Smart Buildings: 7 keys to build better cities for all

By  | 2023

What do buildings in a smart city look like? Answering «Smart» seems an intuitive and obvious answer, but it is probably not a very precise definition. Although smart building has been a key topic in the conversation about smart cities from the very beginning, it is often understood in a very limited way.

Smart buildings are typically linked to specific technological innovations in the design and construction process. However, in the same way the smart city concept has evolved to include more comprehensive and complex urban visions, the ideals of smart buildings could be broader and more complex, with the potential to rethink the role of architecture design in our cities.

There are no set recipes for good architecture; as a product of society, our understanding of it changes and evolves along with it, but in a very broad sense, smart architecture is the one that helps improve the quality of life. As a result of this way of thinking, we would like to provide a basic framework for how to widely address the term intelligence in building design so that it is more responsive to its intended function.

7 dimensions that any Smart Building should integrate

Here we compiled some of the layers of intelligence to be integrated in the design process to widen the spectrum of what smart buildings in smart cities may be:   

1 | Technology:

the quest for automation

Technological innovations have been the primary driver of the growing interest in smart buildings, as the ability to embed automation processes into architectural structures provides efficiency, personalization, comfort, and adaptability gains. 

The components of what smart implies in smart buildings have been automated control of ventilation, air conditioning, lighting, or security, among others, solidifying a consistent set of means to design and build material infrastructures seizing digital transformation solutions. All of these innovations, from new materials to information modeling, are intended to promote the efficient functioning and performance of buildings, with the goal of ensuring better resource management, savings, and user convenience.

Beijing Sub-Center Library (under construction), designed by Snøhetta.

2 | Function and program:

it’s the function, stupid!

In terms of improving quality of life, it seems obvious that buildings must be thought of in relation to the city and society. Therefore, the function of the building in the territory and the program it will embrace must be addressed to the community: people need shelter, but they also need a store to buy food, schools to take children, drugstores, hospitals, etc. 

Good neighborhoods to live in are the ones that offer sufficient services for people’s daily life necessities, therefore questioning what kind of structure the community needs in a determined place in order to address diversity to the building program at the very beginning could give a lot of smart and surprising answers.

3 | Context:

the right piece of the city’s puzzle

Can you imagine the Eiffel Tower separated from the Gardens of Trocadero? This simple example makes clear the intrinsic relationship between buildings and the city’s landscape and proves: a city is not a screen in the background and the limits of the building are not where the construction ends! 

Smart buildings must have the intelligence to identify themselves with the landscape they are part of, being the perfect and unique piece that composes the most harmonious picture that everybody wants to photograph. The contextual and landscape dimension, especially related to the building’s volume, voids and material should consider its role in the improvement of the quality of the urban landscape and the city. 

Escola Massana in Barcelona, designed by Carme Pinós | Image by Miguel Ángel Prieto on Wikimedia Commons, under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

4 | Interspace:

even private buildings have a public life

There is a limit point that separates what happens outside the building, in the streets, and what happens inside it – yes, we are talking about the façades. Windows, gardens, verandas and voids, for instance, make the gradations between the exterior and the interior, but also between the public and the private, the collective and the individual spheres. Smart buildings should contribute to the urban environment by improving the quality of façades, making them more livable and permeable spaces

Do you like to walk on streets that have only blind walls? It is so boring and anguishing! Active and permeable façades not only enrich and diversify the landscape, but also collaborate, among other things, with the construction of the affective memory and the security of the public space, creating for instance, the possibility to have “eyes on the street”

Sou Fujimoto - House NA 01.jpg

House NA, by Sou Fujimoto. An example of how interspatiality should take a leading role to define tomorrow’s buildings.

5 | Sustainability:

making more with less

Above all, smart cities should be a collective commitment to more sustainable urban environments, and smart buildings should consider how they will contribute to this in terms of environmental performance

Assuming principles of passivehaus and circular economy solutions as well as following sustainability standards and certifications during the design process could provide some answers to this topic. For instance, it is mandatory for smart buildings to optimize natural resources such as sunlight, water, and natural ventilation, as well as the materials to be used. In terms of circular economy and the role of the building to the city, new projects must also consider the existing condition of the place, being at the same time, flexible enough to easily adapt to society’s changing needs of the future in order to give the structure a longer life span. 

On the other hand, consider the life cycle of all used material, including, for example, the responsibility upon the social processes behind the manufacturing of them could contribute to complete the three fundamental pillars of sustainability principles.

