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Digitization in construction:
the knife that cuts on three sides

Digitization in construction

Versatility of smart buildings

Publication: Theme supplement Elsevier Weekblad
Theme: Smart Buildings

Editor: Koen Groen

In an era in which the term 'smart' is flying around people's ears, the impact of the various applications varies widely. Smartphones have now proven their worth, but opinions are divided about the usefulness of smartwatches, smart locks and smart household appliances. On a larger scale, however, smart applications show their true power by ingeniously allowing different software systems to communicate with each other. This makes it possible to automatically coordinate production and distribution systems or to manage and control cities in a smart and cost-efficient way. But for the general public, the vast possibilities of 'smart' are hardly ever more apparent than where people spend most of their time: in buildings.

In addition to being a lawyer, Alexandra Jurgens-Boot is also co-founder of the Blue Building Institute, a platform for the healthy building industry. She talks about the versatility of the smart buildings industry: “You can approach the subject in different ways: from a technology, health or sustainability perspective. Moreover, the buildings themselves also vary widely, from smart houses to smart office complexes.” Jurgens-Boot explains that this also means that the objectives of smart buildings differ from each other. For example, many initiators strive for cost savings, while others are looking for an innovative way to focus not only on the sustainability of the building, but also on the health of the actual user. This should increase the productivity of the people in the building. More productive buildings have greater value for investors and owners. Private and public parties are all looking to give substance to their own organizational policy or the climate and energy agreement in one way or another.

But in the end it's not all about 'green', 'blue' is also important, emphasizes Jurgens-Boot. “With the aging population, the tightening labor market and the war on talent, the well-being of employees is just as important as the environment. Many Dutch people are constantly in office buildings and their working environment therefore has a major impact on their health.” To contribute to this, many investors strive to collect data about those the building houses. Certain data could eventually even be shared with health insurers, of course with due observance of privacy legislation, so that the smart building can contribute to disease prevention among employees. There is a great need for such precautions, says Jurgens-Boot: “Approximately 27 percent (almost 80 billion) of the national budget is spent on healthcare expenditure. In 2040, these expenditures will have doubled. Smart work environments can reduce these costs. Consider, for example, lighting conditions and temperature, but also matters such as nutrition and exercise. Often too little attention is paid to this.


Data collection

But other data can also be of interest to investors, such as information about safety, walking routes or workplaces. The data collection can ultimately lead to new hypotheses and initiatives, says Jurgens-Boot. And this allows us to respond to the wishes of the users. This is comparable to the smart city trend, in which governments collect data using sensors in traffic lights and lampposts, among other things. Jurgens-Boot: “In this way, not only the buildings themselves become smart, but also the environment between those buildings. In this way, for example, it can be determined where traffic jams and whether diversions are desirable.”

However, with the need for data collection, the smart building trend also has some downsides, with privacy being a particular hot topic. A difficult subject, says Jurgens-Boot. “I notice that this is very subject to culture. For example, in some countries it is customary to publish salary information on the internet, something that is completely unthinkable in the Netherlands. What one person considers a privacy violation is no problem at all for another.” And if there is some resistance, many opponents turn out to be willing to make concessions to their own principles. “Convenience often wins out over the protection of one's own privacy. You can see that with social media, but also with initiatives such as the smart workplace. If a smart application simplifies work, the convenience is often quickly embraced.”

Sustainable construction

In addition to the social and commercial benefits of smart buildings, digitization is an important driving force behind the sustainability of buildings. This is also endorsed by Aldert Hanemaaijer, Green and Circular Economy coordinator of the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL). According to him, more and more is possible when it comes to combining smart solutions to save and generate energy. “There are several developments going on in the field of electricity and thermal energy. In the latter case, think of geothermal energy and the use of heating networks, and with the electricity generated by means of solar panels, the electric car can be charged at home.” In order to make optimal use of these innovations, it is necessary to maintain the balance between supply and demand.


Digital applications can offer a solution in this regard. That's how it will be
indoor climate – including the temperature, lighting and humidity – of an increasing number of buildings is automatically adjusted based on user needs and available energy.


“With the help of digital applications, the energy requirement and its supply can also be made transparent,” says Hanemaaijer. Bringing supply and demand together is therefore necessary to keep buildings lit, heated and operational, but can also be beneficial in the early and final stages of buildings. Initiatives have therefore emerged from all kinds of organizations and government agencies to digitally inventory the raw materials used for construction in data files, such as the Madaster: a land registry for raw materials. You then have a so-called 'resource passport' for those buildings. It records the specifications of various parts of buildings – including walls, doors and joists – so that they can be reused in the future.

“Transparency about the available materials is an important condition to enable the reuse of materials,” explains Hanemaaijer. However, a large number of issues can stand in the way of this, such as the price of secondary material and existing laws and regulations. It is often still the case that secondary parts are more expensive than primary material, which means that they are not used quickly. This is partly because the environmental damage caused by extraction and the production of materials is insufficiently included in the prices of primary materials. But also because secondary materials are not always trusted. Hanemaaijer: “It is also possible that certain standards or statutory rules stand in the way unintentionally. An example of this are the composite materials that can be used for bridges. Before that, it had to be proven that it could last at least fifty years.” Strict safety requirements are legitimate, according to Hanemaaijer, but on the other hand they can hinder innovation. That is therefore an important consideration that must be made in sustainable construction: how much room is left open for innovation and how can safety and health be guaranteed?

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