MilliCare - Not-So-Smart Buildings

Not-So-Smart Buildings

At Advanced Green Solutions we have the good fortune to maintain millions of square feet of facilities and our emphasis on sustainability affords us the opportunity to work behind the scenes in many of the latest generation of smart, efficient buildings.

The conventional wisdom is that smart buildings tend to be better maintained and have lower operating costs than traditional buildings, which creates market advantages to owners and supports enhanced employee productivity for tenants.

What we find, however, is that these smart buildings aren’t always so smart. We are often find that simple, practical design considerations that were a matter of course in older generation buildings are overlooked in more contemporary structures or repositioned properties. Not all smart buildings demonstrate these characteristics but we come across more examples than you would expect of buildings that are not well designed from the operations and maintenance perspective and where the design creates problems for those of us charged with protecting and preserving the facility.

Here are a few examples that are not uncommon:

  • Smart building systems, like lighting, HVAC and security, that are improperly calibrated or that no one seems to know how to operate correctly. The result is maintenance crews working in stifling dark conditions or the systems are overridden so that the lights and AC just stay on all night long wasting energy and money.
  • Installing beautiful, sustainable interior finishes that are difficult, if not impossible to maintain. Because we work in flooring, we have found more than once beautiful office entries with a variety of floor finishes, each of which require very different maintenance process but installed in a way to make it almost impossible to do properly. My favorite is the sustainably sourced carpet that is also extremely delicate and expensive, placed in the highest traffic area, a combination that all but ensures it will be not meet its minimum life expectancy.
  • Neglecting to consider the needs of ongoing maintenance, such as making no accommodations for basic janitorial needs. We’ve seen more than one large, beautiful building entrance with no accessible electrical outlets. We may use 75% less energy to clean carpet, but we do need some.
  • Overlooking sensible preventative maintenance measures. Walk-off mats are one of the simplest and most cost effective means of keeping soil and other environmental contaminants out of buildings. It is a LEED credit area too but I can think of only a handful of buildings that have even moderately effective matting systems and many buildings are designed in ways to make it impossible to properly install them.

These may seem like minor issues when you consider the complexity behind building and operating a modern structure. But these issues reflect key components in green buildings that are doomed to fail prematurely, which is inherently not green, expensive and wasteful. Moreover, these are examples of high-end commercial spaces are beautifully built out as long as no one steps foot in them.

We are not alone in these observations – I’m sure you can think of a few. A recent white paper by Siemens on improving performance with integrated smart buildings noted that it is a challenge to ensure that smart building capabilities match up with the needs of the facility and the owner’s idea for the operation of the facility.

“This requires a great deal of communication during the design stage to make sure all parts of the facility are considered,” the report states.

So I contacted one of my closest friends, an architect who has worked designing next-generation facilities around the world for more than two decades, to ask him whether the inherent impracticality we seem to see in a disproportionate number of smart buildings is a fluke? Or perhaps it is not a priority or established in the training of building designers or a reflection of essential conflicts between the various stakeholders during the design process and the marketplace?

“Regular maintenance and pragmatic operational concerns are often neglected in architectural education and practice,” he said.

According to my friend there are a huge number of things to consider when designing a building or interior fit out and so the location of an electrical socket or janitorial closet for the maintenance crew or incorporating manual override of lighting controls for afterhours service providers is usually an afterthought or at least pretty far down the list of priorities.

“I personally try to advise my clients about material selections and maintenance but sometimes a corporate design guideline or framework agreement with a particular manufacturer takes precedent,” he said. “The office or facility manager is usually involved very late in the process.”

Furthermore, my friend said that architectural education is often lacking in this regard.

“High-minded theory is much more interesting than life cycle costs,” he said. “It’s only after years of experience, and complaints about design decisions that were more about ego than practicality, that one learns to address more pragmatic concerns.”

A recent post to Jones Lang LaSalle’s Green Blog reflected this dichotomy in today’s smart buildings well. The author said that while today’s buildings have yet to reach the level of awareness of HAL 9000, the sentient computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, “many functions of modern office buildings operate with minimal human intervention.”

But, as we know from the book and the movie, that wasn’t necessarily the best thing for the human crew tasked with operating and maintaining Discovery One.