DY Patil University Centre of Excellence in Mumbai, India. Designed by Foster + Partners.

6 | Social:

yes, we are talking about equality again

There is no news in the message that buildings must provide safe and easy accessibility to every person, to all spaces from outside to inside, no matter his or her physical and mental conditions. Ok, everybody got it, but, the social dimension is also about supplying spaces that facilitates daily life and actions required to activities related to production (work) and reproduction (family), assuring equality and diversity-awareness in the quality of spaces, and especially talking about housing buildings, minimizing hierarchies of spaces to different members of the family. 

In terms of architecture of gender, smart buildings should also provide spaces that help the taking care of others, especially thinking about all activities that unfortunately until now a day relies most of all on women.

Edifici 111, by Flores y Prats Architects, in Torre-sana, Terrassa (Spain).

7 | Flexibility:

design for the unexpected

Single-use buildings are not only boring, but also a waste of urban land. Smart cities have to embrace diversity of uses because we know what too much specialization of urban functions brings. 

Buildings also deserve complexity and flexibility. Even the most specific typologies of buildings (hospitals, residential care homes, public administration facilities,…) admit certain complementary functions that will benefit the primary purpose of the building and create a sort of positive externalities. There are a lot of smart combinations that could provide both amazing mixed solutions and benefits services to the whole city.

Ermessenda de Carcassona’s Gardens in Barcelona, where the back part of the Collage Building can be seen. Designed by Jorge Vidal Victor Rahola, the building perfectly fits in its context. | Image by Pepe Navarro / Ajuntament de Barcelona — under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

The smart buildings our cities need 

The preceding framework is not an objection to what has traditionally been referred to as smart buildings, but rather an invitation to broaden the scope of the buildings that aspire to make sense in our cities. 

In the coming years, we can expect an increasing number of buildings to be designed using various strategies that include materials and systems to make them technologically sophisticated in some way. This will result in more efficient public and private building operations and performances, as well as retrofitting old buildings to extend their life, seizing new digital processes and solutions. That will be a good starting point, but this quest for smarter buildings begs the question: how can we build a better building

That is most likely the best question to begin with when designing buildings—or doing whatever!. And, in order to find the best answer to that question, we propose expanding the aspirations that should be brought to the table, looking beyond the catalog of digitally-enabled solutions and new generation materials, thus enlarging the ambition of these smart buildings.  

🏗️ What are we talking about when we talk about #SmartBuildings? From flexibility to interspatiality, @Anteverti experts share seven practical guidelines to improve our cities through #architecture | on #CitiesToBe Clic para tuitear

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About the authors

Director of Research & Urban Innovation at Anteverti | + posts

Manu Fernández is PhD in Urban Policy and an expert in the activation of empty urban spaces, urban strategies, economic revitalization in cities and the intersection between the social and digital sphere in urban life from a citizen perspective. He works as Director of Urban Innovation & Research at Anteverti, where he is the Program Coordinator for the spin-off events of the Smart City Expo World Congress held abroad.

He has more than 15 years of experience leading consulting projects related to local sustainability and the analysis of urban economies for the Gipuzkoa Provincial Council, the Basque Government or the city councils of Barcelona, Vitoria-Gasteiz or San Sebastián, and participating in initiatives such as the Strategic Plan of Ciudad Juárez or the Strategic Plan of Malaga.

Manu Fernández has a degree in Economic Law from the Universidad de Deusto, and is the author of the blog 'Ciudades a Escala Humana' and the book 'Descifrar las smart cities' -'Decoding Smart Cities'- (2015).

Senior Consultant & Expert in Urban Innovation and Design of Spaces | at Anteverti | + posts

Tatiane Martins is an architect and urban planner and a specialist in urban innovation strategies. Before joining Anteverti in 2022, she collaborated on numerous architectural and urban projects and led multidisciplinary teams focused on creating multi-scalar spaces and transforming cities into fairer and more inclusive ecosystems.

She has worked for the City Council of Barcelona and, for 6 years, acted as manager of macro-event projects in the Municipal Olympic Company of the City Council of Rio de Janeiro, being responsible for the Olympic Stadium and its urban surroundings, for the preparation, execution and the post-event of the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Tatiane has also been a professor and coordinator of the master's degree in Design of Spaces at the Istituto Europeo di Design (IED).

Tatiane Martins has an MSc in Urbanism and an MA in Urban Environment and Sustainability. In addition, she has complementary training in urban mobility, legal instruments of land policies and management and evaluation of public policies. She currently studies new technologies and their effects on the future of cities.

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