Skip to main content

Smart strategies for existing buildings

Smart Buildings By Qucheng Yan, Principal Building Automation Engineer – 17 February 2023

Conference room with long table and two TV screens


Qucheng Yan in a red shirt and planting in the background

Qucheng Yan

View bio

Because technology has evolved so rapidly, the buildings and campuses designed and delivered before the age of WiFi and cloud computing are increasingly losing value in the market. While some might argue for demolition so a new, more contemporary asset can take their place, if the property is one that holds an important place in a community or culture, it is generally better to improve it.

This is positive for the environment in terms of retaining and extending the life of non-renewable resources embodied in the structure, and it gives added value to society through improving opportunities and ensuring they will remain functional and comfortable in the net zero future.

Smart building technologies are one of the most effective tools we have for bringing existing buildings into the digital age. Many of the specific elements can also be retrofitted with minimal change to the existing building and its various spaces and amenities. What WILL be changed is how comfortable the spaces are for people, the ability for building systems to capture and respond to actual conditions in real-time, and the energy and water consumption and associated cost savings achieved.

When working with a client to design a smart building retrofit, we thoughtfully consider technology and operational enhancements that will deliver the optimal benefit for facility managers and occupants while also ensuring ongoing savings. The controls and automation features we propose also aim to achieve multiple benefits from each intervention.

The goal is to ensure any building and its facilities are best in class while achieving the outcomes within a prudent budget.

While many smart buildings use cases focus on commercial office buildings, a sector where the features are often part of an overall employee value proposition approach to recruit and retain talent, there are also many benefits for specialist facilities such as healthcare, education, hospitality and sports and recreation.

Sporting facilities are particularly interesting because they hold such an important place in community life. They are remembered for the athletes who trained and competed there, for the teams that have their home base there, and for the exciting events people attend there with friends and family. None of this can easily be picked up and moved to a new building or new location!

The other aspect of these facilities is the technical opportunity to design a smart buildings strategy that creates a better training environment for athletes and an improved, more seamless and comfortable experience for sports fans and guests.

For example, training rooms can be retrofitted with the means to simulate a range of different weather conditions and geographic locations, helping athletes prepare more effectively for international competitions such as the Olympics.

We can design a system of sensors for indoor environment condition that are coupled with automated, smart ventilation and heating/cooling and a Bluetooth-enabled control system that means the room pressure can mimic a high, cold mountain environment, or a hot, humid coastal one, through varying the ventilation rate to change the indoor air pressure. New technologies such as smart, automated air distribution can be introduced to the existing HVAC system to enable real-time control of conditions in any specific room.

We can also use daylight modelling for each space in a facility and then retrofit a smart, LED-lighting system with a control application that ensures daylight is used as the primary light source to save energy, and that when electrical lighting is used it can provide different levels of brightness, hue and intensity to suit different occupant needs. For example, an athlete doing high-intensity training might benefit from brighter, warmer light to stimulate them, while a group doing a post-event debrief might find calmer lighting beneficial (depending on if they won or not, of course!).

Energy Efficiency

Our award-winning design work from the Advancing Net Zero Ideas Competition, Treehouse illustrates how energy-efficiency design applied across all aspects of a building’s operation cumulatively contributes to substantial operational cost savings, while embedding automation/controls enhances the experience, comfort, wellbeing and convenience for occupants.

For example, in any building, installing a network of occupancy sensors connected to the building systems including lighting and HVAC achieves energy-savings because the systems only operate when spaces are in use. Further, a digital platform connected to an app-based room booking and reservation system allows for nimble energy-efficient strategies such as pre-cooling and pre-warming as required.

Natural ventilation strategies can also be effectively employed as part of the retrofit of any or all parts of a building, with sensors responding to both indoor and outdoor temperature and air quality conditions made part of the automation system for ventilation.

There is also a significant benefit from some micro interventions such as auditing existing building systems and equipment to establish where the use of smart plugs to enable remote switching on/off of equipment can increase energy efficiency. There are also merits in retrofitting water-saving automated tap and toilet flushing technology for amenities.

Operational efficiency

Our smart buildings retrofit approach streamlines asset management and maintenance through real-time exception and alert reporting across building systems. Fault Detection and Diagnostics (FDD) software can be partnered with a digital building management system (BMS) to ensure a facilities management team are able to respond efficiently and with precise information to the root cause.

The BMS with the use of BIM for design can create an operational digital twin that future-proofs the facility and ensures long-term operational efficiency.

Other efficiency initiatives a retrofit could include:

  • Smart bin waste level monitoring
  • Space occupancy and monitoring to assist with fine-tuning space allocations and maintenance task planning
  • Lux sensors to indicate where individual lights may require maintenance or replacement
  • Vibration sensors for pumps to give pre-warning for maintenance needs, extending equipment lifecycles and reducing the occurrence of equipment failure.
  • An app for users to report issues to the facilities manager, book space and adjust indoor conditions such as lighting or HVAC setpoints for specific needs.

A big vision always starts with a small step. Certainly, a health check of the existing building would help identify the improvement opportunities, and a proof-of-concept setup to taste the benefits is also a good starting point before a massive rollout. To catch up on the best way to hop on the boat, please feel free to drop us an email and we are happy to have a conversation.