26 MAY 2021


The industry been slow to optimise the built environment and fully embrace the benefits of technology and data and this needs to change, says Buro Happold’s Tom Hopton.

Digital technology has revolutionised the world around us. These technological advances have opened up a world of data which is essential to understanding both people and system performance in the built environment. Data will help us to build and retrofit smarter, better and more sustainable buildings to support the delivery of the UK’s net zero-carbon target of 2050. 

Building management systems, when fitted and operating correctly, offer a quick return on investment and provide a valuable source of data. A sensor producing erroneous readings or a variable air volume system operating incorrectly could cost thousands of pounds in annual energy losses. Control systems used throughout our buildings manage a vast array of building systems, equipment and services. These are vital to business continuity and, when tuned correctly, enable people and businesses to thrive in the built environment.

So why has the industry been slow to optimise the built environment and fully embrace the benefits of technology and data?

There are several barriers preventing the advancement of data-led design, not least a lack of knowledge of these digital systems within the building management discipline and the wider industry. Design engineers need to have a comprehensive understanding of the discipline, including system integration, programming and software, so the return on investment (ROI) can be effectively communicated to the client and their stakeholders. 

We cannot hope for a digital transformation of our industry if designers have not explained the benefits of these ‘smart’ systems and the value they can offer in terms of holistic performance (energy, people and lean operations). If the value is not emphasised throughout the process of design, procurement and construction, then we will continue to miss this opportunity in our industry.

Other challenges arise from the technology and the vendor marketplace. This is shackled to past norms of siloed procurement and contracting and implementation that lacks the incentive to share data to expose common operational inefficiencies. This is further exacerbated by the lack of industrywide cooperation that seeks to expose these data insights beyond each building project. A national initiative pursuing an open data policy offers a huge opportunity in our industry to take advantage of evidence data and lessons learned from past projects to share, learn, and build and retro fit smarter, with faster ROI.

The answer to these challenges starts with broader industry collaboration and knowledge sharing. We need greater efforts to educate and upskill engineers, as well as recruit more controls, integration and software engineers and data specialists. 

The Building Controls Institute Association through its Building Energy Management System Trailblazer Apprenticeship scheme is forging a new path and the CIBSE ICT and controls committee is working hard to refresh guidance to stay relevant to the evolving needs of clients and technologic advancement – both helping to address the skills gap. At Buro Happold, we are expanding our specialist teams to meet increasing demand in the specialist areas of controls, integration, network communication, data and software engineers and operational technology advisors, as well as expanding the knowledge base in our general engineering teams.

Data is returning value to those who adopt it but as a nation we need to accelerate adoption through open data policies and national data exchange frameworks to expose that value at a much greater scale. As a nation, we need to create an open and virtual marketplace around building data to accelerate the architecture, engineering and construction sector’s digital transition. 

By embracing the transition to a digital built environment, the sector can take a big stride forward to its goals and become a leading industry example to teach and inspire others. 

Tom Hopton is an associate at Buro Happold.


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