Feb 07 2024

What Can Smart Buildings Do for Higher Ed Campuses?

Today’s college students — and tomorrow’s — are expecting more than just fast internet on campus.

Everything’s getting “smart.” Higher education institutions are no exception as technology innovators push them into the future by creating smart buildings as part of smart campuses and smart cities. Students are increasingly looking at what technology the universities they are considering bring to the table.

To make that happen, university IT leaders are looking for ways to show students just what that technology can provide — for safety, security, accessibility, cost efficiency and sustainability. Here’s how.

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What Are Smart Buildings and Why Do Colleges Need Them?

Daniel Schieber, innovation lead in the office of the CTO at Extreme Networks, is in the business of leveraging wireless, wired, cloud and fabric solutions to help higher education institutions around the world get a little bit smarter, including North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State UniversitySan Diego Community College District, the University of Bern and Baylor University.

“They now have the infrastructure necessary to take steps toward becoming smart campuses while supporting more students, more devices and more hybrid learning options,” he says.

“A smart building is any building that uses technology inherently in operations, from building management to lighting systems to HVAC, to create a safe, comfortable environment for occupants,” Schieber says. “These integrated systems can also be improved through automatic workflows built on contextual information and historical patterns, enabling continuous, personalized experiences for building occupants no matter where they are in the building.”

A smart residence hall might look much different from a smart stadium, as each space’s version of smart varies by building type and use.

How Are Universities Using Smart Building Technologies?

Some universities are starting with the basics. Others are already tracking trash production in dining halls to communicate which cans need to be emptied and when. This saves time and money, says Andrew Rettig, an Internet of Things (IoT) coordinator and assistant professor at Sinclair College. He is also the founder of Lil Data Monster, a consulting company that has advised universities including the University of Dayton on integrating smart campus technologies.

Rettig says that smart building technologies often deal with either occupancy or facilities. He adds that occupancy is connected to security.

“Occupancy is people in there and the heating, cooling and lights. But facilities are how much use it’s getting, the traffic, getting into areas how often we clean the bathrooms based on how much traffic is going through them, and into monitoring specific things like fire extinguisher monitors, if someone’s opening them, if they’ve been used, etc.,” Rettig says.

RELATED: How to configure and test a new wireless network deployment on campus.

Why Students of the Future Will Want Smart Buildings

All students love a super cool tech feature. But smart buildings go way beyond impressive software and flashy new tools. They will be a matter of health and wellness, a top-of-mind focus for Generation Z.

Jeff Millard, director of Cincinnati operations at engineering firm CMTA, says that smart building features will impact higher education institutions in terms of health and wellness. Energy conservation will benefit the university’s bottom line and attract students with an eye on sustainability and responsible energy use.

“Smart buildings can monitor systems and conditions like indoor air quality and, if needed, adjust the settings to provide better conditions for occupancy. Better air quality can help better learning outcomes,” Millard says.

In addition, smart buildings can calculate optimal lighting, also beneficial for learning and health. “There is no better example of this than with natural light,” he says. “Artificial lighting can simulate the full spectrum and color of natural lighting and change throughout the day, again helping the occupants of the building learn and live within them.”

In the classroom of the future, nobody need to manually adjust the shades.

AI Is Powering Smart Buildings in Higher Education

Artificial intelligence is the backbone of these upgrades.

“AI can be a real game changer for smart buildings. Predictive analytics can help create a more personalized experience, ensuring that user preferences are consistent from room to room. Think lighting, temperature control, etc.,” Schieber says.

It can reduce false alarms and make recommendations on how to resolve confirmed issues, he says.

“This helps IT teams save time and enables a faster time to resolution. In a smart building, where everything relies on the network and management and visibility can quickly become time-consuming and complex, having an AI-powered network management platform can be invaluable.”

Andrew Rettig headshot
You’re able to teach in person to a class and also have people remotely. The camera’s tracking you, and the board is showing it live on the person’s screen at home.”

