- April 1, 2021: Vol. 8, Number 4

The current and coming era of intelligent buildings

by Mike Consol

Let’s start with a simple analogy: the automobile was always a fairly sophisticated piece of machinery, with an engine made more powerful and efficient over the years. But it wasn’t until automakers started packing their vehicles with sensors and computer chips that they became truly intelligent and offered drivers an array of capabilities. Today, many advanced vehicles run on electric rather than combustion engines, and some can even take passengers from point A to point B autonomously.

The average car has 30 to 50 microprocessors on board, and high-end cars have as many as 100, and they are accompanied by 60 to 100 electronic sensors.

Now consider the average building. They have progressed from crustaceans to vertebrates to what is now emerging as a new level of intelligence, both as independent structures and as integrated components of smart developments or even smart cities.


The Intelligent Buildings Institute defines an intelligent building as one that provides a productive and economical environment through optimization of four basic elements: structure, systems, services and management, and the interrelationship between them. These elements cover everything from the way a building is designed to its HVAC, electrical, water and elevator systems, to the way services are provided to tenants (via apps and other technologies), to manage the building and communicate with tenants.

“We are challenged with the task of ensuring that intelligent buildings also consider the health and well-being of employees, tenants and visitors,” says Marc DeLuca, regional president for the eastern United States at KBS.

The concept of smart buildings is not new, asserts Angela Cain, CEO of CoreNet Global. Various versions of them have been around for 10 years or longer.

“Most new buildings are set up with smart capabilities, and existing structures are increasingly being retrofitted to improve building operations using IoT remote sensors and controllers,” says Cain. “They automatically turn on lights and adjust HVAC just before workers or customers arrive and reset thermostats and turn lights off after most people have left for the day.”

DeLuca adds: “An intelligent building integrates state-of-the-art technologies throughout a property to improve the tenant experience. Starting with your first steps on to the premises and into intuitive common areas and work environments that help today’s top tenants, and their employees thrive.”

One executive in the midst of the trend toward smart buildings is Jason Kaufman, managing director of Silverstein Properties, a real estate owner and developer. His company has partnered with financial services giant Cantor Fitzgerald and University Place Associates, a sustainable commercial development firm, to build a 250,000-square-foot, eight-story lab and office building fitted with many attributes of high-IQ structures, including smart glass, chilled beams, high-grade indoor air quality, and other WELL Platinum and LEED Platinum technologies.

Kaufman observes that a building’s intelligence is tied to its ability to use technology to improve “measurable performance” of its internal systems, facilitate more efficient design of its infrastructure, and contribute to the wellness of its occupants and users.

As technology advances, there are new waves of smart-building capabilities on the horizon, says Cain. New IoT devices with monitoring and control capabilities will add innovation, predictability and cost savings, she says, and as more performance data is available, operators will be able to integrate and analyze how different systems interact to optimize their buildings, and to proactively anticipate what is likely to happen in the future.


Diane Schrader, founder and CEO of the organizations thirdACT PBC and The Climate Salon, speaks in terms of air-quality sensors and air filtration systems that include ultra-violet light, intelligent elevators that reduce human bottlenecks and reduce the spread of COVID-19 and other viruses, natural systems such as green roofs, and materials made with the circular economy in mind, such as sheetrock made of bamboo, which has greater structural integrity, is soundproof and even bulletproof. Then there is onsite energy storage, and electric and thermal microgrids (the latter being clusters of buildings that combine heat recovery and storage, renewable energy, and electric power management through smart and distributed communications and control technologies). She also wants to see electric grids that are up to the task.

“It’s hilarious that some buildings can’t add all the EV charging they’d like because the grid can’t handle it,” says Schrader. “There are many aspects of the grid that need to be redeveloped.”

Cain of CoreNet Global says the short-term emphasis will be on hygiene, health, safety and social distancing requirements as people return to office life. The first touchpoint as employees arrive at work will be the entrance lobby. To ensure health, digital thermal scanners will be connected to software that monitor mass movement of employees, especially during busier times. As employees pass through turnstiles to access controlled areas, technology can restrict entry, controlling the overall number of occupants consistent with density and social distancing norms.

As employees go about their working day, sensor-equipped touchless doors, IoT-
enabled water dispensers, and touchless vending machines will enhance their hygiene and safety, says Cain. Food ordering apps will help decongest cafeterias, and washrooms equipped with touchless taps, soap dispensers and hand sanitizers will help minimize contamination.

