IT infrastructure should not be an afterthought: it’s critical to consider technology requirements at the design stage

In our connected world, digital infrastructure needs more than ever to be at the heart of architectural planning and engineering. 

New expectations around smart and sustainable buildings, always-on connectivity and regulation around maintaining a “golden thread” of information about a building’s safety, build and infrastructure make it necessary to focus attention on digital infrastructure early on in any new build or refurbishment project.

Digital competencies are critical in all industries

The notion that “every business is a software business” is attributed to Watts S. Humphrey, the American software engineer. Two decades on, it’s a phrase often repeated – not least by the current CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella.

McKinsey research from June 2022 indicates that nearly 70 percent of the top economic performers are using their own software to differentiate themselves from their competitors. One third of those top performers monetise software directly. Or, as the consultancy business argues, “Marc Andreessen’s observation from more than ten years ago that ‘software is eating the world’ needs an update: software is the world.”

It is probably a little simplistic to think that the maxim that “every business is a software business” holds true for every company. Not every company can afford to invest in IT to the point that it can develop its own software to secure competitive advantage. However, the notion holds a deeper truth: that software can be a key source of differentiation and competitive advantage for every organisation.

Technology is already critical to business success – which means technology infrastructure will be a key element of any location decision. It, therefore, must be on the agenda of any building developer.

What’s more, given our current direction of travel – sped  along by the new technology innovations around artificial intelligence (AI) – the importance of technology and having a good technology infrastructure is only likely to increase for every organisation (and, therefore, building manager). 

Towards smarter and more sustainable building

At the same time, there is another major trend which forces us to prioritise technology in our building design and infrastructure: the impact of climate change.

Currently, the built environment accounts for 40 percent of total energy consumption. If we are going to come anywhere close to achieving our carbon reduction and climate targets, planners must focus on improved climate-oriented design and energy efficiency.

Systems – including building sensors and smart metering, smart building controls and building management systems, as well as digital twins and advanced analytics tools to model energy and carbon use and reductions – have an important role to play in helping us reduce energy use and meet carbon targets.

However, the simple fact is that most of us are doing too little, too late. At the same time as grappling with carbon reduction measures, we now need to also be planning for climate resilience. Climate risk and extreme weather events are a major risk factor for most businesses and they threaten significant operational impacts. 

The need to build resilient buildings which can deliver the energy self-sufficiency and the resilience needed to manage these climate risks adds to the requirement to plan technology infrastructure well in advance and as a fundamental part of building design. 

Building managers and occupiers will need to think about local energy generation, especially from renewables, onsite battery storage backup systems and two-way electric vehicle charging as well as the connectivity and systems to monitor, control and optimise these resources.

Thinking about digital building infrastructure

In order to meet today’s requirements and to have any chance of future-proofing their buildings, the developers of new build projects must think about the digital infrastructure of the building at the very earliest part of their project.

Energy self-sufficiency can be a starting point as this will deeply influence the choice of location and site. Location will also impact the thinking around resilient connectivity into the building.

Inside the building, major resources such as the battery storage systems, electric fleet charging systems, internal server rooms and network access points will all impact the digital infrastructure and, especially, the internal cabling required. Smart building management – with systems to control every of aspect of the building, from lighting and shading to ventilation and multimedia – will require connectivity to be at the heart of building design.

As technology continues to advance and the numbers of connected devices grows, new buildings will inevitably require additional networked systems – the option to expand and increase capacity must, therefore, be built in. Further, as the criticality of technology to business success increases, a building’s digital infrastructure will need to be increasingly resilient. 

In order to truly futureproof a building, we need to take a forward-looking perspective. Trends in computing will need to be accommodated. We’ve seen a rapid shift to cloud computing over the last decade or so, pushing onsite server rooms into retirement and negating the need for direct lines into colocation datacentres. 

Today’s move towards mesh networks brings benefits of scalability and resilience but will require rethinking internal connectivity. It also offers some help in meeting the trend towards edge computing.

Advocating best practice in the shape of a “golden thread”

At the same time, building developers and operators must spare a thought to recoding and maintaining a record of the building’s digital infrastructure. 

The UK Government has introduced the concept of a “golden thread” of information which details all the safety information about a building. Although this currently applies only to buildings which are 18 metres or seven stories tall with a residential component, it can be considered as best practice when it comes to maintaining information about a building through its entire lifecycle.

The golden thread should be established as an electronic record at the very earliest design stages, perhaps in the form of a digital twin. Maintaining such a record will have numerous benefits over the building lifecycle, especially around safety. 

Two important goals are to drive a culture change and to establish a single source of truth about the building, its infrastructure and its safety. 

It is hoped the golden thread will support culture change within the industry as it will require increased competence and capability, different working practices, updated processes and a focus on information management and control. The golden thread should be considered an enabler for better and more collaborative working.

Furthermore, as a single source of truth, the golden thread will bring all information together in a single place, meaning there is always a single source of truth. It will record changes, including the reason for change, evaluation of change, date of change, and the decision-making process.

While these regulatory changes apply to only a small number of residential buildings at the moment, the legislation is indicative of direction of travel and is an illustration of and an attempt to define best practice. It’s something which building developers can learn from when they begin planning the digital infrastructure of the building. 

At the same time, maintaining a golden threat of information about the building’s digital infrastructure will contribute to the futureproofing of that building through improved information about infrastructure, capacity and the best way to expand.

What next?

Given all these changes, it is clear that technology must be at the start – and heart – of building planning, not an afterthought.

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