Smart buildings: what are they and how do they work?

Gone are the days when being cool and being smart didn't pair up: smart is cool (a wise choice many could have appreciated back in their school days).

Nowadays, there is something about adding the word “smart” ahead of common objects that automatically makes it seem, well… smarter. From smartphones, to smart cars and of course, smart buildings and smart cities. Intelligence in all its forms has taken upon one of the oldest industries in the world, and yet there is still much to learn regarding these last two.

Read further along to take a deep dive in how smart technologies are re-shaping the construction sector and helping it develop the smart buildings needed for smart cities.

What is a Smart Building?  

A smart building is a structure equipped with innovative materials and technologies that allows for all its systems to be automated and self-regulated. By making use of technologies like IoT (Internet of Things), a smart building seeks to improve the usability of the structure, optimize its efficiency, and enhance its safety and accessibility, all while making it more sustainable and environmentally conscious.

A simple example: intelligent buildings manage control temperature and lightning through the incorporation of sensors that help optimize energy consumption in the structure. This can be especially useful in buildings with a reduced occupation or during off-working hours (not to mention empty buildings during quarantine periods in the midst of a pandemic).

The system data collected from the sensors is interpreted by the software, making it capable to undergo predictive maintenance according to the building's occupancy and seasonal changes, as well as present a significant reduction in the monthly bills related to energy consumption of the building.


  • Connected Systems:

Many buildings already use smart technology in their facilities to control specific areas within their structures. This doesn't mean it gets the “smart building” recognition. The next step to achieve this is to ensure that all the systems are integrated, and a data processing software is well implemented to maximize the building's efficiency.

While a centralized platform is not required to ensure the functionality of all the systems independently, having one can facilitate building owners and facility managers a single user interface and dashboard to monitor, control, and identify inefficiencies among all systems integrated into the platform.

  • Sensors everywhere:

Sensors are a very important player when it comes to making a smart building. They help allow the building managers and integrated systems to properly gather the amount of data needed to maximize its efficiency and make informed decisions to properly allocate resources.

  • Automation

No data goes to waste. A smart building is constantly collecting information that must be analyzed by the systems in real-time.  This ongoing monitoring allows for automated adjustments that can control and improve conditions across an entire building.

The purpose of an intelligent building

It must not come as a surprise that these advances are becoming more common in the built industry. In order to cut down the environmental impact the energy consumption of buildings generate, many large- and medium-sized cities in the United States already require commercial building owners to disclose green building performance to its stakeholders. By including modern control and automation techniques, smart buildings can:

  • Produce significant energy savings.
  • Promote sustainability and protect the environment.
  • Improve the health and safety of its occupants.
  • Enhance the quality of life of those who coexist with it.

The technology behind a Smart Building

When reading on how smart buildings operate, a catchy acronym stands out almost every time: IoT. But what is it and how does it come into play when speaking about smart buildings?

The Internet of Things (IoT, for short) is a conglomerate of web-enabled smart devices that use embedded systems, such as processors, sensors, and communication hardware, to collect, send and act on data they acquire from their environments. Human intervention is not 100% necessary, although people are free to interact with the software to set them up and access its data. IoT, combined with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, can help make the data collection even more efficient and easier to gather. 

Smart Buildings and Internet of Things (IoT)

In an article by Alexander Gillis on TechTarget, he shares that IoT is most abundant in manufacturing, transportation, and utility organizations; however, it has also found use cases for organizations within the agriculture, infrastructure and home automation industries, leading some organizations toward the digital transformation. Although it's recognized as a new technology, incorporating IoT technologies is not exclusive to new buildings alone. By adding a diverse set of smart enablers, like sensors to regulate lights and temperature, to security systems, telecommunication devices and IT software, a building creates its very on technology ecosystem. 


Aside from making buildings more efficient in terms of energy and self-regulation, these five benefits are also to be taken into consideration when laying out the scenario for a smart building:

  1. Reduction of energy consumption & efficiency enhancer: With the integration of smart sensors in multiple locations of a building, energy consumption from lights and temperature control systems can see a significant decrease, as they'll only work when it is needed. This maximizes the building's resource efficiency, eliminates the fight over the thermostat in offices (very much appreciated, right?) and reduces both the electric bills and carbon emissions from the building.
  2. Access to better insights and visualization with big data: These buildings collect large amounts of data from around the building at all times. With this information, smart technologies identify trends and uncover building optimization opportunities, enabling decision makers to make informed data-driven decisions regarding the structure.
  3. Predictive maintenance: The systems in a building can have unseen faults from time to time that can go unnoticed and cause a major flaw in the future. Smart technologies in a building allow for the detection of these faults, detail why they occurred, and help prioritize which issues to fix first. Much like preventing a fire instead of punning put it out.
  4. Better space usage: Smart buildings are designed to make the experience of its inhabitant more pleasant and seamless. Especially after 2020, these spaces also consider how they can raise the standards and comply with health and safety regulations, all while keeping its rentability.
  5. Better building value: make no mistake, a smart building raises its market value once it has all the proper smart technologies implemented. A study by Fortune Business Insight forecasts that by 2026, the North American smart building revenues alone will amass $34.2 billion (USD), with the global smart building revenues anticipated to reach $127.09 billion (USD) by 2027, a noteworthy CAGR of 12.5% over the forecast period 2020 to 2027.


Nonetheless, this doesn't come without a challenge. Understanding IoT technologies and its integrations can be a difficult task for those who are not fully immersed into it. So, when deciding to go smart, the first duty on the to-do list is to get well acquainted and understand the different technologies and how the various systems integrate within each other.

Likewise, the more IoT technologies are implemented, and more cloud connectivity is accepted, a smart building may raise concerns in terms of its cybersecurity. An unexpected security breach may affect more than one functionality of the building, making it inoperable in the most extreme cases. Yet, thankfully, as well as IoT is blooming in multiple industries, cybersecurity has also become one of the top priorities for many companies, making it easier to secure the data and avoid major security outbreaks.

Smart buildings around the world

1- Allianz Arena in Munich, Germany

The home of the football club FC Bayern Munich uses an array of sensors and cloud-based analytics to keep track of the health of the grass on the field and make recommendations. From controlling the irrigation system to the incorporation of acoustic cameras combined with sound mapping to study how fans respond to key moments of games, the Allianz Arena is an exemplary smart building in Germany.

2- Apple Park in Cuppertino, California

Apple Park’s circular building is not a favorite amongst architects, yet the building is one of the most energy-efficient structures internationally. It's powered entirely by renewable energy through the solar panels installed on the roof of the structure that generate 17 megawatts of energy — one of the biggest totals of any solar roof.

3- The Crystal in London, United Kingdom

The Crystal features a sophisticated building management system that keeps tabs on every kilowatt of electricity consumed. The solar roof panels generate about 20 percent of its power, and it's systems monitor the energy consumption rigorously. As a result, The Crystal generates 70% lower carbon emissions than other office buildings in the UK.

4- Burj Khalifa, Dubai

Not only is the Burj Khalifa the world’s tallest building, it's also on the edge of innovation, receiving the distinction of being one of the smartest and most sustainable buildings. It's equipped with several intelligent building schemes that improve air quality, lighting, and temperature for its residents. The building's automation system capture data on real time through algorithms that identify errors and maintenance issues. This helps facility managers improve building maintenance and asset reliability.

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