The Environmental Benefits of Smart Buildings

July 13, 2021

What’s cooler than data, you ask? How about saving the world?  

It’s a grand statement, to be sure. We can’t expect technology to neatly resolve our many existential concerns. But used in the right ways, it can be our friend in the battle.

There’s a reason that internet of things (IoT) projects are earning the label of smart. Eliminating redundant tasks is smart, improving safety is smart, reducing waste is smart. IoT initiatives are nudging us forward—better late than never—by optimizing our buildings and cities in addition to our factory lines. And yes, the mountains of new data being created certainly play a role. There, I said it. 

The specter of intelligent devices gives us plenty to be skeptical about, especially with regard to cybersecurity (and yeah maybe killing some jobs). But the green promise of smart buildings falls big time onto the “win” column and is arguably the largest benefit to consider with IoT transformation. After all, without a livable planet, the rest is irrelevant. 

What makes a smart building so smart?

A so-called “smart building” does more than answer trivia questions or shell out snippy comebacks. Although, who knows it can also do that when you factor in the omnipresence of Siri or Alexa in such environments. 

When talks of climate crises, resource shortages, and sustainability efforts come up, we can naturally focus on topics like cars, product packaging, and the meat industry. What about our apartments and office buildings? In the U.S. alone, commercial and residential buildings accounted for approximately 40% of energy consumption in 2020.

By design, the majority of existing U.S. architecture (e.g., office buildings, schools, apartments) does not emphasize renewable energy. Leaving your phone chargers plugged in all day and night certainly isn’t helping these numbers. But the problems run deep and are not something the average worker or occupant can undo by their lonesome.

The green architecture movement has been alive on the fringes for decades. Within this philosophy, eco-minded architects tested ways to use components like recycled materials and solar panels, along with more thoughtful building designs, to find the middle ground between livability and sustainability.  As in so many walks of life, convenience and comfort in building design have regrettably proven victorious over long-term concern. 

Times change. Today, the movement is accelerating with builders and occupants becoming woke to the most pressing environmental issues, while developers and manufacturers are cranking out solutions to help transform our ideas of what a building is or can be. 

Smart buildings are the offspring of environmental engineering and digital innovation. Bits and pieces like lighting systems, air conditioners, and door locks are connected to the cloud and to each other through IoT sensors and networks, allowing them to track and control the resources being used. In lieu of us living and working in yurts, smart buildings are a logical progression, using cutting-edge technologies to trim the fat of our carbon footprints.

The impact of smart buildings

Across the globe, the severity of our environmental problems is becoming the defining story of a generation.

Smart buildings—and on a wider scale, smart cities—are positioned as one of the most effective measures in this fight of all fights. It’s not a straight line to get there, and there is much to learn in our gradual migration to “uniform smartness.” So we proceed with cautious optimism about the smart building and its environmental benefits.

Find the best Smart Buildings Software, here.

Smart lighting saves energy

Let’s start with a simple statistic that highlights just how unsmart our current buildings are. According to one study, 45% of buildings in the U.S. stay lit even when they are closed. There is a widespread lack of foresight by building managers and teams who occupy small offices when neglecting to switch lights off time and time again.

That said, smart lighting systems can help automate these tasks and eliminate the risk of human error, along with optimizing light distribution in other ways. Features like daylight harvesting cause office lights to dim or brighten based on the amount of sunlight entering a building. After hours, these systems may be capable of presence detection, which will keep lights off or dimmed until motion or sound is detected. 

Along with these intelligent features, businesses should consider the types of bulbs being used across their operation, and switch to more energy-efficient lights wherever possible. A global upgrade to LED lights could save approximately 1,400 million tons of carbon dioxide and prevent the construction of 1,250 power stations, according to The Climate Group. Smart lighting that uses LEDs can bring emissions down at every opportunity, while significantly reducing electricity costs. You can also adjust the color of some lights to help improve aesthetics as well as employee moods and productivity

And hey, if you’re one of those teams fortunate to have reliable natural light, you can turn the lights off entirely sometimes and let the sun do its job. This will eliminate emissions and also save you money. 

