Intelligent by design: Smart Building Conference 2018 report

Data, ‘millennials’ and the relationship between technology and design were the key talking points at this year’s Smart Building Conference, taking place on the eve of ISE 2018 at the RAI.

The day’s events opened with a local perspective from Ger Baron, CTO for the City of Amsterdam, who explored Amsterdam’s transition into a more data-driven city to improve both the quality of those living there and its appeal to tourists. Although still a work in progress, Baron noted that key to the digitalisation of the city was data aggregation from numerous areas – from different feedback loops on a building or monitoring foot traffic levels in buildings. This then leads to key decisions regarding Amsterdam’s upkeep and building developments in the city (such as when traffic collections occur or where parking facilities and solar panels may be deployed).

“It’s not about smart buildings anymore, but how they connect to the space,” said Baron, going on to explain how the continual collection of data – using sources including social media, photo website Flickr and credit card transactions – is affecting how the city runs. Crucially, as well as using data collection to work with other industries to create an optimum living experience for the inhabitants of Amsterdam, the city is working to monetise its different networks by making data available for purchase too. Baron stressed the importance of this approach to future-proofing the city and ensuring its continued appeal to its inhabitants and said Govtech is more than a coinage, but increasingly important for any city or town as design principles interweave with technology to deal with potential issues before they can become detrimental. Govtech still has issues to iron out when it comes to running a faultless platform, however, with Baron acknowledging the question of “who governs the government?” and ethics on what should be the city’s priority (i.e. should creating value for the city be prioritised over its air quality?) naturally are up for debate when dealing with such a vast amount of data.

People-centric spaces

Kevin Flanagan, partner at PLP Architecture, expanded upon the themes of Baron’s talk, and looked in greater detail at a city’s smart building, and how an intelligent environment can be a tool to retaining a workforce. In explaining how companies should be prioritising an effective work and social environment, The Edge (designed for Deloitte and often lauded as the “greenest” and “most intelligent” building in the world) was a key talking point again following on from the 2016 edition of the conference. And with a staff retention 2.5x higher than average and 90% of job applicants specifically stating that they want to work in the building, the building continues to be a worthwhile talking point. What attracts most attention (aside from the 30,000 sensors managing AV, HVAC and other systems in the building), and is the most-favoured working area, is the Edge’s large, open atrium. Here, Flanagan notes, the building’s designers tried to stay away from traditional components of workspace – though he stressed, “that the culture has to be there to adopt it.” Flanagan says these shared spaces, which lack set desks but boast a strong sense of community, are having a tangible effect on worker attendance rates and overall job satisfaction. This would be later echoed by Siemens’ Daniel Schröder who forecast that by 2030, 30% of corporate real estate will consist of flexible office spaces, using the growing popularity of WeWork to back this growth.


One of the more divisive issues up for discussion was what exactly was the essential factor in the success of the Edge – chiefly, whether the employee base or the building itself drives collaboration and a happy workforce. Flanagan argued the millennial proportion of Deloitte’s staff were key to the workspace’s success, yet some attendees believed the appeal of the work environment was universal, and not age-dependant.

With the building space set to decline and certain types of work set to rise, Flanagan concluded that it’s essential to look at using spaces we have more efficiently through design. He added that 5G will pave the way to capitalise on data and predictive maintenance the way the Edge does (renowned for monitoring everything from an employee’s journey to work to how they like their coffee in the morning) in a “profound” way.

With benefiting from data a key talking point of the day, later Iain Gordon, MD at KNX UK, explored how he expects BIM (Building Information Modelling) to have a “dramatic” effect on how data from buildings is both received and processed. Gordon explained how it should be seen as more that another cost to add to the running of a building, but a tool to provide good data exchange and the ability to identify problems before they even occur. He concluded that creating a “digital twin” of a smart building (including all CAD drawing and planning materials) can make an integrator’s life easier by preventing all services involved in projects interacting with each other in a negative way.

Smart advertising

Taking a look from the outside was architect Christoph Kronhagel, who addressed the growing trend of “mediatecture” – transforming architectural spaces into digital spaces. Kronhagel explored how he is working to make people engage with the buildings around them, using the example of the façade of pharmaceutical firm Bayer’s headquarters in Leverkusen, Germany, which he made into a nature-inspired media sculpture. The defining factor being that locals could decide on what they were seeing via the company’s website – with the building’s ever-changing content still connected to Bayer’s work in healthcare. The number of people visiting the website meant Bayer also could measure the effectiveness of the campaign in a way not usually possible. Another project at AOK health insurance saw its façade transformed with a vertical garden and integrated filter system, and one project in Essen allowed passers-by to take a photo of themselves and have it appear on the building if they shared via social media – both of which succeeded in getting people to interact with a building via technology in a different way. Feedback to aligning advertising with the architecture of a building was overwhelming positive, with many conference attendees admiring the Kronhagel “smart advertising” approach.

“When it comes to predictive maintenance – AR can help (for example, connected to technical documentation it can feed information to someone unfamiliar with a specific device), but we are only at the start of this.” 

Future projections

Speakers looked to the future with the day’s closing panel discussion, bringing together speakers from all areas of the smart building sector to explore points including augmented reality, voice control and interoperability. Olaf Stutzenberger of ABB Building Products said he expects the influence of AR to grow, just as it has done in the architectural world. “When it comes to predictive maintenance – AR can help (for example, connected to technical documentation it can feed information to someone unfamiliar with a specific device), but we are only at the start of this.” Peter Coman, principal at consultancy InDesign Technologies, added that he also sees the technology coming into the modern-day meeting room. “I really think that we will begin to see a lot more AR moving into meeting space, allowing us to share data just by wearing glasses.” Erik Ubels, CTO at OVG Real Estate added to the list of potential use cases by noting that monitoring of aspects of a building such as energy usage will be particularly useful when engaging with clients. Yet the day’s keynote, architect and MIT professor Carlo Ratti, was keen to outline that there are still barriers to fully capitalising on AR: “We still need to work on the interfaces. The interface is probably not there yet, and in a lot of cases it’s probably still easier to look at an iPad. Quality overlay will come in time though.” He concluded: “I see the future as mainly AR, with a bit of VR on the side.”

The message of “we’re not quite there yet” extended to the application of voice control in commercial settings, with Ubels affirming: “Although we have the likes of Microsoft demoing speaking to sensors in a room, at the moment we have speech recognition, not voice recognition.” Coman shared his optimism, however: “There’s absolutely a role for voice control in the future. One of the biggest problems faced in commercial environments is dealing in user interface and controls and one way to overcome this is through voice. We’re already seeing huge take up of Alexa and Google Home devices and we’re only at the tip of the iceberg, with only 60% of understanding of how to best use it.”

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