Mario Schembri

CEO, AIS Group

Future Technology in Buildings

Friday 29th April 2016

Regularly stuck in traffic, I keep wondering about wasted energy. Seeing the considerable time squandered and the quantity of fuels burned in private transportation, energy efficiency and convenience must be the prime motivators for technology improvements.

In the field of intelligent controls for buildings, to which I am exposed, it is expected that energy efficiency and people comfort go hand in hand. Switching off lights may save on the electricity bill and so would turning off the air conditioning units - but would you want stay at such a draconian place? Probably not. That is why there are intelligent controls.

Technology exists today that whilst limiting the energy consumption of heating, cooling, lighting and other electrical services, it also ensures the comfort of guests. A simple application would be to turn off the lights when nobody is around. In primitive systems, a sensor detects a person’s movement and switches on the lights for a predefined time. Not being intelligent, such systems have a bad habit of going off too prematurely or staying on for a much longer period then needed, long after you have left the room. Perhaps it is just me, but this behaviour seems to be prevalent in toilets or dark stairways.

That is when the driver in the 4x4 behind me starts blasting her horn to prod me to occupy the two and half metres of space that has opened in front of me, which willingly I comply.

Intelligent buildings that can anticipate my personalised needs? Now that is a thought.

Today’s intelligent controls already have in-built features that cater for the obvious. For example, they do not switch off the staircase lights if you are still half way down the basement carpark. Neither do they fully turn off the heating system if you are securely in bed, although, depending on your movements and time of the day, they do automatically control the room temperature for you. These systems already exist today.

Designed for typical and average behaviour, intelligent building controls are already optimising energy usage and comfort. Nevertheless, no one person is the same and individual preferences vary widely. This is where I would see future intelligent controls heading.

In attempting to foresee how future technology would look like, I often use the process of extrapolation, that is taking what exists today and iteratively imagine the next stages of development. Numerous technologies exist in buildings today. Apart from heating/cooling and lighting controls, there are CCTV security systems in place, electronic access control and sophisticated escalator and lifts. All these systems are evolving in sophistication and complexity, providing profound technological integration into the fabric of the building. Data analytics - the science of scrutinising raw data with the purpose of drawing conclusions – will be extensively used to deliver personalised comfort. 

Once more, my reverie is interrupted with more honking. Would my smartphone show me the shortest and quickest route? I suppose it could and I proceed to pose the question. Promptly it replies that I am only 17 minutes away and even gives me the directions. Not very useful as the driving instructions point me back towards the same route I am already following. When I ask for alternative directions, the phone remains silent. Perhaps it is the only available way to go. Not risking a €100 fine, I resist the temptation to pick up the phone and fill the waiting time playing games. 

My mind drifts off once more and for no apparent reason, I think of Peter Parker and how when he donned on his Spiderman suit he could dangle from one building to the next above the congested New York traffic below. Today we call it smart wear - wearable technology – but jumping from one building to the other is too much physical exertion for my liking and I let my thoughts wander back to intelligent controls.  

As with smart wear, intelligent building technology of the future will be able to adapt to individual preferences. A building is already more than a mere impersonal creation, mindful of the operational costs and watchful of the bottom line. The functions within the built envelope vary widely as the building’s intended purpose ranges from residential, retail, workplace, worship, infirmary, educational and entertainment, just to mention some of the conventional uses. Common to all is that buildings are living environments expected to meet the demands of many people having wide and varied needs.  

Intelligent buildings of the future will be able to recognise individual persons – perhaps through their smartphones - and will adjust according to one’s tastes and behavioural patterns, taking into account time of day and season. Setting the right mood for visiting customers in a shopping plaza would make them buy more or applying the same concept to a school, a hospital or a workplace, the occupants would learn more, heal better and be more productive. With the ability to recognise individuals and physically locate their whereabouts, intelligent buildings will provide increased comfort, better convenience and added security.

The technology to deliver such intelligent buildings exists today. They are energy efficient and provide a high level of convenience and comfort, far more than I can say about being stuck in traffic.

Perhaps, therein lies my answer to my daily transportation hassles.  Either fit a set of wheels to move around in my intelligent building, or else live in one grand building, rarely having the need to venture away very far.

The horn behind me blares once more. It is time to occupy the next few metres of open road.

Miriam Sultana

Head of Economics Advisory, PKF Malta

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