August 14, 2018

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Making skycrapers smarter

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There has to be more to smart skyscrapers than just clever gadgets if they are to be a sustainable part of any urban plan. Stuart Matthews writes

Cities in the GCC have come to be recognised by their skylines. Silhouettes of tall buildings are the visual language of city guides and the symbols of financial booms, all built on the back of active and divergent economic activity.

These skyscrapers, for good or for bad, have become landmarks of the success Gulf cities have enjoyed – complete with its ups and downs – and their development has brought architects, engineers and contractors to the region as companies look to earn their super-tall credentials.

While tall buildings are already among the most sophisticated built structures in the urban environment, the last decade has seen a number of advances that are gradually aiming to make such icons of the skyline smarter and more efficient. With any tall building there is the chance to multiply the advantages, or disadvantages, earned through the deployment of technology through the power of a skyscraper’s scale.

“Most of the technology that we have seen applied to tall buildings that would be considered new would probably fall into the BIM category, but also the BIS systems,” says Shanghai-based Daniel Safarik, Director of the China Office for the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. “I think what is starting to happen is that the conceptual model that leads up to the design and construction of a building is now gaining its own life in the [operation] of that building.”

The move for greater implementation of BIS is growing put of the use of BIM, which many would regard as still emergent in the Middle East market. What this may lead to further down the line is a greater ability to provide real-time information about the environmental performance of a building and Safarik believe BIS will likely have a role to play in helping achieve that.

As sensor technology improves and the ‘internet of things’ develops, what will emerge is more direct reporting of how well building elements are actually working in real time.

“Anything with an electrical pulse can and will be eventually connected to the internet” he says. “So rather than just having a detached bespoke system that says it understands the sun is now at a 70 degree angle and the temp is 40, it should lower the shade, you will progress to where it asks ‘how much has the temperature actually changed inside since?’ This is the part of the feedback loop which is largely missing from all buildings.”

Getting this use of technology right can be testing and developers may be leery of the costs involved in implementation, especially if there are few regional case studies to benchmark against. Businesses are traditionally reluctant to be guinea pigs and may be reluctant to spend big on systems that may not be guaranteed to save energy.

“I really do think that is the golden egg: optimising energy performance,” says Safarik. “Because while there are inherent benefits with stacking floors on top of each other and maximising the amount of real-estate on a single parcel of land – which is why tall buildings exist – I do think people tend to over sell the sustainable benefits of skyscrapers.

“I think it’s important to make the point that a lot of the things that are ‘smart’, which building designers have been using for centuries, have been forgotten in modern times. All have been abandoned in favour a of a slick glass enclosed buildings and this is especially true of skyscrapers, which can consume an enormous amount of energy and when done with a lack of attention to the urban context are actually pretty dumb buildings.”

To avoid this kind of architectural white elephant it’s important that buildings are connected to their environment through more than just wi-fi and fibre optics. As towers become larger and more complex, they contain more people, all of whom make demands upon local services, including power, water and transport.

“I think the biggest challenges I’ve seen have come from integrating building design technology with utilities and transport infrastructure and technology,” explains Loic Finlan, Senior Sustainability Manager for consultant KEO. “For instance, when you build a tall tower with a mass exit of people at a certain time, it’s making sure that the transport infrastructure planning around it is up to that huge exit of people.”

Finlan suggests that this is a key part of the tall building challenge in the Middle East, where the number of buildings being constructed can make it challenging for the transport and utilities infrastructure to keeping up. With high-capacity buildings having such a huge impact on their local infrastructure, it is essential they are considered in a planning context, as much as a building design context. There are examples in the Middle East where this is happening, including Abu Dhabi.

“They have a fantastic planning environment where there is a brilliant body – the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council – which integrates fantastically well with the utility bodies so when there’s a new building there is plenty of warning for all the stakeholder to integrate the loads,” says Finlan. “But that not the case everywhere.”

The next step says Finlan will come when utility and infrastructure designers have more knowledge and information about building developments in their areas and the likely effect they will have on their assets. He believes this additional consideration will help to reduce the cost of infrastructure, something already being seen in Abu Dhabi.

“Right-sizing infrastructure is the next challenge,” he says.

Doing so will assist the sustainability claims often made by the developers of the tall buildings themselves, helping to put their economies of scale into the context of the areas around them. The steady development of new technology is also likely to bring improvements and not just to tall buildings.

“I think all buildings are becoming smarter so it’s natural for tall buildings to be smarter too,” says Thom Bohlen, CTO at the Middle East Center for Sustainable Development.

This may be experienced by different people in different ways as advances are introduced to buildings, whether it means navigation aids available on personal devices, to direct feedback from plants to facilitating managers and maintenance teams. The more complicated a tall building becomes, the more likely it is there will be technical solutions used to solve the challenges says Bohlen.

