Computerized office towers: hottest thing since air conditioning?

It may be the era of the ''smart'' office building. This year in Chicago, Hartford, Conn., and a handful of other cities, technology is challenging the traditional view of what constitutes an up-to-date office building.

Here, workers are putting up an office complex at the southern edge of downtown that will house the Midwest Stock Exchange and the Chicago Board Options Exchange. But the innovation of One Financial Place will be its high-powered, inhouse computer that will provide tenants with everything from discount telephone service to a network of data bases. Tenants, most of them unable to afford such equipment on their own, will contract for services on a time-sharing basis.

It's a bit like making a large computer as available as central air conditioning. Since many tenants are expected to be brokers and traders, services will be tailored to their needs.

In Hartford, another company has just completed an even more comprehensive structure. The 38-story CityPlace will use computers not only for high-powered office systems, but also to control air conditioning, talking elevators, and lights that turn off automatically when workers leave a room.

It is what Anthony D. Autorino calls ''the world's first intelligent building.''

That claim by the chairman and chief executive officer of United Technologies Building Systems Company is disputed by Bernard Bishop, whose company will run the services at One Finanacial Place and already is operating a less elaborate smart system for the city's Merchandise Mart and Apparel Center.

In any case, the whole idea has attracted commercial developers. ''It's really a trend. We're seeing them coming up all over the country,'' says Craig Henrich, editor of ''Buildings, the facilities construction management magazine.''

Some experts are concerned about computer security. But both Mr. Bishop and Mr. Autorino are confident about the integrity of their systems and offer encryption as additional protection. But Dr. Sanford Sherizen, president of Data Security Systems Inc. in Natick, Mass., suggests would-be tenants ask some hard questions before deciding to move in. For those who don't know what the hard questions are, he suggests they contact their trade association.

The exact number of intelligent buildings is hard to pin down, says Gardner S. McBride, executive vice-president of Building Owners and Management Association International. But he estimates developers will experiment with one or two such buildings this year and, if successful, expand the number five or six times.

Autorino's two-year-old company, a subsidiary of United Technologies Corporation, is currently under contract to install systems for more than 28 buildings, representing a total of 18 million square feet.

And Autorino expects contracts for another 30 to 50 buildings this year.

''We're being asked to do many more buildings than we can handle,'' he says, which is one reason Building Systems is currently formalizing a joint venture with AT&T Information Systems.

The competition has a David-and-Goliath air about it. While United Technologies has linked the expertise of its communications, elevator, and other subsidiaries to support Building Systems, Mr. Bishop started out of his basement.

''At the time, no one had heard of the idea,'' says Bishop, who quit his job at GTE Corporation and started out on his own in July 1981. His idea was to install advanced computer and communications equipment that tenants could share at a savings. Staff would be on hand to develop services various tenants needed and show them how to use it. Gross sales soared from 130,000 in fiscal 1982 to 5 million last year.

One Financial Place will be the smartest of his smart buildings, he says. It will offer an information network as well as a message service and will answer a tenant's busy or unattended phones.

The building won't be completed until late this year, but nearly half the complex is rented.

While Chicago tenants pay $21.50 to $30 a year to lease and maintain a square foot of office space in new downtown buildings, One Financial Place is advertising rates of $27.75 to $30.25.

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