Stijn Verbeke is senior researcher at EnergyVille/VITO and University of Antwerp. He is an innovator on smart buildings and data-driven tools for improving the energy performance of buildings and districts.
Stijn holds a PhD degree in applied engineering and lectures courses on building physics and energy performance of buildings for engineering students at the University of Antwerp.
He was collaborator or coordinator in various R&D projects on sustainable and smart buildings and communities for national and international clients.
In recent years, Stijn was strongly involved in the process of developing the EU Smart Readiness Indicator (SRI) for buildings, as principal investigator in the first study and coordinator of the consortium of the second technical support study commissioned by EC DG ENER.
This interview addresses the topic of Smart Buildings and the SRI, which is a vast field currently undergoing significant evolutions, with interesting potentials and expectations.
We will like you to share your views and insights on some punctual questions we think will be of interest to the BUILD UP community and to which it will be useful to bring some light and clarifications.
1 May we start with a ‘conceptual’ question: How do you define smartness of buildings?
In literature, many – sometimes conflicting – definitions of smartness are used. In our technical support studies, we have proposed the following definition:
“The Smartness of a building refers to the ability of a building or its systems to sense, interpret, communicate and actively respond in an efficient manner to changing conditions in relation to the operation of technical building systems or the external environment (including energy grids) and to demands from building occupants.”
Smartness of buildings thus refers to active exchange of information between components of the building, between the building and its users and thirdly also between the building and its environment. Digital technologies will be essential to facilitate this information exchange and act upon it.
Such smart digital technologies in buildings can bring multiple benefits; amongst others, they can be a cost-effective solution for realising energy savings.
Many smart services are less visible than other building features, and they are less known to building owners and construction professionals.
The European Commission introduced the concept of the SRI in the 2018 revision of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive to make the benefits more tangible to building users and building professionals.
2. Is smartness of a building a goal in its own right?
Personally, I don’t think so. There are some examples of buildings where technology enthusiasts have gone so far in automatisation that the technologies become gimmicks or are so experimental only the person who installed it knows how to operate it.
Smartness should serve the purpose of providing you with a better building in terms of energy performance, health, convenience, etc. It should be a means to an end and not a goal in its own right.
Ideally, you hardly even notice most of the smart technologies, as the building and its systems work seamlessly together to provide a better operation without the need for manual interventions by the occupant or facility manager.
You can think of examples such as artificial light that adjust to daylight availability, shading devices or night ventilation that prevent overheating, and controls for optimising charging of your electric vehicle or domestic hot water storage e.g., at times when there is excessive electricity from local renewables available.
The users will still have the possibility to override controls, but if everything is perfectly orchestrated, there is no need to do so.
Also note that smartness of a building only refers to aspects related to digitalisation and automatisation. Ideally, a building is not only smart, but also energy efficient (smartness can assist here, but conventional technologies such as insulation and efficient HVAC are also essential), safe and healthy, with a low cradle-to-grave environmental impact, etc.
3 What are the most important smart products that should be prioritised?
Rather than focusing on individual products, we should look at the services they can offer.
This is also the approach we took in developing the calculation method for the SRI. Basically, it is a multi-criteria assessment method that evaluates the impacts that smart services in a building can bring.
The proposed weighting mechanism gives equal value to the three main themes, i.e., interaction with user, efficient operation of the building and interaction with the grid.
These are calculated by aggregating scores on the following seven impact categories:
- Energy efficiency
- Maintenance and fault prediction
- Health, well-being and accessibility
- Information to occupants
- Energy flexibility and storage
So instead of a prioritisation of a specific product or technology, this approach can help assess what is most impactful for a building.
This can be context-specific, e.g. moveable shades will be more important in offices in warm climates than in Nordic houses.
The SRI also helps to create awareness on services of smart technologies that are currently less known to a broader public, e.g., the potential for shifting energy demands in time.
Such flexibility is to become an increasingly important asset as we progress towards decarbonised energy systems which have a higher share of intermittent renewable energy resources.
4 Where does the notion of readiness stem from in the name of the indicator?
This terminology recognises the distinction between the inherent capabilities of the building (‘it is ready’) as opposed to actual performance during operation.
This was discussed extensively with many of the hundreds of stakeholders who supported the technical study teams in developing the SRI. The current SRI aims to be a relatively quick and affordable method to assess the capabilities of the building, also in the design stage.
Therefore, it does not investigate operational aspects such as the actual configuration of building management software, neither does it require time series of metered data on energy, comfort, etc.
