically activates and connects, setting up video conferencing links with the relevant offices. The intelligent building management system (iBMS) has also optimised the room’s temperature and lighting for your call. You’re ready.

During the meeting, without you being aware, systems all around you are collecting vital data from mechanical and electrical plant, such as Internet of Things (IoT) connected fan coil units. Armed with this real time data, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is analysing performance trends, predicting when equipment is going to need maintenance. The system can then initiate preventative alerts and even automated maintenance works orders.

Smarter, better

Smart technologies are rapidly transforming modern offices, from just places you go to do your job to interconnective hubs designed to promote creativity, collaboration and employee wellbeing.

Increasingly reliant on their smartphones as well as voice-activated solutions, such as Siri, Google and Alexa, at home and work, office users and owners are coming to expect a high-level app-based interoperability in every area of their life.

For employees, this means access to spaces and tools developed to improve their everyday work experience and wellbeing. This includes a range of environments tailored to different types of working, such as breakout areas and project ‘neighbourhoods’, that can be configured easily as well as, potentially in the future, the development of solutions such as ‘acoustic bubbles’ (see figure 1) activated via sensors and dispatched to surround colleagues conducting impromptu meetings in an open-plan environment. Mobility and connectivity are key.

Intelligent building
Figure 1: Acoustic bubbles in use in the workplaces of the future

Developers, occupiers and property managers want to get the most out of their space, ensuring it’s used efficiently, no matter how mobile, agile and scattered around the globe their workforce and/or users might be.

To deliver on these divergent aspirations, buildings need to become smarter, facilitating systematic data collection and analysis, optimisation and control, including the use of AI. Here we showcase some of the best emerging smart and intelligent building technologies to help building owners and managers better meet their users and building’s needs.

Leveraging solutions from other sectors

For many years, retailers and shopping centre owners have used people-counting systems to register footfall (the location and number of people entering in a given time) and shoppers’ travel paths through retail areas. Commercial offices today use similar technologies, from sensing the presence of people in meeting rooms, to analysing how they flow through a building.

Imagine you’re planning to eat in the office canteen but you’re in a hurry, so you check your firm’s app to see how long the queue is. While you’re connected, you look at the menu along with the nutritional content of the meals. Soon you’ll be able to order and pay for your meal via an app, and have it delivered to your table by an autonomous robot, a technology that is already being trialled in the hospitality sector.

This new technology also makes unused meeting rooms with powered-up with lights, projectors, screens and heating a thing of the past. Linked to a company’s room booking system, sensors can automatically detect somebody in the room and via iBMS, switch it to standby, saving energy and money.

With integrated, easy-to-use room controls and app-based booking systems there’s also an opportunity to influence the way people manage bookings. Employees can receive rewards (such as canteen credits) if they mark a room as free after vacating it early — an action that will also switch the room to standby and enable somebody else to use it.

Furthermore, this technology provides property managers with real-time data across their real estate portfolio, letting them identify trends and understand why certain areas are well occupied while others are not. The use of sensors enables them to examine the effects of potential factors, such as ambient noise, light, temperature and ventilation.

Flexing to adapt

To enable these existing, new and emerging technologies, ICT infrastructure remains a critical part of the jigsaw, be it wired or wireless. Its design needs to be flexible and adaptive to react quickly to situations. Infrastructure is the enabler for technology.

For example, a property manager faced with regularly low occupancy levels within a selected area may wish to experiment with new floor layouts and configurations. This is already happening on a regular basis in co-working spaces, even down to the placement and use of furniture. With the correct location and workplace desk management systems in place, they can provide real-time information and occupancy trends and quickly determine if the new layouts are yielding increased occupancy. Successful models and solutions can then be rolled out to other underperforming areas.

Systems can be linked to the desk power systems, automatically turning off the power to the desk when not in use. How many times do you walk past a bank of desks as you leave to go home all with screens powered on in standby mode? Interactive desk management systems save energy and are good for the environment.

Taking control

Other trends are emerging. Studies show that a person’s productivity, wellbeing and happiness increase if they work in an environment with good lighting, and comfortable temperature and air circulation. So, while the initial focus was on how we occupy space, there’s a growing demand for monitoring indoor office environments, with employee wellbeing a key driver. In response, office users are now able to source cost-effective hand-held devices to measure CO2, temperature and humidity.

By increasing the attractiveness of the building and contentment of its users, the ability to control environments and creating sustainable and inspirational spaces can also contribute to delivering better property investment returns. Landlords and tenants who embrace digital technology are both satisfying the modern-day user’s needs and also differentiating themselves from competition with the potential to commanding higher returns on investment for smart workplaces.

Innovative workplaces

These innovations are just the start, with artificial intelligence and other digital technologies becoming an integral part of the way we do our jobs and live our lives.

Smart buildings are becoming intelligent buildings.

By leveraging the opportunities these solutions offer, in partnership with building users, building owners, managers and occupiers can secure improvements in productivity, efficiency and, crucially, workplace satisfaction.

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