Revisiting the iconic Edge building eight years on
What would you do differently if you had to design The Edge, arguably the world’s most recognisable smart building, today? If you’re anything like the project’s own developers, almost everything.
Soon after The Edge was completed in Amsterdam nearly eight years ago, Bloomberg lauded it as “the connected future of architecture”. What developer OVG – later rebranded as EDGE Technologies – did was revolutionary at the time. The Edge’s 28,000 sensors and vast network of Ethernet cables created a “computer with a roof”, setting a new benchmark for the industry to aspire to and emulate.
But that wasn’t all it did. Saturated in tech, The Edge – more than any other office up to that point – mixed two ingredients with opposite shelf lives. While an office could be around for half a century, the tech inside could be out of date the minute you install it. Could it be that, unlike grand architectural statements of the past, The Edge might be obsolete within a few short years?
More importantly, if emulating The Edge is the direction of travel for real estate, has the industry whacked uncomfortable expiry dates on its buildings?
‘On-site R&D development’
As the smart solutions manager at EDGE, Ruud van der Sman catches me off-guard with his assessment of The Edge – or at least the process that spawned it.
When I ask him what he would change if he were to develop The Edge today, he says: “I think almost everything.”
He doesn’t mean that The Edge got its priorities wrong. He means that the development process has fundamentally changed over the last eight years.
After all, few people interviewed for this piece argue with The Edge’s achievements. Its focus on sustainability, netting an almost unbeatable BREEAM score of 98.4% was ahead of its time – though Bloomberg’s London HQ did top it in late 2017. Tenant experience and flexible work were built into the design. The boxes it ticked in the mid-2010s are largely the ones real estate is frantically ticking now in a post-lockdown, net zero-focused world.
But EDGE’s approach at the time was a far cry from how it develops buildings now. Then, everything was designed and built specifically for that one building. “Commissioning took months on-site, day and night. It was a real on-site R&D development,” van der Sman says.
Costly ethernet cables made up the infrastructural backbone of the building. The tools for everything from wayfinding to room booking were developed for The Edge. Sensors – all 28,000 of them – would each measure a specific metric, whether it was temperature, humidity or the number of people in a space. Deloitte, the building’s main tenant, collected data around how people use the building, but it was nowhere near as accessible or granular as it would be in later EDGE sites.
Smart buildings are flexible buildings
Developing a smart building in 2022 is not about painstakingly installing tech for the sake of tech; it’s about building a space that can be compatible with tech for years to come.
“Your core network infrastructure could be out of date the day you install it,” says James Thomas, head of smart buildings and technology at Wates Integrated Construction Services. Thomas says that with technology moving so quickly, a developer’s focus should be to create buildings that are “smart-ready”. Make sure your main equipment room is in the right place, that you have satellite equipment rooms to suit your building needs and that you have a robust fibre connection that can support future speeds of 10 Gbps.
You can reduce your reliance on wired cabling by opting for wireless connections “from day one”. Use of Wi-Fi, Zigbee or LoRaWan wireless protocols means you can easily switch out sensors and other IoT devices as and when more powerful ones come out. You’re not stuck with the permanent cabling you put into the building 10 years ago.
Ultimately, it’s about nailing the technical things you wouldn’t necessarily shout about because few people understand what they are. But getting them right will add longevity if a building is to last 30 to 50 years.
“The infrastructure should be capable of handling that situation,” says Wouter Oosting, executive director on CBRE’s workplace strategies team in Amsterdam. “As long as you can exchange sensors, then you can adapt the building to what it actually needs to do.” Sensors, he adds, have a lifespan of three to five years – ten times shorter than a building.
Van der Sman agrees with Thomas and Oosting. “What we do these days, we call our buildings IoT-enabled.” EDGE developments are a high-tech blank slate. The developer installs the infrastructure – with an emphasis on wireless technology – giving tenants control over the tech they want plugged in.
