Get Smart

Intelligent buildings have long been a staple of science fiction - but now advancements in IT have made them a reality. Imthishan Giado reports on how smart buildings are making an impact on regional construction.

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By  Imthishan Giado Published  May 17, 2008

Intelligent buildings have long been a staple of science fiction - but now advancements in IT have made them a reality. Imthishan Giado reports on how smart buildings are making an impact on regional construction.

The term ‘smart building' is fraught with connotations of science-fiction.

Hearing the term, more than one person is likely to think back fondly to Saturday morning space operas, where computers weren't IT tools but disembodied voices directing single-uniformed humans around sterile facilities, with chores like opening doors consigned to the dustbin of history.

Craig Doyle, UAE country manager for networking infrastructure vendor CommScope, says that current consumer and commercial properties are in no danger of reaching that level of sophistication yet - and enterprises should regard smart buildings in an entirely different light.

"One person might say: ‘I look at Star Trek-type things where I walk up to a door and it whooshes open or the lights come on when I speak.'

That's beyond smart buildings, which are really about intelligent control of the building services - it's taking an intelligent or smart approach to how you coordinate the management of your building.

The approach we're seeing now is much more focused on taking the infrastructure and making it common across all the different building services," he explains.

While the term ‘smart building' has been bandied around the construction and IT sectors for some time, it has yet to reach critical mass in terms of actual implementations. Michael Habib, urban planner for real estate developer Nakheel's design group says that the required outlay remains prohibitive.

"It's still at a high cost to introduce it in all buildings and is seen as a luxury item or plug-in to a house - it's not part and parcel of a house design per se. When a market shift occurs, then it will probably become part of business as usual, but currently that is not the case," he says.

Doyle agrees, adding that few developers want to take the risk of integrating untested technology into expensive developments: "The construction industry is historically conservative because it is dealing with large investment capital expenditures which cannot fail.

If you have a tried and tested way of manufacturing, building and deploying a building, you will stick to that until there is a critical reason to change.

Not all firms in the region agree that smart buildings are too expensive to construct. Dilip Rahulan, chairman and CEO of building automation specialist Pacific Controls Systems, built the Dubai headquarters of his firm as a sustainable smart building, and believes that exorbitant costs are becoming a thing of the past.

"More than anything else, it's a mindset that it's expensive, when in reality, it's not. If you compare the cost of automation in a building, it's less than 2% of the total value of the job - which is if you automate to the hilt, making your building a Rolls-Royce in automation.

If you are able to spend even a little amount of money, which forms less then half a percent of the building's value, you're able to get an intelligent building," he states.

After deciding to go smart for the next new property, many enterprises are faced with a bewildering array of systems and possibilities - no doubt leading to many an overwhelmed CIO exclaiming: "Where do I begin?"

Mohammed Shah, CTO of Saudi Arabia's Al Madinah Knowledge Economic City (KEC) has vast experience in this regard, being responsible for the infrastructure design of more than nine million square kilometres of property, and provides some suggestions.

"My advice for developers is first to take a step back and really identify what it is they want to do, and what they need in terms of traditional IT requirements. Secondly, I try to reach out and engage with prominent international vendors.

When you design buildings, you might be looking at a three year horizon.

When I design the infrastructure for a city, I'm looking at decades, which is why it's important to go to an industry leader that has that capability and is going to be there for the long term," states Shah.

Another key concern of enterprise CIOs and IT managers is determining what options exist for their existing commercial property. CommScope's Doyle says old buildings need not be left out of the smart building revolution.

"Internationally, a building lifecycle is 40 years, in which 20 years could be a refurbishment time period for the actual structure of the building.

The super-smart building

Dilip Rahulan, chairman and CEO of building automation specialists Pacific Controls Systems has built his company headquarters as a showcase of what's possible in the smart building space.

He details the process by which he gathered experts to design and build the US$10 million structure.

"We had a vision and limited resources. If you compare us to the automation companies of the world, we are an infant - and to be honest with you, really in the beginning our knowledge was limited.

We had never been exposed to a green building and I had never visited one," he says.

Realising that information was freely available, Rahulan turned to the internet: "I Googled and found that it was possible to identify consultants and benchmarks.

We then identified a consultant from India who was affordable and could give us the same service that was required by the US green building council.

"Then we engaged a contractor - who actually had no clue about green buildings - but who was willing to co-operate and learn how to achieve this.

We hired other consultants who had never done a green building but were willing to adapt to the guidelines laid down by the green building consultant.

We all went through a learning process and that is the key," he concludes.

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