The Role Of Technology In Creating Smart And Sustainable Buildings

May 15, 2024

Remote and hybrid working has made it easier for office occupiers to succeed in reducing their impact on the climate. After all, fewer people in the office means less energy consumed, water used and waste produced. Some companies even include employee commutes—which have decreased in the post-pandemic era—in their sustainability metrics.

The days of being able to count on the sustainability benefits of remote and hybrid workers may be numbered, however. Half of all business leaders who participated in my company’s recent “Inside the Workplace” survey said that employees are spending more time in the office, and 60% think their employees should be in the office full time.


As office occupancy levels rebound, stakeholders must work smarter to avoid losing ground on sustainability metrics. Adding urgency to those efforts are regulations that are making sustainability a bottom-line issue.

The time for foot-dragging is over, and commercial real estate (CRE) stakeholders know it: A Forrester Consulting study commissioned by Johnson Controls found that 80% of global sustainability strategy leaders consider sustainability their top business priority.

So, the “will” is there. But how do we find the “way”? To meet these challenges, building owners, occupants and facility managers (FMs) must create a new class of smart, healthy and sustainable buildings. Here’s a look at some of the technologies facilitating these developments and the impact they can have:

Sustainability And Energy Efficiency
The proliferation of sustainability-related regulations is compelling CRE stakeholders to find new ways to reduce their carbon footprint. That will require collecting data and turning it into actionable insights.

AI-enabled technology can track, control and measure energy usage and emissions. In addition, Internet of Things (IoT) devices like sensors, actuators and smart meters can help FMs baseline energy performance, measure advancements after renovations and retrofits, monitor progress against net-zero goals and automate central utility plant operations.

Some of the equipment organizations deploy to help reduce the carbon footprint of a building, like environmental and occupancy sensors, can also be used to monitor and control lighting, temperature and humidity. These elements of indoor air quality (IAQ) not only reduce emissions but can also support employee wellness and productivity.

Occupant Experience
Office spaces today must emulate the things people love about working from home while accentuating the benefits of coming to the office.

Technology can help real estate stakeholders walk that fine line by optimizing spaces for both utilization and employee wellness. For example, FMs can use predictive space utilization technology to proactively reconfigure space to meet occupants’ needs. Meanwhile, visitor management, room booking and digital signage systems can make the experience of being in the office hassle-free for both employees and visitors.

Safety And Security
Sensors, cameras and access control systems can be tied into workplace management platforms, allowing stakeholders to monitor and manage the safety and security protocol in one place. This includes the ability to program and activate automated responses to intrusions or breaches. These systems can also help with productivity and operational efficiency.

Operational Efficiency And Asset Optimization
At the end of the day, smart building solutions are about making the most of what you have, whether that’s space, talent or resources like energy and water. That can also apply to the equipment that’s integral to the operation of facilities, as well as the people tasked with making it all run smoothly.

Smart facility management can support operational consistency, mitigate risks and lower lifetime costs across your assets and building portfolio. For example, digital twins technology can facilitate proactive and predictive maintenance, including issuing and assigning automated work orders. In addition, sensors and smart meters can support 24/7 monitoring of equipment performance and alarm management to help ensure that FMs are made aware of a fault or potential issue as soon as it happens.

Long-Term Gains Require Some Upfront Pain
While these solutions may sound futuristic, many of them have been available for years. So, why isn’t every building a smart building? The primary obstacles to adoption are the upfront work and cost required to deploy and optimize these solutions.

Almost two-thirds of respondents to a recent Association for Smart Homes & Buildings survey said that high initial cost was the top barrier to adopting smart technology. Because of this, companies will need to adopt a future-thinking financial strategy. On a recent webinar, industry expert Dr. Matthew Marson estimated that a $1 investment in smart building technology today will net $3 in return over five years. That cost-benefit ratio will also likely continue to move in favor of these solutions as regulatory penalties make not embracing them untenable.

Once an organization decides to invest in smart building technology, they still face the challenge of building a strong foundation of data on which to base the system. Data is the fuel that makes these solutions run, and no amount of AI can fix inaccurate or incomplete information.

Before deploying smart building technology, organizations must put in place a robust data strategy and data management protocols to ensure a steady flow of the information the system needs to function properly. This is not an easy task, but the better and broader a company can make its data streams, the more opportunities it’s likely to uncover to reduce costs and improve efficiency, making it even quicker and easier to offset that initial outlay.

For years, sustainability initiatives have been a nice-to-have. But with office occupancy increasing, regulations on the rise and climate change intensifying, companies need to beef up their sustainability initiatives and the reporting capabilities to support them.

Technologies like AI and digital twins are facilitating a holistic approach to those efforts that support not only sustainability but also productivity, employee well-being and portfolio optimization. This new class of smart buildings represents the wave of the future in office real estate.

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The Institute for Sustainability Africa (INŚAF) is an independent multi-disciplinary think tank and research institute founded in Zimbabwe in 2010 with the Vision to advance sustainability initiatives for Africa.