Derek Clements-Croome: an intelligent standpoint

The CIBSE Intelligent Buildings Group was founded in 2006 by Professor Derek Clements-Croome FCIBSE. He speaks to co-opted chair Dr Yangang Xing about how the group has evolved to meet the needs of building occupants and the wider environment

Can you tell me why you founded the Intelligent Buildings Group and why the term intelligent, rather than smart, was used?

My work on intelligent buildings goes back a long time, to my work with Ted Happold at Bath University in the 1980s. I came to Reading University as professor in 1988, and in 1996 was awarded a five-year Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council grant for developing an MSc course focused on the design and management of intelligent buildings.

A few years later, I wrote a book on intelligent buildings, which was published in 2004 by the Institution of Civil Engineers. I had co-founded the CIBSE Natural Ventilation Group in 1992 and noted other groups tended to focus on specific issues but did not address intelligent buildings in a holistic, systemic and strategic way. I put forward a suggestion to CIBSE and, in 2006, the Intelligent Buildings Group (IBG) was born.

The name was decided after much consideration. Intelligent and smart do not have the same meaning. You can be intelligent in a cognitive way, in a practical hands-on way, or in terms of emotions – so-called emotional intelligence. The word smart tends to be associated with hi-tech, such as smartphones or the internet of things – but intelligent buildings are not necessarily hi-tech. You can have low-tech intelligent buildings with passive approaches, such as the museum in Nouméa, designed by Renzo Piano, which is a simple, low-tech, naturally ventilated building.

Smart tends to be associated with high-technology applications and this doesn’t represent the true history of intelligent buildings, because it excludes the simpler passive approach to environmental design.

Smart is an important property of intelligent buildings, but they also have to be resilient, sustainable and liveable – and this includes connecting with nature via biomimetics and biophilia, which offer a biological design that can also lead to sustainable solutions.

What is the focal point of the IBG community?

Currently, we have the climate change challenge of keeping global warming to 1.5°C, but we have a health and wellbeing challenge too. 

Covid-19 was a warning to us that we must think more carefully about how we arrange work settings and – whether it is at home or in an office, school, or other type of building – this means considering much more deeply the impact of the environment we create on physical and mental health. Intelligent buildings must address both.

On climate change, there is a lot of talk about energy– but water, waste and pollution are important too. Pollution affects health so makes a direct link with climate change. How do we achieve a net zero economy for carbon and waste?

The use of new or modified materials and the move towards hydrogen, are some of the many examples of smart technologies that will enable the challenges to be overcome. Others, such as artificial intelligence, 3D printing, robotics and biomimetics, will help to integrate and optimise systems used in buildings.

Three pillars provide a foundation to the design, management, and operation of intelligent buildings: smart technologies as enablers; sustainable solutions, including nature-based ones; and improving the quality of life for people living or working within them.

It is important to blend the freshness of youth with the experience of older people… work across generations

What has the group achieved?

Our diversity, in terms of countries, gender and disciplines, is outstanding. We now have 14,000 members worldwide, and the connection we have made with the International Council for Research and Innovation in Buildings and Construction (CIB), as an associate body, has been valuable. 

On behalf of CIBSE, I toured Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, debating and talking about the nature of intelligent buildings. I visited many CIBSE regions around the UK, again lecturing on intelligent buildings, including Newcastle, Liverpool, Manchester and London when I was a vice-president in 2007-09.

We issued a roadmap in 2018 in collaboration with CIB, and we have held seminars and webinars over many years. We also publish twice-yearly Newsletters, which are highly informative.

The committee communicates in a variety of ways, through media such as podcasts, blogs and videos. We have a lot of devoted people of all ages on our committee. We are now trying to develop what I will call a circular knowledge economy. 

Too often, older people get dropped off by default. It is important to blend the freshness of youth with the experience of older people. Let us work across generations. 

What is the strategy of the group?

The 2017 Grenfell tragedy showed us that all is not well in the construction industry. There are still lots of areas that need resetting, and one of those is the tendency to think in silo groups.

Distilling knowledge down to specific factors and dealing with those thoroughly is fine to a certain point, but you have to be connected. Silo thinking brings about fragmentation, which is too prevalent in our industry.

We need a more transdisciplinary approach. Our knowledge can be enriched by working across sectors, otherwise there is a danger of becoming too inward looking, which can happen in institutions. 

Interventions from other fields – medicine, for example – can extend our thinking and help us to champion change confidently. The division between industry and universities has reduced, but there remains some way to go.

Knowledge is often marred by media or politics, making information unclear, incomplete and just wrong on occasions. Quick fixes and low-cost options are too often used as a basis for selection. In the end, cheap becomes more expensive, as systems wear out quickly and break down frequently. We must communicate better with our clients too. User-centric design is becoming more accepted.

Can you please introduce the new book Designing buildings for People you are working on?

There are eight chapters covering various aspects of design—topics such as holistic sustainability approaches, nature-based solutions, important enabling technologies, health and wellbeing and decision-making. In the last chapter, I present a gallery of 19 case studies with firms such as Arup, PLP Architecture, SOM, Atelier Ten, and many others. Each photo is accompanied by a few paragraphs by the designers. 

The book is quite personal and based on my experiences since I started working as an apprentice, aged 16, in the building services industry. Along the way, I have had inspiring mentors, as well as students, to whom I owe much.

In 2018, I edited Creating the productive workplace – 28 chapters from 15 or so authors from industry and academia worldwide. I also wrote four chapters. Two books were published in 2013. One was an Introduction to intelligent buildings, which was written largely by members of the CIBSE IBG. This was accompanied by the 2nd edition of the 2004 book. There is a third edition being planned for publication in 2023-24.