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Smart Buildings: Improving User Experience


At the end of November, the Simplicity team attended a Smart Buildings networking evening, hosted by marketing company UBM and held in their very own smart building — 240 Blackfriars. Discussing user experience and smart buildings was Mike Brooman, CEO of Vanti. Later, representatives from SmartSpace Software PLC, Oracle and Verdantix took part in an engaging panel discussion.

Dumb, smart and intelligent buildings

Brooman’s presentation suggested most of us work in ‘dumb buildings.’ Buildings that use silos, where one system completes a single function and there’s no cross-communication between systems. The result is a building with missed productivity opportunities.

In contrast to this are ‘intelligent buildings.’ These are ‘self-optimising, adaptive and machine learning’ buildings that work by collecting data to predict how people use the space. This is one possible model for the future. Technology companies predict artificial intelligence (AI) will make our working lives easier, but there are many unanswered ethical questions. Unemployment, bias decision making, and privacy and security concerns mean we’re still a long way from letting AI take control of our entire working habitat.

Smart buildings are a happy middle-ground. They harness the usefulness of the Internet of Things (IoT), which is increasingly important because of the way we like to work (think agile and remote), but ethical risks are mitigated as humans retain control.

Why invest in a smart building?

Smart buildings should be seen as a collection of ‘tools we use to get our work done.’ Built well, smart buildings give financial, human and technological rewards.

“According to the research presented during the evening, the number one perceived benefit of Smart Buildings amongst FM’s is around Energy Management.” – Oracle, Verdantix and SmartSpace Discuss the #1 Benefit of Smart Buildings

Smart buildings gather and use IoT data to improve energy efficiency. The Building Efficiency Initiative suggests integrating systems like lighting, thermals and security – giving an overall picture of a space. A building’s energy consumption can be analysed, improvements found and commercial costs reduced.  It also makes it possible to manipulate systems from a single, online dashboard location. So it’s simpler for an individual or small group to manage one or more properties.

Many companies creating a smart building only think about utilities. Efficiencies in this area are measurable: analyse the data, look at budget spend and quantifiable return on investment is clear.
Less measurable are the positive human effects.

Staff costs are typically 90% of a business’ operating overheads, but there’s an argument that an employee’s actual value is much higher. When given the right tools, employees are productive, this leads to greater overall results for the business. By connecting systems an employee uses day-to-day in a single application, their lives are made simpler. Examples include: Desk and room booking; Locker and building access; Email and project management. Giving staff one login for a single portal, improving flow.

Although it is suggested smart buildings improve productivity, quantifying this can be difficult because there’s no standardised measurement. But, as one panel member suggested, just asking staff how they feel, can be a great indicator of how well a building is performing.

Attracting and keeping excellent staff is vital. Smart buildings can reflect a company’s willingness to invest in their staff. Just look at Google and Facebook. Providing connected environments will attract or retain staff because it facilitates a modern, agile way of working. And that’s desirable.

Designing a smart building

So, you’re an architect, designer or facilities manager creating a smart building. Where do you start?

User experience (UX) building design.

During the panel discussion, all agreed the process begins with mapping — understanding how people currently use the space and identifying everyday blockers. Only then can the type of technology and system connectivity be decided. Desk sensors and monitoring technologies to generate data can be used quite cheaply. Interviewing users and creating personas indicates what’s needed. Areas and utilities most frequented can then be optimised, so the ‘building as a tool’ is made more efficient for the people using it.  Vanti describes this people-first approach as key:

“work collaboratively with the people who use the building to define the problems we’re trying to solve, rather than starting with system specifications”

Workplace expert Dr Kerstin Sailer found in one survey that ’71 percent of architects’ never evaluated a space once it had been occupied.

“In practice, most workspaces are still based on the experience and intuition of architects and designers, who come up with a design solution with only minimal input from occupiers”

But, as the panel agreed, smart building projects must be enduring. For an office to remain relevant to users, you need to make real life observations. Then tweak building designs and systems based on the real user journey. Compared to dumb buildings, connectivity makes smart buildings adaptable and improvements more straight-forward. Smart buildings are able to remain relevant, for longer.

Are you an architect or designer? Let us know how you consider users in your design.


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