Last reviewed 29 November 2017

How can we build intelligent buildings? Dave Howell surveys how artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), hosted networks and advanced building design could lead to thinking buildings that will deliver the smart city that has been promised for decades.

Weaving intelligence into the constructed environment has been an ambition of designers, architects, construction companies and technologists for generations. We are now on the cusp of this dream becoming a reality.

What is intelligence?

Making a building intelligent with automation has been possible for some time. But we are entering a period where buildings will be able to think and have a level of cognition impossible five years ago.

Of course, the collision of technologies such as the IoT, automation with robotics and the rapidly developing applications of new AI systems are the building blocks that will deliver intelligent buildings. IBM, in its discussion of cognitive systems, states:

“Some buildings today are built from the ground up with nearly one IoT-enabled sensor per square foot — monitoring temperature, humidity, the weight in the trash cans, how many people are in a room, and on and on. Managers can then ‘see’ the building on a computer, in what’s known as a ‘digital twin’. It’s that digital twin that, like any thinking being, will build a model of the world it inhabits and find ways to adapt and adjust to whatever the priority or emergency that is thrown at it.”

“Buildings will know the context of how space is being used and predict the kind of load that will be required — is it a Friday when many people work from home, does tomorrow’s weather mean there will be extra heating or cooling required?” says IBM Research’s Dr Joern Ploennigs.

Balfour Beatty in its report, A Digital Future for the Infrastructure Industry, envisages a brave new world of automated construction: “The construction site of 2050 will be human-free. Robots will work in teams to build complex structures using dynamic new materials. Elements of the build will self-assemble. Drones flying overhead will scan the site constantly, inspecting the work and using the data collected to predict and solve problems before they arise, sending instructions to robotic cranes and diggers and automated builders with no need for human involvement. The role of the human overseer will be to remotely manage multiple projects simultaneously, accessing 3D and 4D visuals and data from the on-site machines, ensuring the build is proceeding to specification.”

Any intelligence built into a structure needs to serve its occupants. For instance, Deloitte’s Edge building in Holland has the ability to assess each worker’s calendar and then automatically reserve the required meeting spaces. Managing the infrastructure of a building will also be revolutionised with more intelligence. Say in a multi-tenanted building every kitchen is cleaned daily. But what if the fourth-floor kitchen wasn’t used? There is no need to clean this space. The same could be applied to washroom facilities. But this is only the tip of the intelligence iceberg.

The construction industry will be pivotal to the development of cognitive structures. The current method has been to augment a building with sensors, sometimes decades after it has been built. This will change as intelligence is built into the fabric of a building, that itself will often be designed and manufactured off-site before being erected in its final location. Here, the systems that bring intelligence to the building are installed as any other system such as electrics or plumbing.

Glen Marquis, Product Manager, Smart Cities at PTC, a global provider of technology platforms and solutions in the IoT, says: “Cities and their partners are anxious to get more out of their infrastructure. They demand greater uptime, higher efficiency, and reduced cost of service, all while providing a higher quality of life for citizens.

“In addition, they want to deliver innovative new services, new sources of revenue and sustainable economic growth. Contractors, city departments (planning, public works, code enforcement, emergency services), architects, developers and regulators all help drive and deliver a vision for the city.”

Smart estates

At the moment, intelligence is generally focused in remote control of domestic systems. The construction industry as a whole can see the advantages of IoT, etc but currently there is little impetus to implement them.

Cognitive buildings envisioned by the tech companies are some distance from the reality of the construction site. More intelligence here is usually focused on better asset management, cost reduction and shortening build times with efficiencies. Intelligence is somewhat of an afterthought.

PTC’s Glen Marquis concluded: “The IoT and other emerging technologies are transforming the products and services cities, utilities, and infrastructure managers rely on, as well as the means of communicating and providing value to constituents, whether in power, water and wastewater, building management or city services such as lighting and parking. Emerging technologies will better enable the construction industry as it continues to play a crucial role in helping cities respond to near-term challenges and increased demand, as well as in shaping a long-term sustainable approach based on better, data-driven decisions.”

Does the future of the construction industry mean a better understanding and appreciation of what the thinking building means? This is certain, but what isn’t clear is who will drive the development of smart buildings and deliver the smart city that has been promised.

Construction needs to move forward and become more receptive to change. This is happening, and will accelerate as more intelligent systems become available that can be easily included in a construction project. Until then, the thinking building remains a work in progress.