If you want an early glimpse of how the future may look, one place to get it is the Tower at PNC Plaza. Pittsburgh’s newest skyscraper, which has a gleaming curvilinear top that looms 33 stories over downtown, is a $400 million effort to create the world’s greenest office building.
Gensler, which designed the building, has equipped it with an array of state-of-the-art gadgetry to reduce energy consumption. A solar chimney, consisting of two vertical shafts at the building’s core, allows air to rise and exit through the roof. There also is a double-skin facade, in which twin panes of glass are separated by an air cavity that provides insulation, and a system of automated blinds between the glass panes that is controlled by sensors regulating the amount of sunlight entering the building.
The result: a building that is expected to consume 50 percent less energy than past generations of office towers.
Many of the Tower at PNC Plaza’s technologies are not new, as Douglas C. Gensler, one of the architecture firm’s principals, explains. “The advance really was thinking of how you combine all these things,” he says. Up to this point, “they tended to be either stand-alone ideas or they were not wrapped into the architecture of the building.”
Moreover, the synergy of those features is driven by an intricate, sprawling network of hundreds of thousands of sensors, tied to motors and other pieces of equipment, which continuously amass mountains of data on the building’s operation and automatically react to it. It reflects a convergence of two fast-rising trends, the “internet of things” (IOT) and “big data” aggregation and analysis, creating a building that in a sense functions like a giant semi-autonomous robot capable of controlling some of its own functions.
Human passersby who want to see how the building is doing at those tasks can watch what Gensler describes as a “communication object”—the Beacon, a 30-foot-tall (9 m) lobby installation equipped with light-emitting diode (LED) light and more than 1,500 liquid crystal film panels, which displays real-time data on the building’s environmental performance.
But while the Tower at PNC Plaza is conceptually innovative, it is not an anomaly. Across the globe, other harbingers of the tech-driven future are springing up.
In Suzhou Industrial Park in China’s Jiangsu province, for example, a company called WinSun reportedly has used a 3-D printer to fabricate an entire five-story apartment building, while in South Korea, the high-tech master-planned city Songdo is being built incorporating an automated system to collect, sort, and recycle trash. In Amsterdam, the Edge, which Bloomberg News has labeled “the smartest building in the world,” is equipped with 28,000 sensors and uses a smartphone app to guide workers to parking spots and available desks in open office spaces.
In Washington, D.C., a robotic mason recently laid 12,000 bricks in a school renovation project. In California and Texas, technology giant Google has been testing driverless vehicles that could radically reshape cities by freeing up enormous amounts of land now needed for parking lots and garages.
Such innovations are rushing at us at an exponential pace, according to trend forecaster Paul Saffo, a consulting associate professor at Stanford University and chairman of the futures track at Silicon Valley’s Singularity University. “The smartphone that you’re carrying in your pocket would have been a breakthrough supercomputer back in 1988,” Saffo explained in a talk at ULI’s Fall Meeting in San Francisco in October. “That’s the kind of world we’re in, and it’s already affecting the space you all live in.”
Just as technological change has disrupted industries ranging from telecommunications to retailing to entertainment, futurists, researchers, and real estate and tech industry experts say real estate will experience a major shift as well. As advances such as robotics, mobile computing, 3-D printing, the internet of things, and big data converge and newer technologies appear alongside them, the potential exists to dramatically transform how people live and work in cities. In addition, as a recent report by professional services and consulting firm Deloitte notes, such technology “will have a great influence upon how properties as constructed, managed, sold, and leased.”
Technologically driven change could create both opportunities and peril. Figuring out how to adapt to it will be a major challenge for developers, architects, builders, and property managers who must work with large, capital-intensive assets that take years to conceive and build, and which are expected to have vastly longer life cycles than the latest consumer electronics gadgetry or social trends. That is why forecasters caution against betting heavily on any particular technology and instead advocate use of “future-proofing” plans providing enough flexibility to adjust to whatever is to come.
Of all the nascent technologies, many experts see the internet of things—vast networks of sensors and wifi-enabled devices ranging from household appliances to traffic lights—as having perhaps the most significant impact on life in cities and the real estate sector.
“Billions, and eventually trillions, of sensors are going to be embedded in our physical environment and gathering enormous amounts of data,” explains futurist and author Jack Uldrich. “That’s going to be powerful in a lot of ways, including some that we don’t anticipate.”
At the government level, access to data on pedestrian and vehicle traffic, trash generation, energy consumption, and use of parks and other public areas could help officials reallocate resources and make cities run far more efficiently.
“As sensor technology becomes more reliable and costs less, we’re going to be exploring things that affect people’s lives on a daily basis, explains Constantine Kontakosta, deputy director of New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress. “We’ll be able to understand how people are moving around a city in a way that we couldn’t before and how that is affected by things such as street widths.”
When IOT and big data analytics are combined with automation of building services and mobile apps, the result also could change how individual buildings operate and guide the design of future construction.
Already, the possibilities are illustrated by Amsterdam’s the Edge, where a smartphone app developed by primary tenant Deloitte enables the building to accommodate the 2,500 or so workers who spend at least some of their time there, even though there are only 1,000 desks inside.
Each morning, the building checks workers’ schedules and guides them to whatever sort of workspace they need, from a quiet spot for concentration to a meeting space for collaboration. At the same time, the digital infrastructure enables those workers to have more control over their environment by allowing them to adjust temperature and light settings. They can even order breakfast or lunch for meetings.
“One of the macrotrends we’ll see is the individual’s desire for personalization, for customizable experiences,” says Bob O’Brien, Deloitte global and U.S. real estate leader. “And we think that will impact the in-built environment. And owners of the spaces want to make them as efficient as possible, so it benefits them, too. We think the technology enables all that.”
