Smart buildings are about people, not the building

One of the problems of smart buildings being such a loosely defined term is that it can be hard for building owners to know where to start when it comes to making their buildings ‘smarter’. Do I install this technology? Should I be aiming for maximum energy efficiency? Is it all about automation?

Obviously, we talk about technology a lot through these blogs. But while it is vital that buildings are designed and built from the outset with a clear strategy for the technology infrastructure to support the full lifetime of the building, it is also true that technology is not the sole definer of what makes a smart building.

Unfortunately, this salient fact has been somewhat obscured by the queues of suppliers advising property owners and users to install this or that technology under the guise of making buildings smart. For instance, there has been a lot of focus on BMS and PMS systems. However, while these are useful systems, they are essentially focused on the energy efficiency of the building. The obvious conclusion to draw here though is that these technologies undoubtedly make buildings more efficient, but that doesn’t necessarily make them any smarter.

We are seeing a number of efforts to bring renewed clarity to what constitutes a ‘smart’ building from the likes of WiredScore, but one of the key factors that has focused minds is the pandemic.

Shifting focus

The huge changes to living and working patterns that the pandemic has initiated has forced a rapid rethink of how we view the built environment – particularly the corporate office. Architects, property owners and corporate leaders are openly speculating about its very future.

It is these conversations that are shifting focus away from any one technology, or even the operation of the building per se, to engaging the people that actually use buildings.

As Dav Bansal, partner at Glenn Howells Architect, has put it, “it now becomes even more important to deliver quality workplaces that stimulate collaboration, mentoring and creativity for the wellbeing of our society … Many practices were already considering ways to design more sustainable and healthy spaces, but now there is a priority to change gear and speed up in delivering these objectives.”

As this statement makes clear, technology is the means, not the end. It’s not about the efficiency of the building or the automation of certain services. It’s all about making people feel safe, healthy and productive. Rather than focusing on the technology, we need to focus on the experience of buildings. To make our designs human-centric rather than technology-centric.

Ultimately, a building cannot possibly be ‘smart’ if no one uses it or wants to come to it.

Embracing human-centric design

A more human-centric approach to building design has the potential to not only help us define the smart building, but also to create new value in the built environment – to establish experience as a key differentiator for buildings.

Workplace consultancies like Holistica are pioneering this new approach with a focus on transformation projects that encapsulate not just IT, but also real estate, HR & and change characteristics. This approach prioritises benchmarking and analysis up front to clearly capture what an organisation wants from its building/s and then combines physical space design, technology infrastructure and change management to make that into reality.

It is a completely different approach to the traditional focus on point technologies, but it is one that we have seen work first hand with Societe Generale’s new headquarters at One Bank Street.

This project was about more than simply relocating to a new building. Instead Societe Generale saw it as an opportunity to reset the way the company works as a whole and to embrace new modes of working and new ways of utilising and managing the space available to them. Realising this vision was about fully understanding what they wanted out of the building – the experience they wanted to create. The technology implementation was an invisible layer underpinning this vision, not the vision itself.

It is only when technology is used in the service of the needs of people in this way – rather than for its own sake – that we can realise the full value of our offices and the built environment more generally. Indeed, it is only by serving the needs of the people that use them that any building can truly be called smart.


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