Smart Buildings: A Brief History


10 / 13 / 2020


Smart Buildings, a history

The concept of smart buildings has been around for decades. With much of today’s built environment a product of previous generations’ interests and influences, there are a few moments in history that have shaped our path towards smart buildings. Recognising these moments is instrumental to both our understanding of smart buildings and their future development.

Today, smart buildings improve customer experiences, increase building efficiencies and lower operational costs. But what are the most influential moments in the smart building evolution, and how did we arrive at “smart” as we know it today?

The road to smart

The emergence of technology marked the beginning of a digital society: fundamentally impacting the built environment, and influencing how we live, work and interact. This shift began almost seven decades ago with the invention of the transistor in 1947, signifying the birth of the Digital Revolution. 1951 brought us the first-ever computer, followed by the creation of ARPANET in 1961 (the predecessor to the internet as we know today), both of which would come to play a significant role in the development of smart buildings. 

In addition to technological advancements, environmental challenges (such as the oil spill of 1969 in Santa Barbara, California) highlighted the dire need for a more efficient built environment. The catastrophe inspired the first Earth Day of 1970, which resulted in the introduction of landmark legislation – inspiring the creation of an eco-infrastructure outside of government, and the first Green Building movement. The energy crisis of the 1970s also saw oil prices skyrocket, sparking heightened interest in energy efficiency and fuel consumption, which put the sustainability of the built environment into focus.

The combination of developments in technology and environmental factors led to the creation of automated building systems which formed the base for “intelligent buildings”, a term first coined in 1981 by the United Technology Building Systems (UTBS) Corporation in the US. Initially, intelligent buildings used single and multi-function electronic systems to centrally control heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems (HVAC) – improving building efficiency and minimising energy consumption via the integration of information technology. This new era of technological advancement also brought mobile phones to market (1984), as well as personal computers (PC in 1981) and LAN operating systems (1981).

The shift towards intelligent buildings coincided with a significant property boom, caused by an increase in service-sector employment. As a result, new buildings were built pre-equipped with centralised electronic systems and communication systems, which enabled text, voice and image transmission throughout the buildings. 

As technological development accelerated, the public availability of the World Wide Web in 1991 changed our relationship with technology, causing a monumental shift in our working patterns and environments. Offices became open-plan spaces to promote collaboration, businesses suddenly became digitally connected to each other and their customers, and buildings across the board adopted new systems to reduce maintenance costs and energy consumption.

The turn of the century saw various definitions of smart buildings emerge. Many of the concepts presented in intelligent buildings were embedded in the definitions for smart buildings, with the interoperability of building technologies serving as a bedrock to smart. That said, it was only until recently that smart buildings began to crop up, with the first few appearing in the United States, Holland and Asia. 

Smart today

Our journey to smart buildings has been highly reactive to the changes in our environment and the progression of technology. This has meant that the focus has been largely solution (rather than user) centric, with technologists dominating the space for the past 20 years. But our expectations of the buildings we live and work in are changing, and now is the time to look ahead to anticipate where smart buildings could lead us. 

Whilst intelligent buildings use automated building systems to increase building efficiencies, smart has a wider scope of ability to adapt and be flexible. We need to move away from deploying technologies for the sake of technologies, and shift our thinking towards the benefits technology can enable for both the users and owners of buildings.

There is, and will be, more demand for speed, accessibility and convenience, and buildings must be able to respond to new demands, whilst adapting to changing environments. The key to success lies in understanding the expectations and needs of the building users and deploying relevant technologies that enable those experiences to seamlessly take place.

By focusing on the outcome, smart buildings can deliver user experience gains to everyone involved, continuing to adapt to new technologies, drive value and reduce costs. Smart buildings need to be looked at as a holistic solution, one that encompasses sustainability with the capabilities and experiences technology can create for both the users and owners of buildings.  

Looking ahead

In the long run, smart buildings will play an essential role in our sustainable efforts, our relationship with our working environments and with one another. We will continue to have more smart buildings, whilst existing smart buildings will get even smarter, and advances in technology will continue to push the capabilities of our surrounding built environment. 

Exactly what this will look like in the long-term, no one can be certain, but one thing is for sure: smart buildings will play an essential role in the development of our future. 

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