“The Internet of Things and proptech solutions have reached the point where the office’s metamorphosis into a multisensory conduit is just around the corner and the marginal costs of making it happen will be justified by the productivity gains companies will experience,” Cain remarks.

Kaufman of Silverstein Properties points to building infrastructure that incorporates the use of photovoltaic cells, low-carbon footprint energy systems for heating and cooling, touchless interactions with users (perhaps via key card or facial recognition) and the use of applications that facilitate self-monitoring of performance.

Add voice command technologies to the menu, says DeLuca of KBS, as well as dependable high-speed internet connections, “an absolute must for office buildings,” he says.

Ashutosh Saxena, founder and CEO, Caspar.AI, a provider of products and services to the senior care industry, says artificial intelligence will enable a variety of uses in intelligent buildings. In the senior care space, AI will act as another caregiver to residents.


Given another decade, we will be living in a country where COVID-19 meets George Jetson, says Cain of CoreNet Global. We are on the cusp of a technological wave that will bring the future of work to us faster than we had anticipated, including completely automated workplaces with embedded artificial intelligence, virtual reality and robotics.

The tool for this change is data that commercial real estate professionals will use to “convert prescriptive analytics into executable solutions.” Data-driven decision making will enable synchronization between buildings, people and teams as wearable technologies and smart gadgets keep us continuously connected. The autonomous workplace will be based on human-centric design and will be a learning environment that improves team performance while optimizing its own efficiency.

There will be challenges to the collection and management of all the data involved in creating intelligent buildings, she says, including privacy concerns that could leave a workforce feeling their every move is being monitored and graded — a potential stumbling block in the bid to achieve an autonomous workplace.

Kaufman of Silverstein Properties concurs that data will be key to feeding artificial intelligence programs the raw material they need to automate processes and create optimal efficiencies within properties.

Schrader of thirdACT PBC and The Climate Salon adds that connected devices need to function when not connected. New development will not solve our energy problems. Retrofits must play a strategic role.

“Just to give you a number, over 80 percent of commercial HVAC systems in Los Angeles are over 20 years old, long past their intended life. But they still work,” she says. “Without even trying, the new tech is miles more efficient. Someone has to value paying for that equipment replacement even if they don’t pay the utility bill.”

The challenge, Cain adds, will be using more advanced HVAC systems with higher ventilation rates without creating lower energy efficiency.

DeLuca observes that the cost of any new technology tends to decrease over time as it gains more users and can be produced more efficiently. Some technologies are designed to provide cost savings. He points to a new electric utility rate optimization tool that KBS has used to reduce operating expenses by $47,000 at The Towers, its 814,000-square-foot office park in Emeryville, Calif. The product, made by Gridium, is a learning technology platform that has been evaluated by the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab for accuracy. It enables buildings to claim utility credits from incorrect bills and to save money by switching to the optimal electric utility rate based on its own unique energy use profile.


Schrader says integration between smart buildings and smart cities is essential, and that is a notion that finds concurrence with Ben Gardner, president of Northeast Group, a smart infrastructure market intelligence firm based in Washington, D.C. He believes in another decade the majority of streetlights in the United States will be energy efficient LEDs with smart individual controls. There will also be a number of other sensors attached to the street lighting infrastructure for smart parking, air quality monitoring, pedestrian counting and a number of other applications. Small cells attached to the streetlights will also enable 5G coverage.

It would seem a relatively small leap of integration to marry smart-city data collection and broadband services with those with smart buildings.

Gardner defines a smart city as one that makes the most efficient use of its infrastructure to improve the quality of life for its residents. It does this by leveraging sensors with two-way communications and an analytics platform to make its infrastructure “smart.” This smart infrastructure is deployed across its electricity, water and gas networks and the city’s street lighting infrastructure.

“There certainly is a lot smart cities hype these days,” he acknowledges, “but we focus on those projects that have proven benefits relative to costs. Smart metering and smart street lighting are two smart cities initiatives that have a proven track record. When we talk about the deployment of smart infrastructure, we start with smart metering and other smart grid infrastructure as the foundational layer. Smart street lighting is in the next wave of deployments, and currently we have about 3 million smart streetlights in the United States. The other smart city sensors are still in their early stages of deployment but will gather pace over the coming decade.”

DeLuca of KBS says a city can only be as smart as its buildings. As the number of intelligent buildings increase, the cost of operating them will likely decline, making them more appealing to any city.