Smart HVAC increases efficiency

Thomas Baker, principal with Boston Consulting Group, in an interview with ZDNet said:

“In most buildings, heating, venting and air conditioning (HVAC) has the biggest carbon footprint and is thus the first place to start.“

Getting smart about reducing HVAC emissions goes well beyond smart sensors and thermostats—although these are increasingly common in building energy modeling (BEM) and strategy. It starts at the energy source. Gas-based HVAC systems are going the way of plastic bags, as the paradigm is shifting to systems using electricity.

“It is much easier and affordable to make electricity green than to make a green fuel,” said Vijay Modi, a mechanical engineering professor at Columbia University, in an interview with the university’s Earth Institute.

The move to electricity-based heat pumps is not an easy decision for many existing buildings but will be the new standard for future builds. Still, for those buildings looking to make the leap, switching to a more energy-efficient HVAC unit is a prime consideration and a defining trait of many LEED-certified green buildings. If it’s not an insurmountable cost, building owners with fuel-guzzling A/C should do research on greener alternatives.

Whether using gas or electric-based HVAC units, businesses can modernize these systems using IoT technology and reduce energy consumption by leaps and bounds. 

Heating and cooling systems using smart technology can adjust temperature and intensity based on factors like occupancy and outside weather. Rather than the building operator just cranking it up to 11 for days at a time, smart buildings can make timely observations and changes that preserve energy, minimize emissions, and keep occupants comfortable. 

What’s more, smart HVAC software may assist with monitoring and controlling air quality. If the pollutant levels in any office area exceed the healthy range, devices may send notifications to operators so they can increase fresh air intake or make other adjustments. With some smart buildings solutions, building operators can receive alerts directly on mobile devices, and control HVAC settings from wherever they are. No need to rush back to the building to turn a couple knobs. 

Building analytics observe and optimize

Thanks to IoT-riddled smart buildings, executives and building operators can not only streamline the efficiency of these assets but gain a next-level understanding of building activity, waste production, and energy usage. 

IoT observations across a smart building can come in a variety of forms, especially when factoring in internet-connected cameras and employee devices. By integrating smart building solutions with IoT analytics software, users can weed through data from these varied sources and find actionable insights for improving building operations. This can help save boatloads of money in operating costs while taking continuous steps toward carbon neutrality.

Are meeting rooms being put to good use? Are recycling efforts seeing buy-in from employees? How has energy consumption changed over time? How is weather affecting energy usage and utility bills? Smart buildings put these insights and more at the fingertips of decision makers. This can translate to employee education, equipment maintenance and upgrades, and the development of new green initiatives where they are needed most.

Related: How to Create a Sustainable Eco-Friendly Office →

Save the energy, save the world

A report by The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) showed that upgrading a building with a single smart component can see energy savings of 5-15%. Buildings with integrated systems of smart technology can realize 30-50% savings, according to the same report. 

In dollars and cents, building operating costs can drop up to 30% with IoT initiatives. The overall economic impact of IoT on buildings may reach more than $6 trillion by 2025. So if saving the world weren’t enough of an impetus, there’s always that.

Smart buildings keep getting smarter. Use cases can include intelligent window shading, plug load controls, automated fault detection, and more. Each application can lend itself to lower costs, improved occupant experiences, and productivity, and of course, slowing the collective destruction of our home planet. 

The IoT isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. But by using it in our buildings, we may ensure that sunshine and rainbows stick around for a few decades longer.

IoT Platforms ➜

The Environmental Benefits of Smart Buildings Smart buildings software syncs with IoT-enabled devices, taking us a step closer to energy conservation.
Andrew Zangre Zangre is a former Senior Research Specialist who helped with spearheading G2's expansion into B2B Services. He studied journalism at the University of North Florida — which is still undefeated in football — and joined G2 in 2016 when there was only one other “Andrew.” He has enjoyed contributing to newspapers and online publications while pursuing music and comedy projects in his free time.