How to Stop Your Smart Technology from Ageing

COLUMN – December 2023

How to Stop Your Smart Technology from Ageing

When I worked on the smart design for 22 Bishopsgate, Europe’s largest commercial building, the team and I were in position when we had to consider retrofitting the technology in building that hadn’t yet finished construction. By the time I was involved, the project was closer to completion than breaking ground. In those 3-4 years since the construction started, the market had moved a lot. The expectation that buildings (particularly central London speculative space) needed to be smart was relatively new. What was convinced many years earlier needed to update its value proposition to remain competitive.

Through a series of savvy decisions made across the whole spectrum of those involved in the project, the team had successfully navigated the change in and tension between market pace and technological development. It demonstrated clearly many that the pace of construction (typically 5 years) was much slower than that of technological development (which could be measured in weeks or months). It’s the market that ties those two things together and keeps a necessary tension between them.

This fact, however, means that designers, developers, contractors and more need a methodology to prevent obsolesce from ruining their project by the time practical completion comes around. There are two main approaches for this, the first is for the physical elements. Accepting that different elements age of different timescales helps a designer to think of their project as a ‘kit of parts’. Expecting certain parts to be replaced more frequently than others (just like the tyres on cars), means extending an asset’s life is more realistic. Below are my rules of thumbs for who long I expect different building elements to last: 

Building ElementExpected Life Expectancy
Structure100+ years
Plant20-30 years
HVAC10-20 years
Fit-out5-10 years
Technology Hardware3-5 years
Software3-12 months

From the digital side of construction, I often recommend that clients think of their software ‘offering’ in the same way and adopt a microservices architecture. That basically means that specific functionality is broken down into a module and integrated to some kind of master platform with the ability for any other system or front end to access the data from it. That way the kit of part approach means that certain elements can be swapped out at a lower-cost.

More importantly, this increases the agility and therefore relevance that a smart building can offer. Take, for example, VergeSense’s new ChatGPT overlay that allows for natural language queries to help a human answer space utilisation questions that doesn’t have a pre-built dashboard. Or your energy analytics vendor has gone bust and you need a like-for-like capability transplant without have to re-do all you ESG reports or main lobby infographics from scratch.

In most of the projects I’ve seen, there has been a reliance on making procurement easy with maximising the number of features for the lowest price. Although those short-term goals are met, it makes it more difficult and more expensive as technology, an our expectations of that technology, inevitably increases. For 22, that meant a change of approach, procurement and what was eventually installed. Now that 22 has been open for some years, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were thinking ‘what’s next?’. Fortunately, their system architecture will make that an easier conversation.

In Dr Marson’s monthly column, he’ll be chronicling his thoughts and opinions on the latest developments, trends, and challenges in the Smart Buildings industry and the wider world of construction. Whether you’re a seasoned pro or just starting out, you’re sure to find something of interest here.

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About the author:

Matthew Marson is an experienced leader, working at the intersection of technology, sustainability, and the built environment. He was recognised by the Royal Academy of Engineering as Young Engineer of the Year for his contributions to the global Smart Buildings industry. Having worked on some of the world’s leading smart buildings and cities projects, Matthew is a keynote speaker at international industry events related to emerging technology, net zero design and lessons from projects. He was an author in the Encyclopaedia of Sustainable Technologies and a published writer in a variety of journals, earning a doctorate in Smart Buildings.