There is a panoply of smart construction materials in development or that have come to market. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) defines smart materials as those with the ability to respond to changes in their condition or the environment to which they are exposed, in a useful manner. Smart materials used in construction technology includes self-healing coatings, smart concrete, shape-shifting metals, transparent metals, aerogels and others.

A new technology known as shape-shifting material has been developed that once deformed will automatically return to its original shape when heated. Concrete is the major building material used in construction industry, but it is vulnerable and starts to collapse when it comes in contact with environmental forces such as water, wind, stress and pressure. A new type of smart concrete contains dormant bacteria, and when they come into contact with stimuli such as water, they create limestone, filling the cracks and creating a self-healing repair mechanism. Transparent metals and aerogels, used for insulation, are futuristic materials expected to replace conventional building materials and will play a crucial role in the development of smart cities, according to IEEE.

Anthony Maher, partner and president at University Place Associates, a sustainable development company, cites smart glass as yet another innovation used in the intelligent construction and operation of buildings. Embedded sensors interact seamlessly with smart glass windows, making the inside spaces more comfortable by blocking glare and excess heat without the use of blinds, keeping people connected to the outdoors.

“Access to daylight contributes greatly to our wellness and sustainability goals,” Maher explains, “and many studies link it to improved productivity and better sleep.”

Cain calls smart glass “dynamic” and points to a study showing that employees were about 1.5 percent more productive in a smart glass environment. Though 1.5 percent might sound piddling, scaled over legions of employees it can translate into millions of dollars in gained productivity.


As one of this magazine’s sister publications wrote years ago, it is not unreasonable to think of the advanced structures of tomorrow being operated by the equivalent of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey (though, one would hope, without insubordinate and homicidal tendencies). Think in terms of buildings with nervous systems, structures packed with sensors feeding information to learning neural networks that automatically respond to internal and external environments, much as the human body does. Imagine stronger, lighter, more resilient and nontoxic building materials that allow skyscrapers to reach even higher into the sky than they are capable of doing today. Envision entire complexes of buildings networked together and sharing information while creating and allocating resources such as energy, pollen-free air and drinkable water. Yes, creating a built environment that operates as an ecosystem, replete with symbiotic relationships between intelligent edifices.

Think of one of HAL’s descendants effortlessly controlling the ingress and egress of automobiles, people and product — not only knowing a person or automobile has entered the fortress, but also precisely which person and automobile because employees carry fobs or smartcards or wearable technology that connect them to the edifice’s automated central command. Consider an electronic sentry with the power of locution, perhaps even greeting your morning arrival by name and bidding you adieu as you depart. Indeed, edifices that evolve from oblivious to omniscient.

Consistent with that concept, Saxena of Caspar.AI, says an intelligent building is pervasively automated through the use of sensors to understand what is happening in the building, and then controls functions such as climate, lighting and locks, and sends notifications to operators.

Speaking about the senior care environment for which he specializes, Saxena adds: “With pervasive automation, we can detect incidents such as resident inactivity, the stove that has been left on, or a fall — which are big concerns for a senior resident’s family. Healthcare partners can use data provided by pervasive automation to monitor the medical symptoms of residents automatically. It can also enable numerous amenities for engaged living, a consideration that a resident’s family has when moving their senior into the community. The automated facility can motivate the residents to lead a healthy life, with more exercise, high-quality sleep, healthy food and sufficient water intake.”

What’s more, all apartments and common areas in an intelligent senior care center are equipped with smart lighting and thermostats, motion sensors, speakers, microphones, bluetooth, wifi and cameras. Maintenance problems are automatically detected and alerts sent to those employed to address the issues.

Though it all sounds quite futuristic, one would do well to keep in mind how quickly technology is evolving — as technologies empower technologists to invent ever more powerful technologies in shorter timeframes. As is written in Wealth and Poverty, authored by American technologist and futurist George Gilder: “Thirty years ago the cell phone was as big as a shoebox, had a short battery life and cost $3,995. Today, there are more than 5 billion cell phones around the world, they evolved from just incorporating telephony to being handheld computers. In America, even the poorest of the poor today have cell phones.”

Yet another analogy that might help one imagine commercial structures making the leap from inanimate protective shells to sentient beings — replete with “immune systems” — and capable of breathing, learning, communicating and responding.

Indeed, the kind of brave new world the business community would welcome with great fanfare.


Mike Consol ( is editor of Real Assets Adviser. Follow him on Twitter @mikeconsol to read his latest postings.

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