How Smart Buildings Will (Indirectly) Shape Human Settlement Patterns

Will smart buildings reduce future demand for office space?

by James A. Bacon

I had one overriding question when I came to the Niagara Summit: Will the new investment driven by cutting-edge Building Automation technology have an influence upon human settlement patterns? More specifically, will the technology of smart buildings make existing commercial buildings so obsolete that it will make sense to tear them down and start over, thus opening up the possibility of reconfiguring dysfunctional human settlement patterns?

That was my hope. But the answer, it appears, is, “No.”

Building automation technology will drive down the cost of owning and operating commercial buildings. And those savings will drive a wave of building retrofits. Thanks to the ability of sensors, controllers and other devices to communicate by wireless, however, the retrofits need not require tearing out a lot of walls. I saw no indication that it would make sense, even on the economic margin, to tear down buildings and start over.

The only influence I can discern — and it was never discussed at this conference — is a very indirect one. One thing that Smart Buildings can do is record office occupancy for the purpose of turning out lights and adjusting temperatures for empty offices. The ability to measure occupancy provides valuable information to the building owner/tenant. Many offices are infrequently occupied, with employees calling on customers, attending conferences, telecommuting, vacationing or conducting business on the road. Questioning the idea that every person requires his or her own dedicated office, many companies are sloughing off unneeded space.

A major barrier to rationalizing office space has been the ability to inexpensively and accurately measure occupancy. If sensors are placed in individual offices in order to regulate energy efficiency, there is minimal additional cost to ascertaining how many offices remain empty. Thus, indirectly, building automation may drive forward the rationalization of office space and dampen the need for new commercial buildings.

If that rationalization occurs — and there are indications that it is occurring, though slowly — it could dramatically change the pattern and density of growth. Combined with a dearth of retail development (as households throttle back their consumption and more shopping occurs online), a slowdown in commercial construction could alter traditional commercial-residential ratios.

Some new mix of development seems inevitable, although what new shape it may take is still foggy. The development paradigm that dominated the U.S. during the six-decade era of Mass OverConsumption is dissolving, and we need to begin thinking about what comes next in order to better prepare for it.

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  1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Rock on Bacon!
    Really interesting post.

  2. Darrell Avatar

    Do you need a building for Bacon’s Rebellion? Should we all meet some place to discuss Smart Growth?

    Thank God for 19th Century business management philosophy, or commercial development would be totally obsolete. Think of all the energy we could save by just saying no to the cube.

  3. larryg Avatar

    People still have to have groceries …and WalMart has become a giant modern country store with virtually most everything you’d need and often co-located with a nearby Lowes or Home Depot.

    Strip Shopping centers are starting to look like Heinz 57 of sundries and hair/nail care… etc… (these are those fabled “small business” start-ups now days by the way).

    and whatever you can’t find locally.. is just a UPS/Fed Ex truck away.

  4. Hydra Avatar

    Many businsess moved away from ground zero after 911, and a lot of former business space has been reconfigured as apartments. The number of people living in that area has increased substantially.

    Living is such a place would probably drive me crazy. Walk a few blocks to work and then come home to a small space with sofas beds and a small kitchen. What would you do with all the time? Coffee shops, entertainment, walk the dog (if you can have one), go to the gym. Escape for the weekend.

    Sure, I get it, people go surfing at coney Island in the winter months, there are a million things to do, I guess, but what a hassle and what an expense. I think I prefer my garden and my workshop and my home businesses: things I could never possibly afford in Manhattan.

    Shucks, in Manhattan I could not afford the parking for my lawnmowers.

  5. Hydra Avatar

    Seems to me that Bacon is missing out onthe fact that some of my “mass overconsumption” results in some productivity, a third of my income or better. I don’t think you get that with a $6 Latte in Manhattan, and the upkeep on some of those apartments easily exceeds my monthy expenses.

  6. larryg Avatar

    some people do not care for city living. Cities are, except for the folks who can buy better conditions, dirty and risky, even dangerous if you don’t have your wits about you about where not to be at times.

    but they are where commerce takes place and jobs are available.

    I would cite the auto-centric world we live in – is a direct consequence of the safety issue. It’s not guaranteed protection but it’s bubble that help.

    people don’t ride transit unless they feel safe. The airlines show what it takes to keep people safe much better than other transit organizations.

  7. Hydra Avatar

    Yep, you may have heard the recent stories about gropers on the Metro.

    Which is one of the remarkable things about the SLUG system. There is a whole protocol of etiquette and safety rules that develped spontaneously that make that system work and be acceptable.

  8. larryg Avatar

    groupers are the least of the problem.. there are some stations you just don’t get off of at certain hours…from what I hear.

    there are neighborhoods you don’t venture into or from behind your locked doors at night.

    the savvy folks who live in cities know these “rules” almost as if it is second nature….

    I was reminded of this the last time I went to Richmond to see the famous purple martin “gathering” … and ended up parking one block away and then subsequently realizing that was one block too far.

