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Construction Corner: Constructing a ‘smart city in a box’

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The concept of a smart city is new enough that people are still trying to sort out what it means.

There is more than one design idea and more than one notion of the kinds of technology that might be involved.

Chicago is going with what it calls an Array of Things to get a reading of the city’s overall health. They’re overlaying modern technology on an city that already exists.

But in Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., a private equity company called 22 Capital Partners is planning to build a much smaller smart district, but doing it from scratch. They’re calling it a "city-in-a-box."

It’s been interesting to watch the press handouts as they bring partners on board. They’ve signed up the Tishman Construction unit of Los Angeles-based AECOM. They also have Trinity Group Construction and DVA Architects. Greystar will provide pre-construction consulting and property management services. That pretty well looks after the design and construction aspects of the project. That leaves the technology, the stuff that gives a city or neighbourhood or building its smarts.

The developers announced some time ago that they had signed up Microsoft Corp. to spearhead the technology. Since then, they’ve added George Washington University and the Center for Innovative Technology (CIT) as tech partners. George Washington is a research university with a strong engineering faculty. CIT is a Virginia-based non-profit that accelerates next-generation technology and tech companies.

The project will be overseen by a company called 22 CityLink.

What’s significant about these signings is 22 Capital’s decision to incorporate technology into all aspects of the development before anyone gets a shovel into the ground.

So what are all these outfits going to build?

The project is called Gramercy District, in Ashburn, a suburban community just northwest of Washington and near Dulles International Airport.

It will be built facing the northwestern terminus of D.C.’s Silver metro line.

It’s going to be a US$500 million-plus project of 2.5-million square feet on 16.8 acres of land. It will include three residential buildings, a hotel, retail, one office building, a business centre, two parking garages and a series of public plazas and open space. The buildings, of course, will all be smart.

Construction will be phased with the first part to be delivered sometime in 2019.

But what might be the most important aspect of the project is a concept that Tom McConnell, executive vice-president of Gramercy District, is calling a "smart city in a box."

That platform, he said in a statement, will form "the foundation for the development of smart cities by linking together all aspects of real estate development with a preconfigured, intelligent framework."

It will, he said, be "a repeatable, highly efficient, sustainable and economically viable model."

That’s a tall order, which could be why 22 Capital’s announcements were somewhat spread out. It takes time to make sure that the companies you’re courting for a project such as this are able to take on the job and that they’re capable of producing the kind of results one would expect of such a high-visibility project.

Don’t be put off by the "in a box" concept. McConnell wasn’t talking about the kind of cookie-cutter suburban projects that have contributed so much to urban sprawl everywhere in North America.

What will be "in the box" will be the technology. And it will be technology that can be updated, enlarged, reconfigured and used somewhere else.

McConnell said that the team is made up of firms "known for their expertise in the design and construction of commercial, residential and retail developments, who are forward thinking, ready to embrace how technology can improve our city’s overall experience."

They are, after all, going to build what is really a living laboratory, where technology and real estate are merged to create an environment that continuously adapts to the people who live and work there.

Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to

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