Through the 20-year efforts of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and its European counterparts, builders have incorporated environmental advances and modern guidelines for electrical and fire safety to successfully usher in a “sustainable building” movement.  The real estate crisis of 2008 has not thwarted this effort but sharpened its focus, by forcing the industry to re-examine what building practices will produce and sustain value. Increasingly, that value will come from focusing on building performance as well as design, incorporating innovations that allow people to exert greater control over the how building systems operate.

These so-called “smart buildings” rely on sensors and other technology to better monitor and regulate the various systems within. A smart building could monitor the air for mold and chemical particles that can be concentrated within buildings. Instead of waiting for a monthly water bill for information, a smart building could provide owners detailed information about water use instantly, for any time. The same ability can be applied to electricity and gas use. With this information, smart buildings can more efficiently regulate these systems, reducing costs for the building owner and furthering the move toward cutting consumption of these finite resources.

This argument for the increased importance of “performance” innovation to disrupt the building industry is the subject of a white paper, “Dawn of the Building Performance Era,” by Erin Grossi, chief economist at UL.

One way smart buildings can outperform traditional buildings is less obvious but may be most important. In a section called, “IAQ: The Sleeping Giant of Building Performance,” Grossi lays out the case that our way of thinking about the state of the air within a building is ripe for change.

We now know that mold caused from buildings negatively affects human health, which has caused a spike in health-related mold exposure lawsuits.  New building materials also  tend to emit a greater variety of chemicals into a building’s air. Methods to seal buildings tighter to better conserve energy also prevent air impurities from being let outside, thus concentrating them indoors.

The ability of smart buildings to monitor and mitigate the substances in a building’s air supply, Grossi said, is dependent on a growth in public awareness that pushes research into the effects of these pollutants. This public demand is likely to be sparked by recent advances in hand-held and home air quality detectors that will empower individuals to test their surroundings. UL’s air quality scientists think the ability to produce effective detectors iseasily within five years away.

The key factor pushing our society into mass adoption of smart building use is the technological competence of a new generation — the Millennials. People born after 1976 are, in general, more conditioned to be familiar with and rely on information technology to make decisions. Using computers and information technology to monitor building use will be second-nature to a generation that has never operated without computers. These people will increasingly join the ranks of building operations and maintenance staff who will likely welcome the increased use of smart building construction.

A number of parallel developments – the need to conserve our finite energy and water resources, the greater understanding of the health consequences of airborne contaminants, and the maturation of an information-savvy workforce – are all pushing in one direction, Grossi said. The ground is laid for a boom in sustainable building production that can spur the construction industry back to the pre-collapse levels.