“The future is quite bright when it comes to how people are going to be able to interact with a building and how those buildings will be able to be controlled,” he says. “The systems and environments are going to be more controllable and actually quite easy to do.”

While greater control of each and every aspect of a building will bring greater operational efficiency to new builds, improved technology may also help address issues with existing stock around the region.

“People are starting to realise that a lot of buildings built prior to 2006 are very inefficient and now we have to go back and make them more efficient,” says Bohlen. “That’s the biggest environmental efficiency problem we have and there is not much incentive for owners, especially if they are renting out the building. There are going to have to be incentives to make owners conform to some kind of retrofit programme in the future.”

As technical developments become more sophisticated, at seemingly lightening speeds, and the rise of the ‘internet of things’ makes it easier for systems to be controlled and monitored, there is the potential to positively impact energy and water use. A key building component that has the potential to play a huge part in this shift is the facade. For high rise buildings of a huge size, the facade’s role is not just to define the internal spaces and create shelter for the building, but to filter the external environment to create more livable inner spaces, with controlled climates.

“The facade from this perspective is a big player in controlling the external environment and providing a good internal environment for a building,” says Hussam Abdelghany, Associate Director at Atkins.

Abdelghany is in the midst of research into improved kinetic facades, those which have a responsive layer which actually adapts, changes and moves according to the different seasons or time of day. The target of such systems is to reduce the energy consumption and solar gain of a building.

“Some smart facades reduce energy consumption 25 to 30 percent,” he explains

“But these systems need maintenance, the running cost is considerable and the capital cost also is considerable. That’s why I thought of researching efficient systems that could be applied to the right projects.”

The right projects are tall buildings, where the cost of the facade is proportionally lower than in other built structures, thanks to economies of scale and the relatively greater cost of the building’s structure and mechanical systems. The challenge is finding the right combination of materials, motors and sensors that keep the systems as simple as possible, while still making them effective.

“Everything comes back to the efficiency of use of the system,” says Abdelghany. “As long as the system is simpler and needs less maintenance, it becomes more efficient and saves energy.”

Working out the perfect balance comes down to the cost of the system over its lifetime on the one hand and the energy savings it can provide on the other.

“It we can save the amount of money through energy savings which compensate for the initial cost, then the one who wins overall is the planet,” he says.

Getting to the right solution will take time, research and experimentation, but the results have the potential to deliver significant efficiencies to tall building projects. Another key area of technical development is in vertical transport, where KONE caught the industry’s attention when it released details of its UltraRope, a new kind of elevator cable it developed.

“It’s very light thanks to carbon fibre, and its stronger than steel, so due to this innovation we can reach up to 2km in height,” explains Omer Jamel regional manager, Business Development for KONE.

“We believe building’s will grow taller and taller as [urban] areas become more expensive, so each plot is becoming more precious. If you grow taller you are investing more and getting more return from a small plot.”

With taller buildings come the same expectations for sped of access from the people who live and work in them. This means not only providing elevator systems that can cope with demand peaks from huge numbers of occupants, but also making sure any maintenance is rapid.

“At the service of the end solution we have to ensure we are able to service an elevator, maintain it and keep it at operational quality,” says Jamel.

“At the end of the day, all of these smart systems – including the elevator – have to talk to each other to ensure that people can travel and flow through the building smoothly and efficiently.”

Solutions include ingenious double-deck elevators, serving odd and even floors at the same time, but also sophisticated destination control systems, which help to group people together by destination, all with the aim of saving time and energy.

Among all the innovations and inventions, it’s important to remember some of the basics too suggests Bill Heath, managing director at Mace Macro International, a facilities management (FM) firm.

“The challenge in a tall building is access and ensuring, in the design, that there is the appropriate space to account for how we are we going to look after it,” he says. “It’s simplistic, but a key element.

“A smart building is one that achieves significant energy savings by taking advantage of the improved technology and materials that are available for the build. But from an FM perspective you’re looking for something that is easy to maintain and look after; thought has not necessarily gone into how you will go about all the aspects of the FM regime.”

While FM as an industry has had to adapt to the fact that buildings are going higher and higher, and subsequently produce smaller floor plates, a lot of aspects of FM don’t change suggests Heath.

“The challenges of tall structures shouldn’t change the FM dimensions,” says Heath. “The key thing is consideration for human comfort. At the end of the day buildings have to be efficient and effective and meet the needs of the occupants.”

To do so, a smart skyscraper has to be more than a showcase for technology, it has to be a practical and functional place to live and work, while still providing a return on the developer’s investment. If that investment is made smartly, the result may be a technologically adept building in the right place, at the right time.


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