As workers use the technology to get a better fit with their workspaces, they also will generate vast stores of data on facility use, which companies can analyze to forecast their future space requirements. That, in turn, could add momentum to the developing trend of reselling short-term use of unoccupied space to other employers who need it. “My guess is that a lot of commercial real estate is underutilized because a lot of companies now have workforces that are 50 percent mobile,” says Uldrich.
That information could also help property managers and developers more accurately predict demand. “I think we’ll see new forms of collaboration develop in commercial real estate because sensors will enable us to make more efficient use of space,” he says.
Other emerging technologies have the potential to alter how buildings are designed and built.
One potential game changer is virtual reality, which eventually may reshape the design process. Already, for example, New York City–based design company Floored, which creates 3-D simulations of building interiors and exteriors that clients can explore and in which they can alter elements to suit their needs, has begun to offer Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets that provide an even more vivid experience.
“Shouldn’t every leasing presentation in the future be customized to the tenant you’re talking to?” asked David Eisenberg, Floored chief executive officer, at the 2014 ULI Fall Meeting in New York City. “These are things you can do with virtualization.”
The construction of buildings is likely to undergo even more radical changes. James Benham, founder of JBKnowledge, a Bryan, Texas–based construction technology solutions company, is bullish on the potential impact of 3-D printing, in which devices spray layers of material to create solid objects.
“We can print wood, metal, plastic, concrete, and glass,” says Benham, whose company also operates a space where clients can use 3-D printers. “And 3-D printing is extremely efficient in the quantity of material it requires, which could have a big impact on costs.”
Already, Chinese company WinSun has made entire buildings with a massive 20-by-33-by-132-foot (6 by 10 by 40 m) array of 3-D printers that can create large pieces of a structure, which are then assembled on site, according to a 2015 account on the technology website CNet. Benham says the present Chinese method requires the use of huge scaffolds, adding to the expense, but he foresees development of more efficient methods.
For example, networked mobile robots and drones equipped with 3-D printers essentially would swarm over a construction project, building the structure from multiple angles at once. In addition, because 3-D printers have the capability to print conduits and wiring inside objects, builders eventually may be able to construct plug-and-play houses and buildings without the need for electrical subcontractors.
Benham even foresees 3-D printing technology being adapted for landscaping, with robotic vehicles that would put down layers of soil in the same fashion as a printer. “You would load a 3-D topographical map with your cut-and-fill plan and just send the vehicle off to do the job,” he says.
With or without the use of 3-D printing, many see the potential of robotics to have a far-reaching impact on how buildings are built. “We still have guys up on scaffolding 1,200 feet [366 m] up,” Daniel McQuade, chief executive officer of Tishman Construction, noted in a panel discussion at this year’s Fall Meeting. “In the next ten years, there will be drones, with a guy running them from a safe place.”
But already, the first construction robots are starting to appear.
Construction Robotics, a Victor, New York–based firm, has developed the semi-automated masonry (SAM) system, which recently demonstrated its capabilities as part of a school renovation project in Washington, D.C. The system applied cement to 12,000 bricks and put them in place along an exterior wall of the school with the help of a laser guidance system.
The SAM system does not have the intelligence or versatility to replace a skilled human bricklayer, company cofounder and president Scott Peters says, but the machine can leverage human expertise to get more work done in a shorter time, with less wear and tear on human brick masons. “We can amplify the productivity of the mason,” he says. “The human can set up the job, and the robot can build the bulk brick into the wall.”
Peters says his company hopes to develop robots that can perform other construction roles, as well. “We think the opportunity is there,” he says. “Anywhere you have unsafe, boring, or drudgery work, or heavy lifting or something else physically demanding, you can have a machine do it. What you have to do is find ways to define the problem and then add sensors and smart technology to do the task.”
Some also expect a boost from advances in building materials. Dutch researchers, for example, have developed bioconcrete, a type of concrete containing bacteria that, when exposed to water, produce limestone that closes up cracks. Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, have developed a coating made of nanocrystals embedded in glass that can modify sunlight as it passes through a window, controlling both visible light and heat-producing near-infrared light—resulting in potentially major impacts on building energy efficiency. The Berkeley-based startup firm Heliotrope Technologies reportedly is aiming to bring the windows to market in 2017.
One big challenge of preparing for the technological revolution expected over the next few decades is the risk of making a costly bet on a flawed forecast or a supposedly game-changing technology that fizzles or quickly becomes obsolete. A decade ago, McQuade recalls, builders were concerned about what size conduits might be needed to accommodate future generations of data cables—not realizing that wireless devices would render the issue moot.
“Engineers can build things that we can’t conceive today,” Peter Chane, director of multifamily and commercial business for Google Fiber, said in another session at this year’s Fall Meeting. “You don’t want to build a flip phone in a smartphone world.”
To further complicate things, technological advances have the power to cause rapid shifts in market conditions, experts say, meaning real estate’s tech clients tend to grow explosively and shrink just as suddenly.
That is why Uldrich says there will be a greater need for what he calls future-proofing, in which buildings have flexible designs that can be easily converted to different uses. “That could mean modular construction, with buildings that you can add to or subtract from,” he says.
But conversely, he says situations may arise in which a developer may make a cost/benefit decision to go with an existing technology or one with an envisioned expiration date—even though a successor is on the horizon. “Someone had to build the last lighthouse in America,” he says. “Even though they saw the advent of sonar and radar, those technologies weren’t there yet, and they had to keep ships safe. That’s the cost of doing business in a world that’s changing. We may know there is a better alternative down the road, but sometimes we need things now.”
Patrick J. Kiger is a Washington, D.C.–area journalist, blogger, and author.