Bouyant real estate developers in oil-rich Middle Eastern countries, bustling Vietnam and the high-tech cities of China increasingly share a common trait these days: they are not afraid to mix tonnes of concrete and steel with miles of fibre-optic cables and petabytes of software.
This cocktail is the intelligent building, where air-conditioning is managed on the same network that sends the office e-mail. And this trend is booming - as can be seen by the growing number of intelligent building deals clinched in recent times by regional IT infrastructure providers like ST Electronics and NCS.
According to one report, the market opportunity for providing the infrastructure for intelligent commercial and office buildings will be worth about US $1 billion by 2012.
Like developers of the sail-like Bahrain World Trade Centre and the sculptural China Central Television (CCTV) Beijing headquarters, many developers now see a strong economic upside to constructing such intelligent buildings. Pampering tenants with first-class digital convenience aside, imbuing intelligence into buildings can help building owners slash long-term operating costs through consolidation and automation, and create new revenue streams through new applications.
'Developers and building owners will benefit from a lower building life-cycle cost, happier tenants and lower energy bills,' says Seah Moon Ming, president of Singapore Technologies Electronics (ST Electronics).
He notes that the current breed of intelligent buildings, such as Shanghai's Jingmao Building and Jakarta's Grand Indonesia hotel and shopping complex, centre around the optimisation of basic elements of building systems, structures, services and management - and the inter-relationship between them. Both buildings were recent projects completed by the Singapore firm.
An intelligent building starts with an Internet Protocol (IP)-based network that can combine networks that carry building information systems, with the one that carries voice and data. Collapsing both platforms into one makes it possible to manage all information systems in a building - or in a group of buildings - via a centralised control room, therefore saving on manpower and capital costs.
A converged IP platform also gives typically rigid analogue-based building information systems a new lease of life. Imagine being able to fine-tune office lighting or air-conditioning via a self-service Web interface, instead of needing to call up buildings services.
For new buildings, building a converged IP building services platform can save developers up to 30 per cent on cabling costs, says Ferry Chung, managing director, integrated solutions group and emerging technologies, Asia-Pacific, Cisco. This is simply because developers now need to build only one cabling network instead of two. And by centralising the management of building services, developers can save more, since building management operating expenditure can be slashed by between 20 and 30 per cent, he adds.
Today's intelligent buildings have management systems for different building services like facilities control, power consumption, security and tenant convenience features.
Tomorrow's intelligent building will become even smarter. Vendors believe that the next wave of intelligent buildings will lean heavily on technologies centred around energy- conservation, integrated networking, wireless and mobile networking, digital media and more.
'An upcoming trend is an intelligent green building,' says Mr Seah. This is a building that combines green and intelligent building technologies for long term sustainability. He says Singapore developers are warming up to the first part of the equation - the green building concept.
'At present, there is much emphasis on the Green Mark for buildings in Singapore, which includes the auditing and monitoring of various parameters that measure efficiencies in energy, water and environment,' he says. 'We believe that in the future, Singapore developers would combine the green building solution with intelligent building solutions,' he adds.
Lim Eng, chief executive of NCS Group, agrees. Like ST Electronics, NCS is seeing a boom in its intelligent building-related IT business. This SingTel subsidiary has been involved in major projects in Bahrain, UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, China and Singapore.
Mr Lim says the energy-conservation drive is being reflected in the emergence of green building standards from governing bodies like the US-based Green Building Council, which has a rating system called The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).
In Singapore, the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) has a green building rating system to evaluate buildings for their environmental impact and performance, called the BCA Green Mark.
Carrying the green notion even further is another concept known as Net Zero Energy Buildings, which is gaining in popularity in the US and some European countries. There are several definitions of this term, one of which refers to buildings that feed off on-site renewable energy production sources. To do so, such buildings would have to generate its own power from renewable sources and have the means to store the energy generated.
If all this sounds altruistic and utopian, consider this: The US Department of Energy estimates that buildings in the US and parts of Europe siphon off 40 per cent of the total energy consumption there. Going green can reward with a huge economic payback.
Besides green buildings, another rising trend is the pre-emptive building, where sophisticated dynamic response systems are programmed to act according to the profiles and preferences of the tenant. 'A VIP could be led to his office in a highly personalised manner with the integration of the carpark system, lift system, messaging and personalised environmental control systems including lighting and air-conditioning,' Mr Lim says.
NCS is currently designing one such pre-emptive system that detects user profiles, and then uses these profiles to proactively deliver customised services like messages, room ambience or health readings. NCS also designs systems which use live feeds streaming in and projected on large screens to create personal ambience in living spaces, for example, in the bedrooms and bathrooms. 'Information on basic health parameters like BMI and weight can also be provided,' Mr Lim adds.
According to Mr Seah of ST Electronics, two other intelligent building technologies are likely to make a huge impact in this space: wireless networking and Power-over-Ethernet. Both technologies are gaining traction because they minimise cable usage and provide greater flexibility in installation, he says. Power-over-Ethernet is a means of using data networking cables to carry the electricity needed to power up connected devices, such as an IP-phone.
Uniting systems, information and control into a user-friendly system will continue to be a hot topic for intelligent building developers, says James Young, technical director, Asia-Pacific, CommScope Enterprise Solutions Division.
Network infrastructure provider CommScope is currently in a project to supply structured cabling systems in CCTV's upcoming Beijing headquarters premises - a notable intelligent building landmark which has the inaugural task of serving the Beijing Olympics. The company has also wired up the new Wembley Stadium in the UK, a project which has more than 7,000 structured cabling system termination points and over 1,600km of data cabling.
Leading in this field are vendors like Cisco, IBM, Johnson Controls and Honeywell, Mr Young noted.
Like Mr Seah of ST Electronics, Mr Chung of Cisco also singled out wireless technology as an upcoming trend. He further adds digital media as a hot intelligent building trend to watch. Both technologies, especially when combined, will create new and lucrative business opportunities for building developers, he says.
For instance, building developers can push digital media, applications and advertisements into tenants' and visitors' mobile phones using their buildings' intelligent networking platform.
By giving tenants and visitors useful and perhaps free content, building owners can also generate tenant and visitor loyalty. Mobile applications and digital media can also serve to link up disparate properties owned by the same developer, creating more marketing and advertising possibilities, Mr Chung says.
Cisco has been trumping its own intelligent building concept called the Cisco Connected Real Estate (CCRE). It is a system that merges all services in a building - and in groups of buildings - over a single converged IP platform.
By using an open platform, different buildings in different locations can be linked to the same management framework and control room. The world's largest networking vendor has been putting this concept into practice too. It has over 300 global offices which are today managed from just three locations.
Mr Chung says that developers increasingly see intelligent building systems as a means for creating new revenue streams. 'If Suntec City can have an integrated building management system with digital media, it will be a huge upside for their retailers since they can advertise to every visitor (in the vicinity),' he says.
There is a further appeal of wireless technologies to building owners. This could be their ticket to retrofit older buildings with new intelligence features - at economy rates. Today, intelligent buildings are largely built from the ground up with very few retrofitting examples because retrofitting is simply too costly for most developers.
Mr Chung notes that one of the biggest peeves of real estate developers is the laying in and ripping out of cables in existing buildings, where both the cabling work itself and the resulting disruption to tenants can be very expensive.
But upcoming wireless technologies could banish that bugbear. Mr Chung believes that in two years' time, wireless sensor equipment, which can translate the analogue signals of existing building monitoring systems to digital ones, will become pervasive.
By then developers would not need to change the whole cabling system in order to upgrade or connect to a centralised intelligent building management system. It will also mean more buildings could become smarter, more quickly.