It has been nearly 40 years since the first smart building was unveiled to the public, promising a high-tech future where technology, improved infrastructure, and everyday life seamlessly meet.
Since then, technology has evolved in leaps and bounds, opening up new possibilities for innovative architectural design. This article will discuss how smart design can enhance energy efficiency in buildings and infrastructure, helping the world meet its net zero commitments.
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Smart buildings enhance occupier experience by incorporating in-built technology, unconventional materials, and innovative design methods that think outside the box. Depending on how these elements are used, smart buildings can improve the health and safety of occupants, allow flexibility in maintenance, and support enhanced energy efficiency.
Next-generation technologies such as IoT (Internet of Things) connected equipment, AI, and new smart materials have been explored in recent years as solutions to traditional issues, enhancing the so-called “smart” capabilities of new builds and existing structures.
Automated building operations and control is enabled by the use of information and communication technologies (ICT), connecting every part of the building. This optimizes whole-building performance. Additionally, engineers and building managers can interface with smart management systems to make critical decisions.
Thus far, the greatest penetration of smart technologies has been in commercial buildings and offices, but their use has been growing steadily in recent years in domestic dwellings.
Enhancing Energy Efficiency Through Smart Technologies
Alongside the rise of smart technologies has been a growing recognition of humanity’s impact on the natural world. Combatting climate change has become an urgent and pressing challenge as the evidence for the effect of greenhouse gas emissions has become more apparent and extreme weather events have increased.
In countries like the UK and the US, where traditional housing stock was not designed with energy efficiency in mind, domestic greenhouse gas emissions have become a hot-button topic of conversation amongst many experts. In the UK alone, 17% of all CO2 emissions were produced by the residential sector.
The carbon footprint of buildings is down to a number of factors. For example, embedded carbon accounts for around 50% of lifetime emissions, whilst heating using fossil fuels (especially during the winter months) is responsible for significant domestic emissions. Furthermore, non-renewable energy also contributes to this.
Smart meters and thermostats are commonly used to monitor energy usage and lower costs. AI and machine learning are enhancing the capabilities of current building management systems. 3D models of building stock generated from smart energy and geospatial data can identify problem areas within buildings.
The Role of Smart Materials
Smart materials are defined as having several characteristics, including immediacy, transiency, self-actuation, and selectivity. Energy-exchanging smart materials include piezo-electrics, thermoelectrics, and photovoltaics. Smart roofs can minimize energy loss.
Even concrete itself can be made more energy efficient by incorporating geopolymers and recycled materials as aggregates. “Smart” concrete, which is self-healing and low-carbon, reduces a building’s embodied carbon.
Currently, there is a lot of focus on improving the energy efficiency of various building elements, with roofs being of particular interest to architects as, because heat rises, a lot of energy is lost through a building’s roof. Green roofs, vegetated roofs, garden roofs, and cool roof systems are being explored by researchers.
Smart roofs are a recent innovation that promise to significantly reduce energy consumption by changing their reflectance in different temperatures. Applied as a clear sheet, these materials can absorb or reflect heat as needed.
Enhancing Energy Efficiency With Chameleonic Materials
Many other innovative energy-efficient smart materials have slowly begun to make their way to the market. One of the most intriguing projects to emerge this year is the use of “chameleonic” color-changing materials that can be retrofitted to existing structures.
This composite material comprises layers of plastic, graphene, copper foil, and other materials. It can change its infrared color in response to external temperatures, at the same time changing the amount of heat absorbed or emitted. Used as a façade, it can reduce the need for HVAC equipment and lower overall energy consumption.
The team behind the research has stated that retrofitting this advanced smart material to buildings could be more convenient than conventional insulation. However, some of the components, especially monolayer graphene and gold, are still expensive, which could mean the technology is still some way off.
Reducing Energy Loss By Designing Buildings With Occupant Behavior In Mind
Occupant activity and building layout have a lot to do with how much energy is consumed over the course of day-to-day life. Designing buildings with this in mind goes a long way toward improving energy efficiency and saving costs for residents.
Using smart sensors and thermostats to monitor which rooms are used most and adjust heating levels accordingly is highly useful in smart building design. Situating rooms where heat is produced (such as kitchens and bathrooms) on lower levels can passively direct heat upwards into living and sleeping areas to further reduce costs.
Energy efficiency is a growing concern in the construction industry as the world faces a climate crisis as well as a widespread cost of living crisis. The building of the future should be designed with smart capabilities in mind to reduce heat loss, energy consumption, and costs.
Whilst smart buildings are still in their relative infancy, the rise of innovative technologies and smart materials, as well as new ways of thinking about how buildings and infrastructure are constructed, means that the building of the future will be more connected, energy-efficient, and respond to the needs of inhabitants.
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References and Further Reading
Aouf, R.S (2023) "Chameleon-like" facade material could help to heat and cool buildings
University College London (2021) Smart energy, smart buildings, smart health [online] ucl.ac.uk. Available at:
Gov.uk (2023) Provisional UK greenhouse gas emissions national statistics 2022 [online] Available at:
Alade, K.T et al. (2017) Smart Materials and Technologies for Next Generation Energy-Efficient Buildings [online] IEEE Smartgrid. Available at: