COLUMBIA, S.C. – Defining just what is a “smart building” can be elusive, but Tom Lombardo can offer this take on it: “I was told by a developer that a smart building is one that is fully leased,” the vice president of sales for St. Louis-based HBE Financial Facilities says with a laugh. The notion of “smart buildings” has grown with the technology that goes in them, incorporating design innovations with ever-changing functionality. “Another good working definition of a smart building is one that combines innovations, technological or not, with skilful management to maximize return on investment,” says Lombardo. “I think a lot of the smart buildings incorporate some sort of energy efficiency, life safety systems, telecommunications systems and workplace automation,” says Lombardo. Chip Nix, vice president of project development for KDA Holdings ( in suburban Atlanta, shares much of that philosophy. Ask him what makes a building “smart” and he says it’s a matter of technology and design. “In terms of technology, the building is wired with high-capacity cable, many times as fiber optic, to ensure high-speed transmissions. The cable is installed so as to provide for maximum use to as to minimize future cabling changes,” says Nix, whose company includes some 400 credit unions on its client list. Building designers also are allowing the space for large cabling required by fiber optics to be installed in the future if it’s not in the immediate plans, incorporating that into paneling and other infrastructure. Expanding telecommunications also demands more space in other ways. “In terms of design, phone and data, rooms are typically required for each floor where racks are installed to patch trunk cables to the distribution cables, adding floor space not previously required,” Nix says. These physical changes also allow member services to evolve at the same time, industry participants observe, and can accommodate dramatic differences in the way service is delivered in the mainstay of credit union land – the branch office. Self-service, with kiosks biometric and otherwise offering far more functionality than traditional ATM’s, is one ingredient in the mix. There’s also growing use of PC’s with dedicated access to the CU’s online banking functions. Another is the use of remote tellers, using televised screens in the lobby to provide security for tellers and allow them to serve more than one member at a time, just as they do in the drive-through line. (A change transparent to members but equally important to security is the ability to replace tape-driven cameras with digital models, increasing efficiency and ease of use.) But credit unions need to be circumspect when they introduce such changes, especially because of the very high-touch nature of the institutions themselves. “When you take away traditional teller stations, it’s like taking candy from a baby,” says Cynthia Grow, a vice president and co-founder of DEI Financial Facilities ( in Cincinnati. “You have to be very, very careful to educate members that you’re helping them, by being more efficient, by waiting on them that much more quickly,” says Grow. “But you also have to have that personal touch. I still don’t believe in an unmanned facility. We all want that social interaction,” Grow’s company, which has worked with more than 45 credit unions in the past two years, emphasizes a holistic approach to functionality and technology, and incorporates a healthy dose of marketing. For instance, DEI encourages its clients to include such things as plasma-screen monitors that allow fresh marketing messages to be presented in attractive fashion “without the visual noise or unkempt state old-fashioned signage can fall into,” Grow says. The “smart building” philosophy is reflected in two new branches about to go under construction by Austin Area Teachers Federal Credit Union ( in Texas. Working with HBE, the $360 million, 65,000-member institution will have no traditional walk-up teller windows in either of the 5,400-square-foot facilities. Instead, there will be the remote tellers serving members through closed-circuit technology, along with drive-up windows and ATM’s. However, there also will be a greeter and four member-service representatives, for those who want to sit and talk with someone, PC’s with access to the CU’s online banking services, and a separate area for an investment officer, says Kerry Parker, Austin Area FCU’s president and CEO. The high-tech and high touch even extends to the lighting, which will include sophisticated design and capabilities to “allow us to frame the remote tellers, for instance, and soften the harsh edges of the look,” Parker says. “The whole thing will have a different look and feel that will give us something to have fun with,” Parker says of the lighting, screens and marketing features of the new lobbies. “It’s just like your Web site. You want it changing and ever-evolving.” Parker emphasizes that a branch manager sat down and talked with a number of members before the credit union decided on the design of the new buildings. Customization also can follow such discussions, as the credit unions use that information to meet the unique needs of its own membership and of the organization itself, needs often dictated by the environment in which the CU exists. Energy efficiency, for example, takes on new importance in states like Oregon and California, hard hit by electricity shortages and soaring costs, says Lombardo at HBE. For instance, among the 500 financial institutions his company counts as clients (about 70% of them CU’s) is AltaOne Federal Credit Union ( in Ridgecrest, Calif., where the interior engineering includes such things as controlling zones of temperatures and lighting to turn off what’s not needed, basically. “This is done through direct digital controls, so it’s automated. There’s less human involvement, less manpower needed, so you’re saving in that way, too,” Lombardo notes. Much of this new design takes place in new construction, notes Nix of KDA, who says he doesn’t see a lot of it going on as retrofitting except in major renovations. Because creating a smart building involves so much integration, one of the changes the industry is seeing is the increase of design-build construction rather than the traditional route of a CU hiring an architect, then a general contractor, then an interior designer, and so on, says Grow at DEI. “This is more of a turnkey solution. There’s just too much finger-pointing and not enough anticipating the needs the old way. This way you look at the total project and get a better understanding. And it’s a lot cheaper to change it on paper than once the drywall’s in,” she says. -

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