Can you teach old buildings new tricks?

As more and more cities worldwide commit themselves to the twin goals of zero emissions and maximum energy efficiency, “smart city” solutions are playing a pivotal role. But how do these solutions impact older infrastructure and buildings? In Brussels, building retrofits constitute a promising lever for optimization.

Experts predict that global problems like greenhouse gas, carbon emission, and energy resource shortages will have major global cities developing into smart cities within the next five to ten years. This essentially means the process of combining the entire city infrastructure with the Internet of Things (IoT), allowing large-scale aggregation of sensor data.

For instance, by some estimates, making infrastructure intelligent can reduce energy consumption in cities by about 30 percent. Planners hope that more efficiency gains can be won in other ways, too – for example through major reductions of congestion using traffic management systems, or by modifying public transport intervals in real time based on floating population data. Such agility is essential if city planners are to keep pace with technological advances.

Christoph Frei, Secretary General of the World Energy Council, is one of those who believe integration is the key to innovation: “People are used to thinking within their own box. With so many things changing at an incredible speed, that urgently has to change.” For instance, because urban planning and energy efficiency are directly linked, Frei believes decision makers and energy managers must work hand in hand in developing smart infrastructure that is fit for a variety of uses.

Quick wins

Another area where smart infrastructure translates into energy efficiency is the built environment. In Brussels, a study by Siemens and Arup identified the retrofitting of existing buildings as a promising way of getting quick wins. Specifically, digital building energy management systems provide greater user information and control, and enable the building itself to reduce energy consumption by sensing when rooms are occupied or windows are open and making adjustments to lighting and comfort systems in response.

For the Belgian capital, the researchers therefore recommended a smart technology strategy focused on data-driven retrofitting of the many buildings that will continue to be used for decades to come, but which currently operate inefficiently by modern standards. The modeling indicates that a building energy management system program for Brussels could lead to annual electricity and heating savings of 320 gigawatt-hours and 850 gigawatt-hours respectively for nondomestic buildings, based on building-specific reductions, which vary, depending on building type, from 3 to 20 percent.

Striking the optimal balance

These digital systems could also be upgraded in the future as part of wider smart systems implementation to enable measures such as demand response, which can strengthen grid stability. Use of building control systems as part of a retrofit typically allows up to 30 percent energy savings on older existing buildings. Thus, in a truly integrated and connected smart city, heralded by the Internet of Things, it would be possible for planners to get an integrated overview of the heating and cooling system demand data of all buildings in the city, allowing them to find an optimal balance of energy supply and power generation.

Similar efforts to make buildings and cities more intelligent are under way around the globe. With MindSphere, a cloud-based, open IoT operating system that connects sensors, systems, and machines, and analyzes the data generated by connected devices, Siemens can offer municipalities a strong tool for smart urban infrastructure planning. With more and more new possibilities opening up as the cost of making and installing sensors has fallen dramatically and the IoT continues to grow, cities can now monitor and manage their assets in ways unthinkable only a decade ago.

  • London – building energy management systems can lead to annual electricity and heating savings of around 10 gigawatt-hours and 97 gigawatt-hours, respectively, for nondomestic buildings by 2026. For domestic properties, the savings are estimated at 5 gigawatt-hours and 14 gigawatt-hours.
  • Kartal – the eastern district of the Turkish capital Istanbul can use sensor data to ensure that future structural developments not only take into account the seismic risk, but also incorporate further developments in smart building standards.
  • Melbourne – using a solution that integrated building management, access control and fire safety systems with innovative energy technology, the iconic Federation Square has lowered carbon emissions by 55 percent and cut total water use by 26 percent.


Christopher Findlay, journalist based in Zurich, Switzerland

Picture credits: Siemens AG, Getty Images

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