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FAQ: What Makes a Building "Smart"?

Image of Natalie Patton
Natalie Patton

Wilcox’s Pier Restaurant, 1931. The first automatic doors in the world debuted between the kitchen and the dining room as a way to prevent servers laden with trays from having to kick the doors open. Ninety years ago, this now-unnoticed bit of technology arguably made Wilcox’s Pier the first “smart” building. 

What this shows is that the idea of a smart building has always existed on a continuum. There is no single point at which a building is considered 100% “smart,” and most commercial, industrial, and residential buildings employ some level of automated technology. 

So, what makes a building smart now? How do we define it? And, how do new and existing buildings achieve it?

It begins with understanding the concept and then identifying the technologies you need to get your buildings there. In this article, we’ll do exactly that: answer your frequently asked questions around smart buildings and discuss the solutions available today to allow your buildings to attain “smart” status.

Frequently Asked Questions About Smart Buildings 

As experts in managing and analyzing smart buildings, here are some of the frequent questions we field regarding smart buildings. 

I have a controls system in my building, does that mean I have a smart building?

Automation is an incredible tool that saves time, increases efficiency, and makes simple tasks even more simple by giving operators a window into systems that are traditionally difficult to see in operation. But a building automation system doesn’t mean your building is smart.

Think of a thermostat that was programmed to kick on and raise the temperature of a room to 70 degrees every day at 5:00. This is great in mid-December, but if the programming remains the same in the swelter of August, you wouldn’t think that was very smart. 

Automating building controls lays the groundwork for smart buildings, but it’s only the beginning of the smart building story. 

Where is data involved in smart buildings?

What makes a building “smart” is the ability to learn, adapt, adjust, and fix its own shortcomings. 

If the thermostat, for example, realizes the day is too warm for the heat to come on, it is getting smarter. If it learns that, on days when external temperatures exceed a certain number, people turn up the air conditioning. Over time, it can begin turning on the air conditioning preemptively rather than waiting for manual intervention. Meanwhile, it may begin preheating rooms at the start of the work day in the depths of winter, then lowering the temperature at the end of the work day, when occupancy drops. This improves occupant comfort by anticipating needs and automatically responding to changing conditions while preventing unnecessary heating and cooling.

That’s intelligence. That’s how a building becomes smart—and continually gets smarter. But it is not a single event; it requires continuously interpreting and responding to data generated by equipment, IoT devices, and sensors throughout a building.

Are smart buildings only for new constructions, or can a building be retrofitted into a “smart building”?

Smart buildings aren’t just for new constructions. While it is most cost-effective to get smart from the start, if your building includes Direct Digital Controls (DDC) on your HVAC equipment and an integrated BMS, you’re well-positioned to deploy analytics that can make your operations smarter. 

Modern buildings generate vast volumes of data. In a vacuum, this data means very little. In fact, it can be confusing. That’s where an analytics platform comes in. 

Analytics is key to smarter buildings. A cutting-edge analytics platform with machine learning capabilities can organize and prioritize data, glean insights, and make those insights actionable. This means it can:

  • Analyze performance to reveal inefficiencies. 
  • Help you create more accurate alert parameters, making maintenance more efficient.
  • Make automatic adjustments to custom setpoints, letting people worry about the bigger things. 
  • Allow multiple systems to work together.

The last point is a huge part of the picture. If all systems are connected and speak a common language, they start to work together. Everything from room occupancy sensors, scheduling software, and HVAC systems can communicate to help the building run smartly and safely. 

Significantly, an intelligent analytics platform gains a greater understanding of your building over time, it can fine-tune automation further. 

Is a smart building more vulnerable to being hacked?

Increased network connectivity does open up the possibility of being hacked. That’s why it is so important to work with a team that understands Internet of Things (IoT) building security best practices and creates robust strategies to close vulnerabilities. 

You must also ensure your team understands the importance of both physical and digital security. When everyone is connected, anyone can be a weak link. Best practices and trusted partnerships make those links a lot stronger. 

How do smart capabilities affect cost and tenant experience?

It would be misleading to say that integrating smart technologies and unifying systems is free. It is a significant investment. But it can also lead to meaningful cost savings by:

  • Decreasing inefficiencies 
  • Reducing energy use
  • Saving time and manpower for maintenance staff
  • Ensuring repairs are done before they become problems
  • Decreasing wear and tear on systems
  • Lengthening the lifetime of all automated systems 
  • Increased facility management productivity
  • Data-driven maintenance contracts and the ability to validate work paid for is work that solved the problem

Smart buildings also make the occupant experience more pleasant, helping buildings attract high-quality tenants. At a time when people are prioritizing energy efficiency and looking for tech-driven convenience, smart capabilities are invaluable assets.

Why should I start adopting technology now to make my building smart, when it’s been operating this way for years and nothing catastrophic has happened? 

We know an overhaul isn’t easy. But the sooner you adopt, the sooner you benefit and the longer your most crucial systems can operate at peak level. This is true even in buildings with legacy systems. The best master systems integrator can deploy technologies using open protocols to unify systems without a massive retrofit. 

The old motto “don’t fix it until it breaks” is still applied across the building automation industry today and while there is some truth to it, building occupants are starting to demand certain luxuries that can be made much more cost-effective for owners when intelligent systems are deployed, connected and maintained through a single pane of glass sooner rather than later.

Making Your Building Smart With the Best Tech

Another important question to ask is: How do I choose the best technology and service when making my building smarter? The smart buildings industry is really taking off - it seems like every day there is a new announcement about significant investments made or an ambitious project taking off. With that, there are a lot of products on the market that can help you get your building smart in the most efficient and future-focused way possible. Buildings IOT offers two components that we believe are crucial to any smart building.

With IOT Jetstream, you can integrate and normalize data from a custom array of IoT devices, systems, and cloud applications that make sense for your building. onPoint is the front-end and data analytics engine that mines the data normalized by IOT Jetstream and presents it in a way that is easily understood and acted on by building operators. onPoint provides machine learning capabilities, 4D insights, custom reporting, and best-in-class support that make it easier for operators to deploy and maintain smart buildings. With a centralized dashboard connecting all your systems, onPoint gives you a new level of control to transform the way your building performs. 

Smart technologies are opening up unprecedented possibilities for building owners. With the right partner, you can fully explore your options and create a plan that helps you achieve your goals no matter where your starting point is.

Do you have more questions about smart buildings?  To learn more about how Jetstream and onPoint can help you create a truly smart building, register for our monthly webinars. Or contact our analytics team to get more information about our platform.



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