What Are Smart Buildings?

May 15, 2013
Image (c) FreeFoto.com

Image (c) FreeFoto.com

At the Verge Boston conference put on by GreenBiz earlier this week I sat in on a “guru” session about smart buildings, led by Elaine Hsieh, Verge program director and senior analyst, and we discussed what makes a building “smart.” Is it intelligence, automation, technology or something more?

Some of the ideas participants threw out can form a well-rounded definition of a smart building. We’ve added a few of our own favorite features as well.

Passive design

This is where a true smart building starts, because if it faces south to collect solar gain heat in cool months and ventilates via east-west breezes, for example, you can eliminate a lot of heating, cooling and ventilation needs and resulting energy costs. Designing a building so a majority of it receives natural light and using automated daylight dimming cuts significantly on lighting costs and makes the building a more attractive and healthier place to work. The beauty of daylighting with automated controls is that it also melds passive design with automation technology.

Bullitt Schuco windows

The Bullitt Center’s Schuco triple-pane windows are energy-efficient and automatically few inches on all sides to help ventilate the building.

Construction materials

Thermal mass heating via solar gain can save tons of energy, as well as metal roofs on pitched structures, high-efficiency windows and curtain walls, and of course, lots of insulation. We love the motorized high-efficiency windows in the Bullitt Center and the cool Earth tubes at the Earth Rangers Centre.


Solar PV and geothermal ground source heat pumps are the most popular here. Leasing and power purchase agreements (PPAs) make solar a low-to-no-cost play in several states, while geothermal wells that bring heat from the ground and remove heat in cooler months are especially effective when used with in-floor radiant heat encased in thermal concrete mass that stores heat and coolness and releases it in the space slowly and evenly. It’s a beautiful thing.


Intelligence inside

This could be from automated lighting controls with occupancy sensing, energy management systems that turn down certain loads when energy ceilings are reached, and fine-tuned building automation systems that regulate heating, cooling and ventilation so you’re not heating and cooling at the same time (don’t laugh, it’s common).

Look to the outside

For weather information and other exterior data that can be integrated into a building automation or energy management system, enabling a building to save energy depending on exterior conditions such as temperature, humidity, sunlight and more.

Bullitt solar

Love those renewables. Photo courtesy of Bullitt Center

Smart grid-tied

Demand response programs from utilities can save energy during peak load periods, and is another example a building that looks to the outside to regulate what’s going on inside. Some companies can even monitor building energy usage virtually.

Better performance

Smart buildings should perform better, in their energy efficiency, their heating and cooling, their lighting, thermal comfort and so forth.

Plug-load reduction

Plug-load reduction is becoming more popular and can be accomplished using smart surge strips with occupancy sensing, and new building energy codes such as ASHRAE 90.1-2010 mandate that half of electrical receptacles be automated to shut devices off in order to lower plug loads.

Lobby display

An interactive display in the lobby of the Earth Rangers Centre shows Schneider Electric’s Energy Operations energy management software that tracks usage and generation a variety of ways,

Energy information

Don’t forget energy monitoring—of electricity, water, gas and you name it. Dashboards in lobbies and available at workers’ desktops can give people visual cues when the building is using too much energy and help to change their behaviors. Studies show homeowners save 5 percent to 15 percent on energy just by having information on usage.


With reliable sensor technology available today, building managers can receive alerts for water breaks, humidity control, systems that are using too much energy and may require servicing, and virtually anything else they can think of. Such predictive and preventive maintenance can not only save costs in having to replace expensive systems, it can save energy as well.

Systems integration

Instead of having several systems all running independently, how about having one building management system control them all? Tie systems together, and you’ll realize efficiencies as systems work together and don’t conflict as much. Then tie your building automation systems, building management and energy monitoring into an energy management system, and you have the Holy Grail of smart building technology.

A smart building need not just have automated intelligence and tons of technology. It starts with a smart of passive design, smart use of building materials and better overall performance. Though having green tech like renewables and smart technologies help as well, and could be best things many existing buildings can do to retrofit to “smart.”

Have any more ideas?

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3 Responses to What Are Smart Buildings?

  1. Hi-Fi installation London on May 21, 2013 at 1:41 am

    Excellent post Steven, as you mentioned above these all things is important for a smart building. Here, Building Management System may be an option beyond this but it doesn’t cover all this things properly. Here necessary that what we want to get smart building. We use an automated system or design our building to become self controlled. Both are different but necessary to get efficient building management.

  2. Bob Guimarin on August 27, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    We’re still at the infancy stage for how we think about Smart Buildings. We only think energy, why not knowledge exchange between the building and its occupants, casual visitors, First Responders, and general consumers. Buildings house a lot of information, which could be of use beyond how to save energy. Things like; geo-mapping, emergency navigation, first aid cabinet locations, walkway and food court traffic. Bob

  3. Harald Steindl on August 28, 2013 at 3:37 am

    I totally agree with the infancy statement. However I dont mean this in a technical sense but more in the sense of actively managing buildings. Todays buildings are dramatically over-supplied. They do have room for every possible worker at all times, being heated/cooled 7×24, etc. long story short: Everything is there all the time in more then adequate quantity and quality.
    This is a luxury almost no other industry can afford anymore. Efficiency means makeing best use of the available resources. If we dont limit supply there is no need for active management….

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