Richard Solomon, Partner at KSR, was featured in the Institute of Directors‘ book “Clean Tech, Clean Profits” talking about smart buildings, technology integration, ROI and customer experience. Read the full article below:

Smarter Buildings

The wide range of alternative energy solutions available, combined with the influence of legislation and regulation, has sent the construction industry scurrying in various directions. Our clients – both residential and commercial – have a desire to demonstrate their green credentials but oftentimes have little understanding of the complexity involved in integrating clean tech into their schemes.

Whether it is because we genuinely want to save the planet, or if it is just to keep our souls clean, we all want a simple, straightforward way of using green technology in our buildings. And we have every right to expect one. Nowadays we are all living more technology-rich lives. We enjoy browsing and roaming free from technical constraint and are used to having both choice and fingertip control over how, where and when we consume multi-media content. What’s more, we are increasingly looking for this functionality in our homes. We are starting to find ‘the internet of things’ impacting our lives.

It’s clear from the level of activity in this space that there is a large and growing market for simple smart home equipment – many homeowners who struggled with multiple connected devices in the past are enjoying driving their Sonos music system from their smart phone or controlling their boiler using British Gas’s Hive application in a similar way. Google’s acquisition of Nest probably says more about their need for strong product design than anything else, but it is indicative of confidence in the ‘smarthome’. So what can designers and builders learn from all this?

We’re undoubtedly moving towards an age of smarter homes in smarter cities. The face of the high street is changing in response to the developing internet-based retail experience. We’ll see public services like mass transit and waste collection optimised through the use of inexpensive, connected sensors and the rise in quantified self adoption (people using fitness or healthcare devices like the Nike+ Fuelband or Sony’s new Lifelog products) will soon allow people with long-term chronic conditions like diabetes to benefit from accurate monitoring and care with little friction in their daily lives. This in turn means we’ll be able to provide building users with simple interfaces to control and monitor their energy use in a way they understand.

In many of the higher-end homes we have designed, clients are using simple touch-panel controls from companies like AMX. But these can be expensive, and rely on sophisticated programming and careful integration with the lighting, heating, cooling and other systems. We’re now seeing a trend where people prefer to operate things from their smart phone or iPad. In turn many manufacturers are producing affordable equipment with the integration interface built right in. Heat miser and Philips are two good examples of this. And increasingly, the systems can sense occupancy which means they can be driven by actual demand, not the old-school timer under the stairs.

So it feels like the future is in reach, but there are still a few challenges.

Integration is Key

Most energy consumption in developed nations is used in homes for heating, lighting and home electronics, but a unified approach will allow these functions to be centrally controlled and intelligently managed. Integrated control stops heating and cooling systems fighting, making everything work much more efficiently. The right approach is to ensure the building can relate to local temperature, weather information from the internet, or react to a regular in-room thermostat. Modern lighting control systems allow artificial lighting to react to the levels of daylight (as well as occupancy). Local scene-setting switches can be provided to help our clients save energy and get the quality of light they need without wastage. Its also possible to use automated blinds to reduce glare and minimise solar gain, avoiding the need for cooling. Taken together, these setups can make a massive difference to the overall energy consumption as well as enhance the quality and enjoyment of a home.

There are various standards in place to allow the systems to talk to each other and most kit can be controlled wirelessly these days or over a simple network connection. The key is to plan early to avoid disappointment and costly refits, and to find an inspirational services consultant, such as SMC, that acts as a client advocate solving this in the nerdosphere is going to help the people that use the building.

At a recently completed luxury private house in London, we worked with SMC and the client from an early stage to ensure that the technology could be integrated seamlessly and effortlessly into the building design. The highly sophisticated systems were specified and located as part of the design development. Chosen elements which brought together audio-visual, security and environmental control were selected to be intuitive as well as aesthetically pleasing.

The Business Case

There is undoubtedly an initial premium attached to smart buildings, however, the return on investment (ROl) can be significant. Specifying the right building control system is often key to how quickly this ROl is realised. A centralised control system will not only ensure that a family or an organisation gets the most out of its technological investment, but that this investment continues to pay dividends over the lifetime of the building. This means that our clients can look for ways to spread the cost of intelligent, green systems, and bundle it in with maintenance and support. With the right approach it doesn’t all need to be capital expenditure (CAPEX). We’ve found that disparate estates can be simply managed from a central location nowadays.

Whilst we haven’t found a particular building size below which it is uneconomical to install smart technology, we do know that reducing complexity is beneficial. That means getting our clients to engage with the design process, and to consider how they’ll actually use the building. This allows them to make considered and beneficial decisions, naturally with some guidance on the way and here’s where experts such as SMC play such a key role.

Create a Great Customer Experience

A good green installation is no more obtrusive than traditional systems, but sometimes the interface needs more consideration, and one thing has never changed – all our customers hate complex controls, particularly when they’re duplicated across many systems. People pay for simplicity and in my experience, simpler systems are more reliable – and cheaper to run. We’ve found it useful to work with a customer-focused integration company. They’ll think about what control our clients would be most comfortable with – a simple light switch in the bathroom, perhaps a scene-setting keypad in the bedroom, or a touchscreen in the family room – and come up with a control solution that fits. Our clients can have access to all system functions, or just what they want. The integrator will programme the system to suit and customise the interface accordingly, even if it’s run on their iPad, so that our clients are left with an intuitive and easy-to-operate solution.