Smart buildings: the building blocks of smart cities

Thursday 6 April 2017 | 13:54 CET | Background
With the many smart city projects taking place across Europe and in places much progress being made, there is an element which is often overlooked: the state, current and future, of the cities’ buildings. Although cities can be made ‘smart’ without any changes to the building stock (such as via smart parking, smart waste collection, smart street lighting), the smart concept can be enhanced significantly if smart buildings are part of the equation. 

The Buildings Performance Institute Europe (BPIE) recently mapped how smart ready the built environment is in Europe. Their analysis was hampered by lack of data in some areas and they sometimes had to use data from different decades as that was the only information available. Nonetheless their research paints a clear picture: overall the building stock in Europe is far from being smart ready. According to BPIE buildings are an integral and elementary part of Europe’s energy system and will play a pivotal role in the transition to a smart decarbonised economy. 

To map the building stock, BPIE identified five key characteristics of smart-ready built environment, namely: 

  • efficient and healthy buildings
  • dynamic operability providing occupants with control over the energy flow 
  • energy-system responsive buildings, i.e. buildings can participate in energy markets
  • increase renewable energy uptake by facilitating self-production (e.g. solar of thermal) or by interoperating with other buildings
  • dynamic and self-learning control systems 

BPIE identified 12 indicators across these five characteristics which formed the basis of their ranking. Unsurprisingly there are large differences between countries in the overall readiness, but also between countries itself on the various indicators. None of the European countries analysed came out as having a smart-ready building stock. Front runners were Sweden, Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands.  Sweden did very well in terms of smart meter deployment and the use of renewable energy sources but below average on the use of electric vehicles and photovoltaics. The worst performer was Cyprus, which scored the lowest ranks on virtually all the indicators. 

Once buildings are smart(er), they will contribute to lower energy usage (and bills), reduce emissions, increase the uptake of renewable energy sources and allow occupants to control their own renewable energy production and consumption. They should also make the buildings more comfortable for use with sensors e.g. automatically darkening windows in sunny periods, turning lights or heating on or off depending on occupancy etc. When electric vehicles become more main-stream, they will not need to rely solely on the power grid, as they can use the energy produced by the building to recharge. The Vehicle2Grid project goes further and uses the car’s battery to store electricity in times of overproduction. 

Not only the information coming from the smart buildings can be used in a smart city concept such as information on energy production and consumption, but also the smart elements of the building itself: the actual energy produced, for example by allowing buildings to be part of the smart grid, or recycling water or waste. With the data from smart buildings being part of a smart city data management system, it will enhance not only the energy networks of the city but also the transport system, water quality, air quality and the emergency services. As buildings are elementary to the make-up of cities, smart buildings are part of the main building blocks for a successful smart city.

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