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Smart building technology – achieving peak performance

The smart elements of high-performing buildings are often not fully used when the scheme is occupied. How can occupiers and landlords get the best out of these features?

Let’s get smart. There is an increasing focus from industry and government on smart or high-performing buildings as we gradually wake up to just how much potential they have. 

The term ‘high-performing buildings’ used to cover everything from workplace design, energy management and sustainability, to asset management. Now our understanding of these buildings has broadened to recognise their role in creating the right environment to deliver employee wellbeing, greater productivity, tenant retention and higher landlord yields, making them more valuable to occupiers and landlords.

Smart building technology has been in existence for more than 20 years, so why are so many buildings that have all the right ingredients to be high performing not functioning as well as they could be? 

Much detailed technical information and forethought can be lost in the handover, leaving the occupier ill-equipped to make the building function at its full potential

The answer lies in both the history and ethos of high-performing building development, how we use smart technology across all building types and in the industry processes employed during the evolution of these buildings and their uses. 

The root of the first issue lies in the fact that high-performing buildings were born largely out of a drive for energy efficiency. In fact, much of the literature on these buildings and the technology associated with them comes from energy management companies. It’s therefore little surprise that many high-performing building designs remain too narrowly focused on energy efficiencies and technologies to achieve desired certification such as BREEAM. Often this will simply be a function of delivering to a design brief or a business case, but it’s clear this may not always deliver the best outcome. There are a growing number of anecdotal case studies of buildings with Excellent or even Outstanding BREEAM ratings that don’t perform to expectation once occupied. 

In many cases, it is the transition from design to occupation that is the missing link. Architects, building designers and developers can spend months consulting on the optimal way to deliver against certain criteria such as noise reduction or air quality, but much of that detailed technical information and forethought can be lost in the handover, leaving the occupier ill-equipped to make the building function at its full potential. 

The uncomfortable truth is that too many schemes have simply not been built with the eventual occupier in mind and, in any event, as soon as a property is in the hands of the occupier a new set of priorities take over. 

For example, the incoming workplace management team may re-examine a space and decide that a certain percentage of additional desks can be allocated to a space, rendering initial configuration of building management systems out of date. These sorts of post-design changes based on quantitative resource optimisation can lead to a building management system being used in a defensive way, fighting to deliver acceptable conditions, rather than as value-add.

This disconnect is something that industry has recognised as a challenge and already begun to address through best practice initiatives such as ‘Soft Landings’ from the Building Services Research and Information Association (BSRIA). This is an initiative that runs through the project from inception to completion, and beyond. ‘Soft Landings’ aims to ensure all decisions made during the project are based on improving operational performance of the building and meeting the client’s expectations – but of course this only works if the eventual occupier is already known. If the eventual occupier is not known you need client discipline to understand the lessons. from design phase and this is where BIM comes into its own as a means to help facilitate that all important knowledge transfer.

These industry solutions work well where there is plenty of time for soft landings to be implemented or where Building Information Modelling (BIM) data exists. However, in a large percentage of cases the prospective occupier may be the third, fourth or even fifth occupier in a space and the building may predate BIM. It is at this point that potential occupiers can and should help drive change in the market. I don’t believe their views are being taken seriously enough. More must be done to ensure the continued performance of a building after completion. Older buildings can be retrofitted with smart technology to benefit the occupier with active management of the building.

So how can this be achieved? Prospective occupiers should evaluate how they use their current spaces and go to potential landlords and advisers with a clear picture of what they need and, ideally a comfort policy – something that sets out target conditions based on legislation, best practice, the building’s intended use, capability and their expectations. Retrospective BIM information could even be created through third-party evaluation of the previous site using smart monitoring, all of which can be shared with the potential landlord as a condition of occupancy. 

Our experience at Capita shows that it is at this stage we start to see the true commercial value to landlords of delivering high-performing buildings intelligently, taking the individual needs of the occupant into account. Not only will the potential rental values increase, but so will property value and tenant retention.

Once all the elements of this picture are understood and acted upon, we will start to see a dramatic shift in building performance thanks to a new generation of informed occupiers for whom truly high-performing buildings will be the only acceptable kind. It’s time we all got smarter.

First published in Building.

Photo of Richard McCarthy

Richard McCarthy

Senior director of government affairs, Capita

In his role Richard provides leadership, support and insight on engagement and future business activity with central and regional government and in the development of Capita’s major property based propositions and strategy. He is also the Non-Executive Chairman of the Smart Meters Data and Communications Company (DCC), a wholly owned subsidiary of Capita, which is responsible for developing and managing the UK telecommunications network to support Smart Meters, Fera Science Ltd, a joint venture with DEFRA, and Axelos, a joint venture with the Cabinet Office.

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