'Buildings and their users need to communicate with each other'

Smart buildings call for smart planning. To develop their full potential, they also need to be able to communicate well with their users, says Christoph Leitgeb, head of the Construction Office at Siemens Smart Infrastructure.

New office buildings should consume as little energy as possible, be flexible to use, and offer users the greatest possible comfort. How to plan a building that meets those needs? We asked Christoph Leitgeb, who built a smart office for Siemens in Zug, Switzerland. He told us why a smart building needs a digital twin, how existing buildings can get smarter, and why office employees should talk more to their work environment.

Why would we need smart buildings?


Christoph Leitgeb: Buildings currently account for about 40 percent of the world’s energy consumption. That large percentage can be reduced significantly by equipping buildings with intelligent systems that ensure the most efficient possible operation in combination with low energy consumption. So from the viewpoint of climate policy, smart buildings are the order of the day. And here digitalization plays a key role, because it offers everyone involved new opportunities to achieve their own business goals throughout a building’s life cycle. 

How do you mean?


It used to be that a building was considered something rigid and immobile – once it was designed and went into operation, there weren’t many options for making adjustments. But today’s smart buildings are adaptable and focused on their stakeholders’ needs. For the owner, the focus is on good marketability and the property’s market value. An operator needs to keep optimizing the building continuously in terms of energy and maintenance costs. And the user or tenant has a justified interest in up-to-date, attractive areas for employees, so they feel at ease and become more productive. Digitalization offers a wealth of application options for all these different aspects.

From the viewpoint of climate policy, smart buildings are the order of the day.

The work world is changing at breakneck speed. How do new ways of working affect the way office buildings are planned and built?


The trend toward flexible, agile working approaches has been around for a good while now – and it will only get more important. The assumption today is that within ten years, companies will be putting around 30 percent of their office space to flexible uses. For buildings, that means they’ll have to be more and more able to adapt repeatedly to changing needs – I’m talking, for example, about creating additional flexible workplaces or innovation areas, but of course also about employee expectations, which change over time. We’ve also found that these days, tenants seldom want to be tied down long-term. Ten-year leases used to be standard, but now five years are the rule. Only a flexibly designed building can be used efficiently and cost-effectively and then reconfigured if needed.

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You were the overall project manager in charge of the new Siemens Campus in Zug, Switzerland, which went into operation in summer 2018. How do you plan a smart building?


We decided at an early point to make full use of our digitalization options even in the planning stage. So we relied on what’s known as building information modeling, or BIM for short. Its special feature is that it uses multi-trade, integrated planning on a digital model of a building. That let us do things like checking the plans at regular intervals, reliably and entirely by automation, for possible conflicts between individual planners’ areas of activity. BIM also enabled us to test various solutions virtually, before the first shovelful of dirt was dug, and to find out how those solutions would impact construction procedures and costs. That integrated planning ultimately yielded a digital twin of the new building. 

BIM enabled us to test various solutions virtually, and to find out how those solutions would impact construction procedures and costs.

Why does a smart building need a digital twin?


A digital building model documents and keeps available not just the planning data, but all the information that’s relevant to operations. Now that the building in Zug is in use, we’re using the Building Twin, which is what we’re calling its digital twin, as a platform for interaction between people and the building. It enables us to use applications to access the building systems, query real-time data, and make the most of them for the relevant application cases.

Can you give us an example of a specific application?


A Building Twin creates a whole stack of new options. The operator, for instance, is interested in things like performance monitoring, failure analysis, and predictive maintenance – today you can do all of that remotely if you like, thanks to the Internet of Things. For users of a smart building, site-specific services like indoor positioning offer intriguing new possibilities. 

Can you also make existing buildings smarter?


There are certainly ways to digitalize existing buildings, too. However such buildings must have – or be retrofitted with – a certain minimum level of building automation since a digital twin is fed by data. In addition you scan the building with a 360-degree camera, to find important points of access to the existing building systems – what are called points of interest. At the end of the day, that lets us generate a kind of Building Twin for existing buildings as well, which can be used to link applications to the building’s installations.

And what does a user like an employee get from working in a smart office?


We think buildings will more and more come to be a kind of personal assistant for employees. The building will help them make their work procedures more efficient and more productive. To do that, the building and employees need to be able to communicate with each other. Siemens offers what’s called the Comfy app for the purpose. Once it’s installed on an employee’s smartphone, the employee can interact with the building in various ways through the software. 

We think buildings will more and more come to be a kind of personal assistant for employees.

What specifically can you do with an app like that?


Employees can do things like controlling the temperature and lighting in their own work area, find and book conference rooms and work stations, or navigate their way through the building to find colleagues. The system learns along with them and can recommend exactly the right space that will fit the employee’s personal preferences best – say with a room temperature the person prefers. Additional services from outside providers can also be integrated into the app, like information about public transportation, reports on traffic jams, business hours at the gym next door, or lunch menus at the cafeteria. Over the course of a work day, it may also happen that something doesn’t work as it’s supposed to. An app like Comfy enables employees to report such problems directly to Facility Management. That makes the app an indispensable assistant and helper all through the work day.

What does an employer get out of introducing an app like that?


When users interact with the building, the employer automatically gets complete transparency about how space is being used, and thus has a reliable basis for planning layout optimizations or assessing space potential for an upcoming staff increase. And in an era of the war for talent, an employer’s appeal and image are crucial. For millennials, who will be more than 75 percent of the workforce ten years from now, identifying with the employer is a key criterion in making a decision. They’re looking for forward-looking, smart work models, and along with work-life balance, modern office space also plays an important role there.

How can you make smart use of a smart building?


Whether a smart building is also being used smartly depends heavily on how people interact with the technology. And here, the rule is that the more intuitive things are to operate, the greater the user acceptance – from the building operator to the employees. That’s why in the first step, we concentrate on the needs of each target group and develop smart user interfaces on that basis. When those are used interactively with smart building installations, they make it possible to exploit the full potential of buildings with smart designs. It’s essential to establish a connection between people and the infrastructure.

Christoph Leitgeb, a trained architect, has been with Siemens for 13 years. Up to 2018, he held a wide variety of positions at the Siemens Real Estate unit. As the overall project manager, he most recently headed the planning and construction of the Siemens Campus in Zug, Switzerland. After that, he took on the responsibility for the Smart Office topic area at Siemens Smart Infrastructure for the Europe Region, before being appointed to head the Construction Office. In that capacity at „Enterprise Business Europe“, he’s in charge of the customized further development and standardization of “smart” solutions for project developers, planners and general contractors.


Picture credits: Siemens AG

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