Next-Gen Buildings: Too smart to fail or too busy to think?

Editor's Note: This is a preview of a topic to be discussed at our upcoming VERGE conference. To learn more about next-gen technologies for commercial buildings, be sure to come to Boston May 13 and 14.

Big Data. The Internet of Things. Business Intelligence. Building Information Modeling. Are these nascent trends in the next generation of buildings an opportunity to take our built environment to the next level or will they cause building owners and operators to sink into an expensive and unproductive morass?

The short answer is "yes." The overlay of Information Technology will revolutionize the industry and lead to levels of performance, comfort and sustainability that we can only dream of today. However, this only will happen if the benefit is clearly defined and communicated. Given the diversity and often dubious quality of messages about the costs and benefits of building intelligence, it makes us wonder how many building owners are left scratching their heads. Experience dictates that solid business practice is far more than simply being in vogue with the latest technologies.

As leading thinkers in the field of sustainable design and operation of buildings, with nearly a century of combined experience, we believe that a new paradigm and approach are needed. Existing and emerging technologies, tools and design experience have the potential to be combined in ways that can transform our current and future building stock into an engine of restoration and regeneration for people, the planet and business profit.

So, how do we begin this paradigm shift? As with the digitalization of the communications industry, the convergence of Information Technology and Buildings is inexorable and inevitable. Like air conditioning in the 1950s and '60s, intelligent buildings initially will be more expensive, but also will be better buildings. Soon, however, fullly automated fault detection and diagnosis and the operational optimization allowed by emerging IT will become the norm. By embracing the trend early, the building industry will be better able to take the lead in the transition, rather than be a reluctant passenger.

Nonetheless, our experience dictates that before building owners embrace emerging ideas, there must be a clear reason beyond being in vogue with the latest trend. To date, the promise of better buildings through digital intelligence has not quite lived up to the hype. In recent surveys, many customers say they prefer not having building automation as it layers an added level of complexity to their operations that they find difficult to support. Thus, it is fair to ask whether the benefits outweigh the cost.

Give owners the ability to see euildings as strategic assets

In the commercial sector, technology vendors so far have failed miserably at giving building owners the ability to see their properties as strategic assets and business enablers, as opposed to continuing to see them as cost centers.

Visionary architect William McDonough articulates design as the first signal of human intention, so good analysis could be argued as a foundational element of right intention.

Typically, building sustainability options are limited to the direct experience of the design and engineering team's interpretation of the owner's requirements. Currently, for even the most sophisticated and advanced projects, owners must be satisfied by a "best of the bunch" analysis where a few dozen packages of options, if that, are evaluated. Today, very little financial -- let alone comparative financial -- analysis is done of different options.

tristan tan /

Next page: Failing at the sustainable building "baton pass"