More fundamentally, the notion of readiness also allows scoring building features that are currently not fully exploited due to constraints in boundary conditions, e.g. current absence of market actors to operationalise flexibility services in a specific local context.
Although the current methodology solely focuses on the readiness, the SRI is to become an instrument that evolves regularly to keep pace with innovations on the market.
I reckon that over time, such operational aspects can also be integrated into the SRI or accompanying assessments.
The technical study team already explored some potential future pathways, supported by a group of engaged stakeholders.
5 What about practical and personal experiences, do you live or work in a smart building yourself?
I have the pleasure of working in two exceptionally smart buildings, if the COVID restrictions allow me to go on site.
Both the ‘EnergyVille 1 building’ in Genk and the University of Antwerp ‘Campus Groenenborger building Z’ in Antwerp have been conceived as advanced living labs with a lot of smart features. Interestingly though, both buildings have a different design approach.
EnergyVille 1 is a very sleek office and laboratory building, with typical suspended ceiling systems, large open space office areas with very big windows, and is fully air-conditioned. An advanced centralised building management system and 100s of sensors ensure an optimal operation.
The EnergyVille 1 building obtained a post-construction BREEAM Outstanding label. At the University of Antwerp, building Z also has many smart features, including an array of different heat suppliers for both research and educational purposes.
Individual controls in each classroom and office allow to override the central control and enable users to adjust temperature, shades, operable windows, ventilation, etc. The building only has active cooling for the thermally activated concrete floors of the computer classes.
For the remainder of the building, the combination of moveable external shades, exposed thermal mass, and operable windows for night cooling allow to prevent summer overheating.
In my home, largely dating from the 1950s, only a limited number of smart services is currently implemented. In a few months’ time, however, building extension and renovation works are planned.
It will probably come as no surprise that indeed a lot of state-of-the-art smart features will be installed.
6 The studies on the SRI have completed. What can be expected next?
The technical support studies executed by VITO and its partners have indeed completed in June 2020. The final report presented implementation pathways and a consolidated methodology to EC DG ENER.
These conclusions are heavily informed by the interactions with a very active stakeholder community.
In the course of the studies, over 800 stakeholders subscribed to the mailing lists, we had 100s of participants in the various live or remote meetings, and volunteering stakeholders completed 112 SRI assessments with a draft version of the methodology on buildings across Europe.
Following the technical support studies, the European Commission adopted two legal acts at the end of 2020. The latter have been published on 21 December and entered into force on 10 January 2021.
These acts have officially established the SRI as an ‘optional common union scheme’. Member states have now the opportunity – but not the obligation – to start testing the SRI implementation at national level.
The study team observed strong support from many of the stakeholders, and our impact analysis revealed that rolling out the SRI will bring about strongly beneficial impacts, e.g. on EU energy consumption and economic returns.
It’s my hope that SRI will quickly be established as a well-known and broadly supported indicator, helping to transform the European building sector into a digital and connected age.
The introduction of the SRI is only a stepping stone in this process. Eventually, it will require a collaborative effort of building owners, manufacturers, designers, facility managers, contractors, researchers, etc., all joining forces in order to make become our building stock a smarter one.
Myself, I’m keen to continue to contribute to this. Firstly, at a small scale, by testing and exploring new innovative solutions together with my colleagues, master students and Ph.D. students in various case study applications.
And I do hope my own house will also become a noteworthy example of a smart building.
Secondly, I’m looking forward to continuing collaboration with many peer researchers and stakeholders at the European level through the EU H2020 coordination and support action ‘Smartbuilt4EU’.
VITO is one of the partners in this project (led by ECTP) which is tasked with bringing together the innovators in the smart building area across Europe.
Together with this community, the project will jointly draft white papers on important topics such as interoperability, data protection and environmental performance of smart buildings.
Eventually, this input will feed into a European Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda that will identify key priorities for future innovations in the smart building sector.
References for further reading
S. Verbeke, D. Aerts, G. Reynders, Y. Ma, P. Waide; Final report on the technical support to the development of a smart readiness indicator for buildings; Published: 2020-09-18; ISBN 978-92-76-19197-1; DOI 10.2833/41100; Catalogue number MJ-03-20-335-EN-N
Commission Delegated Regulation (EU) 2020/2155 of 14 October 2020 supplementing Directive (EU) 2010/31/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council by establishing an optional common European Union scheme for rating the smart readiness of buildings C/2020/6930
Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2020/2156 of 14 October 2020 detailing the technical modalities for the effective implementation of an optional common Union scheme for rating the smart readiness of buildings (Text with EEA relevance) C/2020/6929