It would have been unimaginable for our foraging nomad ancestors to believe that their offspring would be spending roughly 90% of their life confined within walls, living in buildings. And if that were not enough, it would certainly drive them crazy to learn that the small amount of time their sedentary offspring do spend outside, is for traveling to or from one of these buildings!
Buildings are the cornerstone of modern life, but we rarely see this. Perhaps, this ability of the buildings to become invisible, to become part of the environment is a reflection of their adoption in our evolution process.
It will not be an exaggeration to prophesize that within our lifetimes, modern buildings will transform into cities within themselves. We already have intelligent buildings today, which is a building that is designed to be integrated in such a way that they can service every part of our lifestyle. The future belongs to intelligent cities which will be made up of these intelligent buildings, and intelligent communities.
This blog dares to dream and discuss moonshot ideas around the characteristics and features of building systems of our future.
In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development defined sustainable development as one which fulfills today’s needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs.
Sustainable green buildings of the future will focus on reduction of GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions (CO2), reduction of acidification (SO2 emissions), and reduced use of scarce resources — non-renewable fuels, material, land, and water.
That sustainability will be achieved for buildings and cities of the future by renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and tidal power is a given, but new and still-undiscovered sources of energy may be used in construction to achieve the efficiency gains needed at such scale.
The cities and buildings of our future will be one with nature, will be forested, with zoning laws for each floor, so that inhabitants living within these concrete jungles can still feel nourished by nature. Architecture and infrastructure will be pushed to become greener.
As of 2021, buildings generate ~40% of the global CO2 emissions. With increased focus on and binding CO2 emission targets over the last decade, every major company in the building domain now has an ambitious sustainability target of net-zero carbon emission to be achieved between 2030 and 2050.
The two key changes that will drive these sustainability targets are — connected smart buildings and higher adoptions of building automation systems (and other ancillary systems on top such as energy management systems or EMS). At present, more than half the commercial floor space in the US is not connected to building automation systems (BAS) today. This needs to quickly change, first for the commercial buildings (gradually moving from over 100,000 sq. ft. of space to 50,000 sq. ft or even lesser for BAS being mandatory) and then to include residential spaces for these CO2 targets to become a reality.
2. Construction Material, Comfort Sensors, and Data
Today, steel can take the weight of a vertical construction such that it can stand on its own — irrespective of the height of the structure. However, as height grows substantially, the key problem engineers will face is — wind. As we go higher, the wind becomes stronger and these structures must have the ability to sway back and forth to withstand the strong wind, even cyclones, without breaking.
These sways must be kept within the human tolerance limit–and this will be done with the help of independent comfort sensors which require little or no maintenance over their lifetime. These comfort sensors will be embedded within every part of skyscrapers of the future and will have a certain degree of intelligence built into them. They will be connected with other sensors in the building/within the city and will be able to self-calibrate and self-recover in case of failures.
Modern connected buildings have already solved some of the problems by using the data generated from sensors, edge nodes, or meters for optimizing spaces for human comfort, identifying/forecasting patterns for optimizing energy usage, and for the security and safety of tenants. The other facet of the problem is the sheer volume of data generated today. As more sensors and devices get connected, data will increase exponentially in the future. Data usage from connected buildings has exploded at an unprecedented rate over the last decade — from 1 Zettabyte (ZB) in 2010 to 80 Zettabytes in 2025 (estimated by Statista)! Buildings of the future will ingest humongous amounts of data and will need systems that can support such high volumes efficiently.
Thankfully, avoiding a data apocalypse is an active area of research and solutions are being worked on in the form of increasing packaging capacity of the disks, new compression algorithms, new mediums for data storage, and quantum computing.
3. Transit System Built on Elevators
Within the peak window, a mega building (building of the future) will have upwards of 100,000 occupants — about the population of a small city. Naturally, the elevators of the future will have to be efficient, safe, and energy-conserving.
To be able to serve such a large population within a building, elevators will have to abandon their conventional single-car-within-the-hoist way approach and focus on a more scalable means to serve such large populations. We will need drastic changes in the design and basic philosophy — say, for example, horizontal elevators, which can be visualized as trains on tracks.
The elevators of the future will be flexible enough such that there can be multiple elevators within the same track, going in different directions, which can pass one another, go around a stationary broken elevator, and take preferred routes, which honor occupants’ privacy needs.
These super elevators will be like self-driving cars on the road, guided by navigation systems similar to the contemporary map applications, wherein the application will check the optimal route to get to the destination room, and provide a turn-by-turn route guidance to the elevator such as “Go forward two floors, take a left, climb three floors and the conference room will be on the right.”
In the early 17th century, a Jesuit priest invented the machine capable of lifting the entire planet with the help of ropes and gears. I wager this rope-and gear-based design partly inspired the design of elevators that we see today. However, this design is dated; the technology is dated. Fortunately, many elevator firms are already working on solving this problem and there have been advancements such as rope-free elevator systems enabled by linear motor technology that allow the elevators to operate without height restriction, in any direction, and to pass each other in adjacent shafts. Those Wily Wonka-style glass elevators zooming across the buildings will become reality sometime soon (minus the space)!
Traffic congestion for elevators will be a problem that will need solving — perhaps this calls for an Uber for elevators?
4. Adaptable Buildings
Buildings of the future will include fully autonomous interchangeable modules that will be able to change their location frequently depending on the functional use. For example, after office hours, workplaces will be converted into entertainment or residential zones. Since the buildings will be modularized, it will be easy to upgrade them as per the changing needs and to adopt modern technologies.
With time, the needs of the occupants change — some grow old, some expand their families, and new adults join the workforce. By being modular and adaptive, the building of the future will be able to cater to the ever-changing needs of its inhabitants.
Control strategies will be shared across the buildings of the future, such as district cooling, heating, air quality control, security control, etc. HVAC equipment should be able to deliver air to distinguished micro comfort zones of an individual who will be able to control environmental factors such as temperature, humidity, air quality, sound, noise levels, odor, etc.
The adaptable buildings problem has two parts. The first is in the domain of construction; how do we make modular buildings? There are some advancements in this area but a breakthrough toward wider adoption is still a work in progress. The second is technology-driven and over the last decade, we have taken strides in solving this problem with IoT, connected devices, BMS (building management system) advancements, and wearables for climatic human comfort. The technology side of things is moderately advanced but is costly to implement (USD 1- 5 per sq. ft.). The implementation cost of technology will have to come down for it to reach the critical mass required for enabling megacities.
Bird’s Eye View
It is difficult to predict the future and no one can do so with complete accuracy. We can, however, predict scenarios of the future. Unlike the singularity that is the future, there can be a multitude of future scenarios, depending on what triggers changes.
The future of buildings will be shaped by serendipitous occurrences of a series of political, social, environmental, and business changes which will make intelligent buildings a necessity for the future.
Evolution is a process. It is excruciatingly slow. It takes time. The universe came into being about 13.5 billion years ago, but it was only about 70,000 years ago that homo sapiens started walking on earth…it took time — 13.49 billion years in this case!
The vision shared in this article will hopefully become a reality much sooner than that.
We at LTI, regularly help our customers define the best-fit HVAC system design that uses efficient field devices for delivering the right occupant comfort with a focus on achieving the energy efficiency gains of sustainable buildings. We have years of experience in this domain and have competency in many of the areas that will form the basis of ideas described in this article — connected buildings, smart elevators, BAS/BMS, HVAC, lighting, plumbing, water monitoring, and security and observation systems.