New challenges surrounding comfort in the age of the smart building

New challenges surrounding comfort in the age of the smart building

You may be surprised to learn that the notion of the ‘intelligent building’ has, in fact, been around since the 1980s. The first intelligent buildings controlled their own environment, and today, they have evolved into ‘smart buildings’. Smart buildings have fully integrated systems that automate everything from security and surveillance to temperature and air conditioning. This industry is growing at a rapid pace: according to IDC Energy Insights, smart building technology currently has a compound annual growth rate of 22.6 %.

Naturally, this presents an incredible opportunity for the MEP industry. The role of the MEP engineer is becoming at once more integral and more complex, with MEP professionals at the helm of various sophisticated technological systems that will dictate the experience of working or living in the building. However, as much as the rise of the smart building presents opportunities, it also presents challenges. Comfort has always been at the forefront of MEP design and automation can create obstacles as well as advantages.

The tyranny of the majority

Of course, the key advantage of the smart building is efficiency. With a fully integrated system, businesses and homeowners can control their climate, security, and energy bills via a fully-automated system. Subsequently, buildings are cheaper to run, more energy-efficient, and more often than not, greener. This approach is fundamentally utilitarian – the greatest number of people are kept in comfortable conditions with minimal effort. In other words, if the overarching results are positive, then certainly, smart buildings can only be a good thing.

Comfort is subjective

However, there is a fundamental problem here: not everyone agrees on what constitutes comfort. Anecdotally, the definition of ‘room temperature’ was based on the comfort of an 11-stone 40-year-old man. Of course, not everyone fits this profile and might find 21 degrees celsius either a little warm or a bit chilly. Subsequently, if a building’s occupants are unable to intervene in temperature control due to automation, we are presented with a problem.

Therein lies one of the most controversial issues about smart buildings: control. This creates an intrinsic risk that can hinder building performance, as users who aren’t 11-stone 40-year-old men – that is, the majority – may find the building uncomfortable to use. With centralised IP-based technology controlling and monitoring the environment, the building could become unfit for purpose, especially when temperature controls are based on theoretical occupancy and use models.

Continuing to innovate

As introduced, a primary concern of MEP is comfort. Certainly, smart buildings come with a whole host of advantages regarding convenience and economy, and these can’t be ignored. Moreover, as it becomes increasingly essential that buildings are environmentally friendly, it’s critical that we deploy technology to manage energy consumption. However, when it comes to optimising comfort, MEP engineers need to keep innovating. Not everyone’s idea of comfort is the same, so there needs to be scope for intervention in smart building systems. This will require some ingenuity on the part of the MEP engineer, but considering the pace of advancement, it shouldn’t be anything the industry can’t handle.