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IDTechEx Talk Smart Buildings: Another Frontier for the Digital Revolution

Updated: Dec 11, 2021

Take a look around your room. It is likely full of sophisticated digital technology: computers, smartphones, an internet-enabled TV, and even a smart speaker. However, many decades ago, the building itself had not changed since electrical wiring and central heating.

IDTechEx Talk Smart Buildings: Another Frontier for the Digital Revolution

Smart buildings aim to bring digital technologies into the fabric of the building, rather than just to objects within it. They will utilise a wide range of emerging technologies, such as semi-transparent photovoltaics on windows, moisture sensors for leak detection, and printed heaters with wall panels.

Combined with changes to building construction, such as greater use of prefabricated panels with integrated electronic functionality, incorporating technologies such as these promises smart buildings that facilitate predictive maintenance, are more energy-efficient, and are responsive to occupants' needs.

Digital Leak Detection

Anyone who has had a water leak at home knows that it is incredibly annoying and expensive, with walls, ceilings, and flooring needing replacement. Furthermore, the affected area is out of action while everything is dried using boisterous fans and dehumidifiers. A technology that reduces the likelihood and severity of leaks would bring clear benefits to home and business owners, along with insurance companies.

Printed moisture sensors are a promising potential solution, which is integrated into walls and floors to detect leaks at a very early stage and alert the building owner. Targeting primarily at bathrooms, one such approach has been developed by the Swedish company InviSense. A printed RFID antenna coil is coated with a moisture-absorbing material, and the resonant frequency changes in response to moisture, which an RFID reader can then detect. While testing leaks behind tiling can be performed non-destructively, it does not provide continuous feedback.

UK company Laiier is developing an alternative approach to leak detection. It offers low-cost capacitive sensors made from carbon-based inks and produced using conventional graphics printers. The thin-film sensor format enables them to be placed underneath appliances such as dishwashers, washing machines, boilers, and pipes, or even under flooring or within walls. The sensors are connected to the cloud and can provide the property owner with an alert when an increase in moisture is detected, enabling repairs to be performed before a leak becomes significant.

Integrated Heating, Lighting, and Wiring

Housebuilding techniques have not changed substantially in many years, with most houses still being constructed on-site using conventional building materials. Plumbing and electricity are installed during the construction process, requiring skilled manual labour. While most cars have been produced on a production line with extensive automation for many years, houses are still essentially handcrafted.

There is thus an excellent opportunity to simultaneously reduce construction costs and provide additional value to the building's occupants by integrating functionality into building materials. Promising examples include incorporating electrical heaters into wall panels, thus removing the need for unsightly free-standing radiators. Electrical switches, wiring, lighting, and other sensor types could also be installed into wall panels before installation, reducing the need for individual fixings that increase costs and create visual clutter.

Improved Energy Efficiency

Heating and powering homes more efficiently is crucial in meeting CO2 emission targets since, at present, around 30% of emissions in developed countries come from domestic households. While greater adoption of established technologies such as thicker wall/roof insulation is essential, there is also plenty of scope for emerging technologies to contribute.

Photovoltaic solar panels, currently installed in around 3.5% of UK homes, arecontinuingiinnovation targetsne emerging approach is the construction of tandem photovoltaic cells, which utilise an additional light-absorbing layer to harvest solar energy more effectively. Oxford PV is a leading player here, with its 'perovskite-on-silicon' tandem architecture demonstrating higher efficiencies (29.5% in a recent laboratory example). It is currently developing a production line to mass-produce these high-efficiency tandem cells.

However, rigid roof-based solar panels are not viable for every building. Another alternative is semi-transparent solar cells, which can be applied to windows as thin films. Although less efficient, since less light is absorbed, semi-transparent solar cells enable existing windows to be utilised for energy harvesting. IIn its early stages, further development is photochromic photovoltaics that would interest a higher proportion of sunlight on sunny days.

Another Frontier for the Digital Revolution

Domestic and commercial buildings have been slow to benefit from the digital revolution thus far. There are many high-tech items within buildings, but generally speaking, little modern technology is integrated within the buildings's'fabrichis is set to change over the coming years, with 'smart buildings' enabling predictive maintenance, efficient construction, and sensing/heating/lighting/energy harvesting integrated into the building materials from the outset becoming increasingly common.

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