Building SMARTer

Can we build future-ready SMART buildings while accounting for the human factor?

Intelligent buildings have co-starred in many a science fiction film, for better or for worse. Whether a benign sidekick, an aspirational status symbol, or a villainous, self-sentient threat, we’ve imagined SMART spaces in myriad roles. But no longer are these high-tech buildings just a figment of our cinema screens.

They’re here. And clients want to build more.

SMART technology has become something of an umbrella term, with a vast array of applications. But in a buildings context, SMART means a structure that integrates intelligent design, infrastructure, multiple data inputs and previously disparate systems, aggregating these into a database of useful information. This data allows owners, occupants and connected systems to create more engaging, more effective built environments—and ideally, to maximize the value and performance of every square metre.

We already have the technology. But while the pace of technological change is rapid, tech adoption is not unfolding at the same pace.

When it comes to SMART tech, the residential market is leading adoption while the commercial market lags. Pulling into the driveway to a home that turns certain lights on, turns down your daughter’s music, and shuts off your sprinkler is no longer a hypothetical—it’s mass marketed. But most commercial spaces have yet to tap into the boundless applications of SMART technology in the public sphere. Here, we discuss how three pillars of public space are beginning to realize these potential and emerging trends that will become mission-critical in the buildings of the future.


In the past, commercial buildings were tasked with a few performance criteria: power, water and sewage. Demand for Information Communication Automation Technology (ICAT)—often aptly termed the “fourth utility”—is a relatively recent development. Effectively meeting that demand is now a market imperative.

Today, tech infrastructure must be accounted for from the very outset. A well thought-out ICAT foundation is necessary for a modern building’s success; gone are the days when these design considerations could be tacked on as an afterthought once the base building is complete. In fact, it’s an emerging best practice to include information technology professionals at the very beginning of the planning process.

A SMART building is a high-performance building. It has a central nervous system to make real-time data sharing and analysis available to systems and human operators—the “brain.” The systems can automatically make decisions or pass alerts and information to individuals who monitor and control each building function from a single converged network, so energy usage, security, HVAC, communications, lighting, elevators, fire safety and more are now an interactive one-stop shop. The user is now fully aware of how the space is utilized and can make interventions based on data.

In an office building this might translate to energy-saving measures: such as automatically turning off lights in unused spaces; enhanced user comfort, like cranking up the air conditioning in a crowded meeting room; and even enterprise savings on capital expenses such as real estate, since we now know exactly how often each area is occupied.

Those savings can have significant impact when operational costs per employee, per day run an average of $3 for energy, $30 for real estate, and $300 for people. These systems can also allow for preventative maintenance. Based on real-time and historical data, the building systems can diagnose issues the moment they arise avoiding costly shutdown time and emergency service requests.

SMART buildings can also provide business ROI well beyond the basics of lower energy costs and occupant comfort. For one thing, sustainability metrics and LEED certification have become a competitive market differentiator and reputational asset. Premium commercial tenants demand it, and employees line up for it. Research from Deloitte on a landmark SMART office building in Amsterdam found that sick time declined drastically while job applicants increased, suggesting an enhancement to employer brand, talent attraction and wellness. There’s also data to suggest SMART buildings increase employee productivity, boost collaboration and innovation, and increase talent retention.

Health care

If you’ve ever sat in an emergency room at 2 a.m., feeling absolutely rotten and straining to recall some obscure health history for the triage nurse, SMART hospitals may be your salvation.

Imagine a hospital that already has your health data accessible at a moment’s notice, at every point of patient care. That is one standard the sector is pursuing, but it’s only the beginning.
A truly SMART hospital isn’t just about building systems, it’s about taking the administrative jobs clinicians perform and automating them to free up time to concentrate on patient care and improve accuracy.

In Canada, there is a marked shift toward automation, Internet of Things (IoT) devices, and robotics in the public health-care system. These measures can help optimize patient outcomes and minimize errors; in fact, doctors who used AI to assist with treatment decisions improved patient outcomes by nearly 50 per cent, according to one Indiana University study. Additionally, if health-care professionals can measure and track different patient care metrics, it’s easier to learn from mistakes and continually improve treatment.

