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'Smart is solving a problem or optimising something. It’s not a technology,' according to Elizabeth Nelson

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‘Smart-washing’ | Smart buildings cannot be box ticking exercise

“If we’re going to make progress, we have to have a system that recognises greatness,” the co-founder of Smart Building Certification said at the Sustainable Places conference in Nice, France.

Elizabeth Nelson called for smart buildings that meet user needs and sustainability standards, arguing that simply having a checklist of things to include in a building fails to achieve that.

She said that the Smart Building Certification uses both qualitative and quantitative measures, breaking down what’s already in a building and where it can make improvements.

“Smart is solving a problem or optimising something. It’s not a technology,” she said, speaking at the 10th Sustainable Places Conference from research and innovation company R2M Solution.

“We’ve had greenwashing for quite a while. Now, I believe we have some smart-washing as well, especially in the commercial sector.”

Rather than tick certain boxes, buildings seeking certification undertake a “very large, exhaustive, dynamic questionnaire”. That questionnaire asks about the building’s tech, presenting follow-up questions to understand what the building does and why. “I don’t think a smart building certification be a checklist,” she said.

The Smart Building Certification scheme evaluates buildings based on six measures:

  • Building usage (how people use the building)
  • Building performance (sustainability)
  • Building environment (how well the physical space meets users’ needs)
  • Health, safety and security
  • User behaviour and collaboration (how well buildings allow people to work together)
  • Integrative design and connectivity (how well all the tech in the building is integrated with each other – “the least number of solutions for the maximum benefit”)

Other takeaways

1. Don’t underestimate a retrofit

“This is one of my favourite things about smart buildings we’re seeing right now,” Nelson said. “Everyone is saying, ‘Oh you can’t have a truly smart building if it’s a retrofit’, or ‘You couldn’t have a truly sustainable building.’ But you can.”

She used Hausmanns Hus in Norway as an example. Developer Hathon is aiming to achieve a BREEAM Excellent certification for the refurbished office, set to open at the start of 2023. Wellness and flexible workspace are two priorities for the building, and Hathon even developed tech in-house to ensure the space delivered what it needed.

2. Developers who retain their buildings have an advantage

Nelson said: “A lot of times, builders are nervous to [put] a tonne of different functionality into a building that might get lost in translation if it’s transferred.

“So, the builders that are actually owning their own properties and keeping them have a little bit more control and maybe even pride of ownership and confidence in that.”

3. Be transparent about data

Returning to Hausmanns Hus, Nelson said the building will display real time air quality data. Seeing performance data is crucial, she said, and “something that can have a drastic implication on how people feel about environments”.

She added that landlords should explain people in the building what data they collect and why. “We had a great living lab where the students at a university ripped sensors off the wall because they didn’t want to be recorded in this area,” she said. People need to know they can trust whatever data collection happens where they work.

4. It’s not about the amount of tech you cram into a building

Putting in thousands upon thousands of sensors will not automatically get you a Platinum Smart Building Certification. “We have buildings that score very similarly. Some of them have 30 technologies; some of them have six,” Nelson said. It’s about creating a functional building, rather than a blatantly techy one.

5. The idea of smart buildings is centuries old

The first smart building, according to Nelson, was built 400 years ago by Dutch inventor Cornelis Drebbel, who invented a chicken incubator that could regulate temperature.

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