How can we Future Proof Smart Buildings?


Such is the rate of technological change in the modern era that it is almost impossible to plan for the next innovation or technological revolution.

However, the brick and mortar, or glass and steel, of the physical building works on a entirely different timescale. While technologists’ talks about months and years, constructionists’ discuss decades.

To put it another way… considering the rate of change who knows what smart building technologies we will be talking about in just 15 years. The truth is that we cannot plan for the unknown but we must try to prepare for it.

“Future proofing” is the process of anticipating the future and developing methods of minimizing the effects of shocks and stresses of future events. Future proofing revolves around the term obsolescence, and while today’s smart technologies may offer advantages over an old dumb building, they will be considered obsolete amongst technology in the future.

In terms of real estate, there are three traditional forms of obsolescence that affect property values; physical, functional, and aesthetic. Physical refers to deterioration of actual building materials. Aesthetic obsolescence occurs when fashions change, and what was once pretty becomes ugly – much of 1970s architecture, for example.

Functional obsolescence occurs when the property is no longer capable of serving the intended use or function – potentially when a smart building is no longer smart, because all the other buildings got smarter.

To use a practical example, the configuration of cabling and other network systems that enable the communication that makes a building smart, should be implemented in such a way as to anticipate the needs and abilities of future technologies.

In the future, will we need more cables, reaching more end-points as more and more of the buildings “things” get connected? Or will we move increasing towards wireless technology, and if so should we construct walls in a more wireless friendly way? Perhaps the cyber-security concerns around wireless will mean we move towards greater cabling or even wireless blocking exterior wall materials.

Industry expert Pete Newman said that, “designing a future-proof network is often extremely difficult, but also a process that is absolutely necessary. Having an intelligent plan in place for migrating to new systems in the future is necessary to sustaining intelligent building systems over time.”

Now consider all the broad and varying systems in our buildings, HVAC, lighting, access control, water, electrical metering, to name a few. Each of these systems has gotten a lot smarter recently and is expected to evolve further in the years to come. There is also the complex interplay between these systems and who knows what other systems may come into buildings in the longer-term.

When buildings and systems are constructed they have to be interoperable with the technologies and other systems present. Planning for the future is a guessing game, losing the game may result in an expensive retrofit, needed to bring your building back up to standard. Winning the game will extend the value of your building and reduce the cost of retrofits.

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it,” stated Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google’s parent company Alphabet. At the Milken 2016 Global Conference, Schmidt predicted that 3D printed buildings “will have a massive and long-lasting impact on the world.” Enabled by building information modelling (BIM), 3D printed buildings are one way to plan for the future through greater flexibility in design and construction.

The key to winning this game is not the ability to see into the future. It is preparing, as best as possible, for any eventuality that may arise. To future proof a building against technological development we must design and construct our buildings with flexibility, adaptability, and diversity.