Andrew Rettig Internet of Things Coordinator and Assistant Professor, Sinclair College

What Do Smart Buildings Actually Do on a College Campus?

What would you see if you could walk around one of these smart buildings? Well, It depends on what type of building. Here are a few ways universities are optimizing these developments.

Uninterrupted Connectivity

For one thing, nobody would be fighting with the Wi-Fi, no matter where they were on campus. Schieber points to the city of Borås Stad, one of the largest municipalities in western Sweden, which is moving toward becoming a smart city and has already made this happen.

“They’ve deployed citywide Wi-Fi to support uninterrupted connectivity for everything from education and healthcare to business sectors and emergency services,” he says. “And though this may sound complex, they have a robust cloud management solution that enables their IT department to easily manage the network and ensure consistent services delivery for residents, including students.”

This is a great example of what can happen when a smart city is realized, Schieber adds, and it’s reproducible on campuses around the world.

Facilities Management

Dorm rooms would never get too cold, and security cameras, lighting, automated doors and bio-scanners would all be on the same network.

“Because all of these systems are visible on the network, it makes it very easy to see when something may be wrong and troubleshoot it to ensure that building occupants — in this case, students and staff — continue to enjoy a seamless experience. Second, by automating things such as HVAC and lighting systems and connecting them with motion sensors or timers, higher education buildings can minimize the amount of energy they’re using to become more efficient and sustainable,” Schieber says.

Orchestrating Multiple Systems

Some options for smart buildings are indoor/outdoor asset tracking, energy monitoring, people traffic monitoring, orchestration between different systems and occupancy (such as hot desking and conference or huddle room use), says Steve Mandery, director of business development at Losant, an IoT business platform.

“This also includes automated lighting and climate control for energy savings, advanced security systems and enhanced learning environments with smart classroom technologies,” he says, noting that there are many occupancy use cases, including classrooms, dorms, restrooms and locker rooms.

Rettig says that using student ID badges to swipe into dorms and dining halls might be a thing of the past. “Most companies are moving to biometric scanners for logging in to your computer, so instead of two-factor, now you have a thumb scanner or eye scanner.”

LEARN MORE: How to realize the benefits of hybrid cloud environments.

Efficiency and Cost Savings

“Athletic venues can improve the customer experience. Apps showing which concessions and bathrooms have the shortest lines are at top of the list,” Mandery says. “As universities become more connected, the student experience will greatly improve. Students can spend less time in line for the cafeteria or study rooms, which will allow more time to do school work.”

He also says that this environment might even encourage more in-person class attendance.

Hybrid, In-Person and Remote Learning

Rettig says smart buildings will ultimately improve AI-based classrooms, but not all at once.

“It starts to bridge the connection between a smart campus and the smart classroom. You’re able to teach in person to a class and also have people remotely. The camera’s tracking you, and the board is showing it live on the person’s screen at home,” he says. However, there is more progress to be made on this front, he notes. “In most cases that have those around campus, they are one-off classrooms. It’s not the typical classroom, and you have to register to have a class in there. It’s still a way off, in my opinion, that smart classroom that’s really tracking you and enabling you to teach online.”

Progress on Smart Buildings Is Steady but Slow

As with any major technological advancement, universities won’t be adopting smart building technologies overnight.

“The technology and progression on campuses and at universities is always way behind. It’s the people, not the technology,” Rettig says. In a world of conflicting priorities and tight budgets, not to mention the looming enrollment cliff, it can fall to the bottom of the priority list. “This is all a big challenge for them, because I’ve been at universities giving them everything they need, and then they still don’t move on it,” he says.

IT staffers can start with what the data that they have now, he says. “You could easily get 99 percent of your occupancy from your current data. Then, all you need is a smart building platform software company that you could go to, and then you can start connecting your current data through APIs, and then you are on your way.”

IT innovators are pushing for these changes, both for current students and for the learners of the future.

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