Smart Buildings (Part 1): Creating Sustainability in the Urban Jungle

smart buildings - creating sustainable buildings

Global cities are evolving to become smarter and more sustainable, giving rise to the adoption of smart buildings. In this, the first of a three-part series, we will explore how city leaders and architects are designing smart buildings — or retrofitting existing structures — to reduce or eliminate their impact on the environment.

The urban landscape is quickly changing? Here are some changes that #smartcities are taking to create more sustainability in their urban communities #urbanplanning Share on X

What Makes a Smart Building Green or Sustainable?

In 1987, the UN World Commission for Environment and Development set the first definition of sustainable building development, which was, “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

In order to considered a “green building” or “sustainable building,” a structure must:

  • Save electricity and water
  • Use renewable sources of energy
  • Have less power consumption 
  • Have a minimal carbon footprint

Smart buildings typically hinge on three characteristics. 

Energy and Sustainability

The first is energy and sustainability, which are globally rated by The U.S. Green Building Council (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design rating aka LEED) and Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Methodology (BREEAM). 

LEED and BREEAM both certify buildings as being environmentally friendly, but with key differences. The U.S. Green Building Council is a non-profit, whereas BREEAM is not, influencing the cost of certification. Once a building design has been submitted, points are awarded based on factors ranging from water usage to maintenance cost reduction. Standards for both are strict, but BREEAM is more stringent about reaching absolute targets, while LEED sets relative percentage reduction targets for a building.


Smart buildings should also promote wellness for those who work, live, or visit them, too — a concept that is rated by The National Well Building Institute (WELL). 


The third attribute of a smart building is its digital connectivity. Real estate owners can obtain a WiredScore rating, which advertises a property’s modern digital infrastructure.

In other words, smart buildings not only strive to have little or no impact on the environment but increase the wellbeing and productivity of those working or dwelling inside.

Why Design Smart Buildings?

smart buildings - smart cities

While improving roadways and infrastructure, city leaders are looking for new ways to improve the quality of their buildings.

Environment Impact

The topic of reducing CO2 emissions might elicit thoughts of hazy skylines and gas-guzzling vehicles. But according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), buildings represented 28% of global emissions of CO2 in 2018.

“Enormous potential remains untapped due to the widespread use of less-efficient technologies, a lack of effective policies and insufficient investment in sustainable buildings,” says IEA.

Electricity demands in buildings have increased five times faster than the carbon intensity of the power sector since 2000. IEA points to a number of factors, including extreme weather conditions (requiring more heat or air conditioning), that have lent to this increase.

While the building sector is expected to reduce its carbon emissions to 1/8th its current levels by 2050, the process is very slow at a rate of just 6% per year.

Cost Efficiency

There is a myth that the benefits of sustainable buildings are not worth the money they cost to build. While new technology is costly, efficiencies create long-term savings.

For example, LEED-certified building owners claim an energy savings of $1.2 billion between 2013-2015. Even green building retrofits typically decrease operational costs by 10% in just one year.

Employers in LEED-certified spaces report higher recruitment and retention rates, and increased employee productivity. Integrating design elements like natural sunlight and clean air quality can improve employee well-being and reduce absenteeism due to illness.

Smart Buildings in Action

The real estate and technology industries are becoming fast friends. As a result, the PropTech industry is booming. Since 2013, annual investment in U.S. PropTech companies has grown at a rate five times that of investment in all U.S. businesses, according to Inc. magazine. They also note that these investments were on pace to exceed $10 billion in 2019. Financial investments in this technology may offer a boon to the smart building movement.

There are two opportunities during a building’s lifecycle where we can improve its sustainability and reduce its carbon footprint: sustainability and net-zero impact.

Sustainability of Smart Buildings

Sustainability begins in design, planning, and construction. It also begins with innovation, as CNBC International TV points out in this story that uncovers the myths and truths about the sustainability of smart buildings.


Innovation and a need to work towards more sustainable building without adverse effects on the environment has inspired a number of alternative building materials to concrete including:

  • Wood
  • Bamboo
  • Strawbale
  • Rammed earth
  • HempCrete
  • Eco-BLOCK
  • Cenocell
  • Paperboard
  • Cork
  • Mycelium

As the Economist points out, wood may be the building solution of choice in the future for cities moving towards more green and sustainable urban development:


At 18-stories-tall, Norway’s Mjøsa Tower is the tallest wooden structure in the world. The building, which opened in 2019, includes a hotel, private homes, and office space. The structure and facade of Mjösa Tower are made of wood. The load-bearing structure consists of glulam (laminated timber) columns, beams, and diagonal members. The first ten floors are made of prefabricated wooden elements, while the upper floor decks are made of concrete, to keep the building from swaying.


Smart Buildings Net Zero Impact

Once the building is built, the second opportunity is to have a net-zero impact on the surrounding area.

smart buildings - bosco verticale in milan

In Milan, a pair of residential towers called Bosco Verticale (literally meaning “vertical forest”) takes the idea of “green building” to a whole new level. Opened in 2014, Bosco Verticale hosts 20,000 trees and plants, which absorb 30 tons of carbon dioxide, produce 19 tons of oxygen a year, and naturally insulate its residents from heat and cold. The buildings also feature sustainable infrastructures like solar power, geothermal heating systems, and wastewater facilities.

Liuzhou Forest City, a 342-acre project designed by Bosco Verticale architecture firm Stefano Boeri Architetti, is expected to absorb almost 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide and 57 tons of pollutants per year while producing 900 tons of oxygen. Solar panels and geothermal energy are integrated into the massive project design, which set to open in 2020.

“I’m proud to say we didn’t put any kind of copyright because we know well the social value of this kind of building,” said the firm’s principal Stefano Boeri.


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