Many hospitals are also using real-time locating systems (RTLS) to provide tracking and management of medical equipment, staff and patients. These systems usually use sensors, which are attached to the tracked assets and integrate with other IoT devices. Sensor accuracy is continuously improving, with some now able to pinpoint assets to the room, bed or even shelf where they’re located. As you might imagine, this is very valuable for improving workflow, reducing costs through improved efficiency and improving staff and patient safety.

These tools can certainly help reduce human error, fatigue and miscommunication, among other risks, improving a patient’s health outcomes. But they can also greatly enhance patient experience.

For instance, a pediatric patient from a rural area who’s facing a long, isolating hospital stay in Toronto may be able to attend classes remotely and connect with friends and family back home. SMART hospital systems could be designed to not only improve care, but also improve connection and normalize the experience as much as possible.


If you’ve taken a flight or public transit in a major city, chances are you’ve already interfaced with some elements of SMART transportation. SMART transit buildings and connected devices use IoT to communicate travel information like schedules, delays and alerts to users in real time, and these can serve as a critical operational and safety tool as well. SMART displays can also generate revenue via advertising and sponsorship.

Accessing travel info via digital signage or mobile apps is relatively common in large transit centres, but these SMART applications continue to evolve. New projects, such as WSP’s Salesforce Transit Centre project in the San Francisco Bay Area, are also incorporating Bluetooth beacon systems to deliver more efficient and personalized services for visitors. The transit hub was also designed to enhance real time wayfinding and provide wireless access at ticket gates. Data from the SMART systems can be used to predict staffing needs, send mass security alerts and ease traffic congestion, and integrate airport and airline operational demand loads.

Another WSP project, the Edmonton International Airport, enhanced passenger information systems, the airport’s operational database, Airline Check-in systems and security systems with two fully redundant data centres operating over a converged network to support all IP-enabled airport and building systems.

Future ready

Beyond the novelty factor and the “IT bling,” SMART buildings have tangible impacts that, over time, can help us to conserve resources, reduce carbon emissions, adapt to changing environments, and improve wellness and quality of life.

Those who operate in these SMART spaces will also find increasing utility for their own IoT devices, resulting in enhanced consumer, patient and commuter experiences. On a broad, SMART-cities scale, we likely won’t see this lean toward the mainstream until 2028, according to 2018 research by advisory firm Gartner. But individual organizations will evolve these capabilities rapidly from now through 2023.

Specific sectors like commercial, health care and transit are discussed here as early adopters, having a dramatic impact on daily lives well before the 2028 total-city convergence estimate.
Buildings currently account for 70 per cent of energy consumption in major cities, and a full 30 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions globally, according to Connected Cities USA. But SMART controls and connected devices could lower building energy consumption by as much as 10 per cent globally by 2040, according to the 2017 United Nations Environment Status Report.
But as with any design, we must account for the human factor. The proliferation of this technology depends on human behaviour— namely, adoption and usage. Widespread adoption in the commercial and public spheres requires buy-in from many stakeholders, a significant upfront investment, allowing artificial intelligence technologies to automatically implement actions, and allaying concerns around data security, cost-benefit analyses, and more.

Reaching critical mass will require a mindset shift from architects, engineers, integrators and builders, to counsel clients about the incredible value this technology provides.

SMART tech truly is a smart investment, both for individual business operations and for our collective future. But it’s up to us to be ambassadors of that vision, and to cast SMART buildings in a new role: as pillars of a more sustainable future.


This article originally appeared in Canadian Consulting Engineer.

WSP Smart® | Intelligent infrastructure (series)

In our Intelligent Infrastructure thought leadership series, WSP experts discuss the impacts and implications of our evolution toward more intelligent infrastructure.

Discover the series WSP Smart® Solutions