Feature Story

The sky is the limit

by Mary Gorges

smart skyscrapers with credit

Technology finds a new home in the world's smart skyscrapers.

When the $599 million Tencent building in Shenzhen, China opens next year, it'll feature holographic tour guides, facial recognition that unlocks doors and alerts for the best parking spots before you arrive in your car.

At 53 floors high, the building will be a ‘smart skyscraper', and part of a growing trend of high rises in the world that incorporate technology to improve energy efficiency, safety and even the productivity of the people inside. The design just doesn't look futuristic; it is. The building features two twin towers joined by multi-story (mid-air) connecting bridges, which intersect at floors one, 21 and 34.

The smart skyscraper trend is in step with the increase in high rises being constructed worldwide as space becomes more limited. Dubai even hosted a "Smart Skyscrapers Summit" earlier this year that focused on innovations in design and technology in ultra-high rise buildings. China's Tencent building is unique in that its tenants all belong to the same company – WeChat, the payment, messaging and social network mobile app wildly popular in China – and the platform for many of the smart functions in the building. 

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Jonathan Ward is the lead architect on the project at Los Angeles-based NBBJ. "What's cool is that Tencent is a digital company and it's created a whole series of interactions in the building in conjunction with the app." Ward describes the Tencent building as a ‘vertical campus', a traditional workplace turned into an urban community. Says Ward, "A typical skyscraper has a lot of amenities at the bottom and maybe a sky lobby at the top, with little or no interaction throughout the building. This is about the human experience."

He adds, "You look at your phone to see where your colleagues are in the building, the quickest path to get somewhere, a 3D tour of where you should go (where to park). They're using their in-house technology to make the building seamless." Employees' badges are able to track anyone in the twin towers, down to the exact room.

But for sure, today's smart skyscrapers go beyond just green technology, and utilize sensors and real-time information so not only is the heat generated in the building recycled to provide hot water for the pool, but live data feeds boost the ability to monitor water and electricity usage.

"A typical skyscraper has a lot of amenities at the bottom and maybe a sky lobby at the top, with little or no interaction throughout the building. This is about the human experience."

Jonathan Ward, design partner, NBBJ

Energy savings have always been a hallmark of smart buildings. Ward says in a smart skyscraper, this includes actuators that switch lights on and off, and lower and raise shades and blinds, all based on data that flows from the sensors. "We have these same actuators in our building in Seattle. The clouds part, the sun comes out, and the blinds go down automatically."

Rick Caylor is with relayr, an IoT middleware company based in Berlin whose work includes re-engineering elevators using sensors. "Today, we're putting truckloads (500-600) of sensors in an elevator to monitor how often doors open and close, how many people are in the elevator, vibration and how many vertical feet it travels. We're now able to predict when an elevator will break and why."

He continued, "It means taking information and data, and sending it to a cloud-based controller to be analyzed, so you can then have automation in place to maximize building space."

He says the cloud-connected service improves ride efficiency, while also alerting building maintenance staff to potential problems before breakdowns happen, and anticipating rush-hour surges in the lobby or floors with higher demand. This can be a big deal in a place like New York City where tenants in a high rise can literally spend hours in a year waiting for an elevator. 

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Another obvious benefit of smart skyscrapers is safety. Shaun Klann is with Intelligent Buildings, which focuses on real estate consulting for large real estate portfolio companies around the world. "In the event of an evacuation, technology can turn all the lights on in the building, flash lights above the exits. All this comes with simple software at no or little added cost. We can also tie together things like fire alarms, digital signage platforms and navigation systems. And text out everything to occupants."

He says key drivers now for the smart skyscraper market include rapid urbanization, rising adoption of wireless technology, increasing demand for energy-efficient solutions and enhanced security concerns. He adds that even with multi-tenant buildings, smart skyscrapers often have a common command center where people (not robots yet) are responsible for monitoring and making sure action is taken on the data being analyzed.

While a key value of real estate is still location, location, location, information is becoming sought after as well. And today's new smart skyscrapers are becoming one of the highest generators – and users – of data or information anywhere today.


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