What is a Smart Building?

19th May 2016

The Ever-evolving Definition

Expect-more-from-our-Buildings_auto-LinkedIn.pngLet’s begin with a basic, yet very topical question. What makes a city, a campus or simply a standalone building ‘smart’?

Evidently, the design and expected performance of non-domestic buildings has changed throughout history.[1] A century ago, universities, offices and schools that were made of robust stone, brick, equipped with basic gas and water, and perhaps a few electrical systems, were probably classed as pretty ‘smart’ for their day. So what’s different now? Has anything really changed in what defines a smart building?

Yes, a lot has changed, but the term ‘smart’ was, and always will be, completely relative to modern technology, professional expectations and our personal experiences within managed spaces. The difference between a century ago and today is that we expect more from our buildings, and rightly so. From a Facilities Management (FM) perspective, we expect that the cost of the asset (an individual building, for example) over its lifetime does not appreciate above a defined threshold. Likewise, occupants expect certain levels of performance, comfort and satisfaction from buildings they work in[2].

As we aspire and innovate further, the expectations of our residents will only grow, and possibly wander, based on further sub-preferences. Traditionally, intelligent buildings (the prequel to smart buildings) were founded predominately on minimising human interaction[3]. This soon grew to include the integration of numerous systems (for example, integrating a Building Management System [BMS] with lighting)[4], yet these definitions alone no longer fulfil our expectations of what is smart. The evolving definition has been observable in the last few years alone. This is why there will always be as many definitions of ‘what a smart building is’, as there are authors on the subject.

What is a Smart Building Then?

Pre-emptive buildings are smart buildings. 

I am going to argue that a truly ‘smart’ building should be able to adapt to events or problems before they occur. This is a paradigm shift from previous generations and definitions that were reactive at the core. Imagine if a building was able to account for:

  • varying yearly average external weather conditions
  • changes in occupants or building use
  • equipment failures before assets breakdown

…whilst maintaining or increasing energy efficiency and occupant satisfaction.

If a building is not performing to its designed standard, than a smart building should be able to gather information as to why and adapt to perform differently in the future. This ‘adaptableness’ should span across the four main principles of building progression. See Figure 1.

  1. Intelligence: the methods by which building operation information is gathered and how to respond
  2. Enterprise: the methods by which a building uses information that is collected to improve occupant and building performance   
  3. Materials: the building’s physical form
  4. Control: the interaction between the occupants and the building

Figure 1: Features of a Smart Building – adapted from Langston and Kristensen (2011)

I am not proposing that every aspect of a building must be able to predict or adapt in order for it to be called smart; not based on the current expectations of our occupants or technology in our buildings anyway. It is, however, apparent that too many buildings using ‘Building Management System’s’ (BMS) are titled ‘smart’. A building running a BMS is likely to be intelligent, but it cannot, by default, be classed as smart[5].

So What Could a Smart Building or Campus Look Like?

Using the four pillars of Figure 1, Table 1 aims to practically demonstrate how a smart building might adapt.

Table 1: How a Smart Building may function

Building Management Pillar

Example 1

Example 2


Combining hardware, and software to overcome fragmented non-proprietary, legacy systems.

Integrating BMS and real-time systems with smart analytics to predict building faults before the BMS picks up an alarm.


Based on occupancy counts, a smart building could close or open zones during periods of low or high occupancy.


Adapting to future climate conditions by replacing features that can account for change.


Warning occupants of the likely temperature of their building before they set off from home

Using real-time environmental information to enable occupants to see what part of the building suits their preferences best.

Part 2 of this blog will discuss how to go about building a smart campus. UK universities will be used as a framework for discussion. 


Continue Reading :

Smart Campuses Part 2: Where to Start

Smart Campuses Part 3: How Iconics Technology Can Help

ICONICS Smart Building Solutions



[1] Buckman, A.h., M. Mayfield, and Stephen B.m. Beck. "What Is a Smart Building?" Smart and Sustainable Built Environment Smart and Sust Built Env 3, no. 2 (2014): 92-109. doi:10.1108/sasbe-01-2014-0003.

[2] Shabha, Ghasson. "A Critical Review of the Impact of Embedded Smart Sensors on Productivity in the Workplace." Facilities 24, no. 13/14 (2006): 538-49. doi:10.1108/02632770610705301.

[3] Wong, J.k.w., H. Li, and S.w. Wang. "Intelligent Building Research: A Review." Automation in Construction 14, no. 1 (2005): 143-59. doi:10.1016/j.autcon.2004.06.001.

[4] Langston, Craig, and Rima Lauge-Kristensen. New York: Routledge, 2011.

[5] Brooks, David. "Security Threats and Risks of Intelligent Building Systems: Protecting Facilities from Current and Emerging Vulnerabilities." Edith Cowan University, October 23, 2012, 1-25. Accessed April 28, 2016. doi:10.4018/978-1-4666-2659-1.ch001.


Written by
Sam Walton

Sam Walton