    I realize that all is not milk and honey in the suburbs or the country… crime is statistically not much better but I can’t live in a place where I have to be always looking behind me and hoping that my car is in a “safe” place.

    I have high hopes that the ubiquitous use of street cameras will help.

  9. HardHatMommy Avatar

    It was so fun to read this blog post. DC actually leads the nation right now in LEED-certified commercial and institutional building square footage per capita. LEED has its flaws because it doesn’t emphasize energy and water as much as it should. But it is a terrific baseline to work from and I believe as Energy Star (and the ability to track your building’s consumption) comes of age, we will see behavioral changes throughout the country.

    Check out this net zero project a contractor completed for its own use:

    The commercial development, design and construction world is changing at a rapid pace and this is one of the really cool drivers of that change. There will come a day, not far from now, that the traditional model that exists will no longer be viable. The smarty pants people in the industry are looking at how to change to fit the new needs because we simply won’t need as many new base buildings in the future. Infill development will be huge and retro-fits will be big as well. The interiors construction and renovation departments of the big firms are already riding a wave that will only get stronger throughout the next decade or so.

    Have you learned about the Wayne Aspinell Federal Building – it’s 90 years old and on track to be our country’s first net zero retrofit of a historic building. Super cool stuff.

    1. HardHatMommy, you said, “We simply won’t need as many new base buildings in the future. Infill development will be huge …”

      What evidence do you base this upon? Just curious.

  10. larryg Avatar

    once commercial get’s optimized, we need to work on residential. The average american house uses twice as much electricity as the average house in Europe and Asia.

    some of it is due to size difference but all the more reason to pursue net-zero for residential also.

  11. HardHatMommy Avatar

    No evidence; just my gut instinct.

    Check out Joel Garreau’s book Edge City: Life on the New Frontier. He published it in 1991. Garreau believes that our real estate development is shaped by whatever the state of the art transportation is at the time. For instance the automobile is born and we break free of 19th century downtowns in search of greener grass on its outskirts. Then decades after the trek to and from suburbia wear us down, the Edge Cities were born – offices, heavy duty retail were brought closer to residential – right off major highways and interstates .

    The new trend is the “Santa Fe’ing” effect. He says our new transportation revolution is … technology. The networked computer is transforming our built environment at a rapid pace. Overnight shipping via the internet is impacting retail. And people can physically be just about anywhere and still do their jobs … and you can bet your britches that as soon as this rising generation takes the lead today’s old-school office environment dies a quick death. The commute we experience today will hopefully be a thing of the past (at least for a large group of people).

    So back to Santa Fe … it is attracting people who can operate anywhere (because of technology) but who crave great gathering spaces (because of technology). So perhaps the future successful cities will be based on whether or not they have good places to gather – People who don’t have to interact with other humans on a day to day basis in the work environment might actually want to interact … just in places of their own choosing.

    We are taking the concrete jungle edge cities and Santa Fe’ing them back into something resembling charming downtowns of the past. (This is where he gets me … it all sounds so romantic). Their characteristics – walkability, culturally trendy gathering spaces, passenger rail – are then the keys to successful real estate ventures.

    As far as infill development, do we have a choice? We have stretched the limits of our infrastructure already – water and sewer and obviously transportation networks. We need to fill in, not stretch out. I think it will not be economically viable to do otherwise.

    The contractors that survive in the future are going to be really good at upgrading existing space. The incentive to build base building new construction along the path from edge city to suburbia is fading. We are over-retailed in the brick and mortar department. I had diapers, dog food, shampoo and other non-perishables on my doorstep yesterday when I got home from work. It was cheaper to order online and I don’t have to drive to the store and drag my kids around to get this stuff.

    As far as residential, there is a generation coming up that is grossed out by today’s huge houses. They don’t want to pay the energy bill, they don’t want to have to clean all those bathrooms and they DO want to feel CLOSE to their family. There is so much technology pulling at our kids … why not bring the family in close to a smaller space. I see the appeal in that. I love my family’s small house for that very reason. I think we will see small houses decked out with awesome technology and beautiful finishes and low energy bills as the future replacement of the McMansion.

    I don’t know if I answered your question Jim … as usual I’m filled to the brim on how I feel and lacking on that whole factual thing.

    1. I like your perspective. It may be based on gut instinct, but your gut instinct is very well informed. As I think about the economic future of Richmond, where I live, I think the “Santa Fe effect” is the way to go. Richmond has the capability of creating some extraordinary urban spaces — and, in fact, is doing so. Old, obsolete industrial plants are being recycled into apartments, condos and incubator-style offie space. Insofar as we have transportation dollars to invest, we should invest them into supporting emerging human settlement patterns rather than replicating old human settlement patterns.

  12. Darrell Avatar

    So I guess Boomergeddon is off? All these cultural personages are now going to move to Santa Fe and live the life of luxury in small apartments with their extended family?

    Are you sure you didn’t do something in Vegas you don’t want us to know about?

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