Edge Next, the developer’s data platform, collects granular building-related data, complete with tools and dashboards to offer insights into metrics like air quality or noise. The sensors it uses now were developed with Signify to monitor every conceivable aspect of the space with one device that you can simply plug in. EDGE makes all that data available to third-party providers, so a tenant can use its own preferred app for controlling any part of the building – light, temperature, access control, parking and so on.
Van der Sman compares that approach to a smartphone: everyone has their own setup and their own apps. And like a smartphone, the operating system works across multiple devices. An occupier in New York, for example, might also have a small studio in Amsterdam, and Edge Next can connect to both – even if they’re not both EDGE buildings.
“I really believe in the technology, especially in the IoT-enabled strategy we have created these days. I really believe in that setup because that gives full freedom to a tenant to do what fits best,” says van der Sman. “The buildings are so flexible and so open for data sharing that these kind of features and functionalities and integrations are possible.”
That’s a serious evolution from developing a standalone building with standalone tools, where data was largely kept inside its four walls.
Real estate stands on The Edge
Although development strategies have evolved since 2014, the industry still holds The Edge in high regard.
Part of it is the ripple effect it had on real estate. “It does deserve credit for putting smart building on the map, because all of a sudden, people were like, ‘What is smart? What is technology in a building?’” says Nicholas White, co-founder of the Smart Building Collective, which is behind the Smart Building Certification scheme.
For others, like Thomas, The Edge’s legacy goes further than that. “There’s not enough developers, building operators, at the minute doing what they’ve done,” he says. To this day, not enough offices are taking the time to install infrastructure to support tech – let alone to be flexible enough to support years of upgrades or collect data that shapes their operations.
And despite not having as flexible a backbone as it would if it were built now, The Edge is also moving with the times. A few months ago, the building replaced its old single-function sensors with Signify’s new all-in-one sensors.
Of course, not all the tech inside The Edge was a success. For example, people finding features had little take-up, while a screen where you could select and order a meal was useless once the startup behind it went bankrupt.
But, as real estate has found out, that wasn’t a problem unique to The Edge or to the mid-2010s. Oosting says that adoption rates of user experience apps and features in buildings today are “quite poor”.
“Having Covid, we all thought that we would be screaming out loud for more smart solutions in terms of knowing who comes into the building, making sure that we can push occupancy. But, in the end, three out of 10 people actually use those kinds of applications.”
Making tech functional
As an on-site R&D experiment, The Edge was inevitably going to have some tech that misfired. But it was there for a wider purpose: to create a sustainable, user-friendly building. Thomas suggests that some in the industry don’t appreciate that the tech in EDGE’s buildings exists for that reason. “It’s very human-centric,” he says.
That wider purpose has evolved over time. Van der Sman argues that while sustainability is still vital, health and wellbeing are considered much more important than they were eight years ago.
Having seen EDGE’s smart building ethos first-hand on a recent tender enquiry, Thomas echoes that: “It was very much driven around providing data to understand how health and wellbeing were impacting on energy consumption, and how it could be optimised.”
White similarly argues that purpose comes first. But, he says, that means buildings don’t necessarily need to emulate the sensor-heavy experience of The Edge to be considered “smart”.
He says: “Smart is not a thing you buy. It’s not a thing that you do and it’s done. It’s a journey that you’re on, a continuous improvement.
“We see buildings that have gotten platinum certifications [the highest Smart Building Certification rating] with 30 technologies – where they kind of API everything together. We see buildings that have done it with six and do it in an amazing way.”
One example White gives of the latter is Art-Invest’s Hammerbrooklyn, a building PlaceTech explored earlier this year, which found ways to limit the amount of tech on-site without losing functionality or useful insights. Other developers who come up in these conversations as ones to watch include British Land in the UK and Hathon in Norway.
However they approach smart building, each of these developers owes something to The Edge if only because it got people talking. That explains why, when I ask whether it was a shame that the building wasn’t developed later – after years of experience and technological advances – van der Sman emphatically disagrees.
“We are frontrunners,” he says. “We really launched a great solution, which created a new time for building technology.” Eight years later, real estate is still learning from the original.