Intelligent Buildings Co-Founders Comment on Smarter Buildings‍

By Lori Lovely

Most commercial, industrial, and retail buildings today use some level of intelligent system, most commonly in lighting, HVAC, or security. Because the technology is advancing so rapidly, it’s now possible to collect more data and use it to accomplish many more tasks.

Previously, building owners often installed building management systems piecemeal, usually starting with lighting or HVAC. With multiple automated systems, data must be collected from multiple places. Overcoming the limitations of individual systems, some owners and managers switched to partially integrated systems that combined networks and automation of specific functions. The more integrated systems generally require less manual intervention, thus enabling faster decision-making.

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Over the past several years, the building industry has recognized the importance of modernizing building HVAC and lighting system designs to enable interconnection, data collection, and analysis, increasingly turning to fully integrated building management systems. Using one infrastructure to manage all the building’s systems minimizes manual intervention, increases productivity, and produces even more data.

Integrative process design is not new, states Gina Elliott, business development for emerging markets, Viconics Electronics, but now it’s adopted more for operational efficiencies because it is less compartmentalized and can work across trades: mechanical, electrical, and IT.

For years, it’s been accepted in large commercial facilities such as standalone retail stores like Costco and Home Depot, says Jamie Daubenspeck, director of facility technology at Ecova, but now there’s also a lot of adoption in medium and small commercial facilities—those that are less than 10,000 square feet in size, like convenience stores.

Elliott believes it’s more readily adopted now because of the ability for multiple systems to operate in tandem. “You can’t have different teams working independently.” She says that’s a change in the design itself.

It’s not that we’re missing much technology now, argues Tom Shircliff, co-founder and principal at Intelligent Buildings. “There’s no lack of algorithms, but the industry is fragmented so we’re a decade behind in adopting the technology.”

There’s plenty of technology and systems to make anything happen, agrees his colleague and co-founder, Rob Murchison. “The conversation has changed from systems to use-cases. We talk about scenarios and what it takes to make them happen.”

The conversation is not the only thing that has changed. Shircliff says that he no longer considers Intelligent Buildings a sustainability company. “We’re an energy efficiency company.” Of course, smart building systems are about more than just efficiency. They’re also about health and productivity, as well as sustainability. “It’s a balance, and it’s all driven by data.”

“Granular analysis is helping to revolutionize how we think about smart building design, from occupancy usage patterns to how controls systems respond to changing conditions,” says Don Kasper, vice president of operations at Ecorithm. “This deep understanding of building science and operation will help us form a basis for technologies like AI, blockchain, and cloud-based services to automate building operations and allow buildings to become a much more interactive environment.”

Energy efficiency impacts occupant comfort. As Elliott explains, smart technology does two things. Firstly, by tagging energy transactions, the building management system allows facility managers to segment devices to collect more and better data. “You see more points and have more access with edge devices, enabling you to determine the cause [of issues] faster. Tagging lets you know all the building so you can focus on improving the occupant experience.”

Tagging also provides more information on points within a device. By identifying additional devices and points, tagging allows facility managers to acquire more data. Understanding the relationships between rooms and devices and how things function can reduce false detection diagnostics. It affords building managers the ability to perform proactive maintenance. However, it also requires changes in policy regarding the amount of bandwidth needed, as well as security practices.

Previously, Elliott explains, there was no interface with IT systems, but now, most are IT-enabled. “You can access directly to the device with an IP address. That way, the manufacturer can monitor its own equipment through device-to-cloud connectivity.” IP-enabled devices can facilitate intelligent decision-making by automating point decisions and enhancing strategic insights. She says it offers more data performance, but there is a downside: when giving out IP addresses, you need to incorporate best practices regarding security and bandwidth.

The latest design trends are aimed at data-driven decision-making and are setting the stage for “some really cool technology” in the near future, Kasper foresees. “In 2018, there is a strong emphasis on open protocols, open-source software, edge analytics, and cloud-based services to begin collecting data from devices, networking disparate systems together, and creating a path forward for data-driven decision-making.”

It’s all about big data and the cloud, Murchison concurs. “If a building can capture data and make decisions, that’s a smart building.”

Now that there is new data being collected, Daubenspeck ponders, what to do with the data? So much data is now being collected, used, and accessed in different ways, it can be overwhelming.

What do we do with data? “Put it in a bucket in the basement,” says Shircliff, only half in jest. “It will be useful when you figure things out.” More realistically, he advises those new to data overload to limit themselves in the beginning. “Start with one or two things. Ask it business questions. Look at engines like a Magic 8-Ball and ask high-level business questions.”

The end-user, building owner, building manager, and manufacturer have different perspectives and different needs, Elliott points out, so they will use different data. For example, contractors are concerned with perfecting installation efficiency: audit loss, centralized programming, and configuration. “They want faster and easier installation.” From a manufacturing perspective, she says the focus is on “less time, less money.” Building managers are interested in efficiencies, productivity, and occupant experience.

Ultimately, data enables flexibility; therefore, you need a flexible design, Elliott continues. The Internet of Things (IoT) enables operational systems that deliver more accurate and useful data for improving operations and providing the best experience for occupants. “It enhances convenience when you know a user’s preferences and can set it to them. You then have happier, more productive employees.”

The Internet of Things

The IoT is a term to identify various technologies and applications that allow devices and locations to generate and share data with each other and with other information technology systems via the internet, which provides data to indicate how well they’re working, their position, and other information.

According to market research firm IHS, in 2015 more than 15.4 billion gadgets fell into this category. That number is expected to double by the end of 2020, and double again by the end of 2025.

“The Internet of Things exists and is a tremendous driver for interaction with architectural and engineering aspects of buildings,” believes Shircliff. “Even if we put aside all of the consumer and mobile technologies for a moment, the Building Internet of Things is enough for a very long list, including building controls systems, meters/sub meters, sensors, renewables, generators, and storage.”

Those Building Internet of Things (BIoT) aspects can drive a comprehensive, automated experience that supports productivity, experience, comfort, and operational efficiency. Shircliff believes that consumer and mobile IoT items such as wearables, smart phones and tablets, computers, and other electronics will increasingly join with the BIoT to create a more seamless human-to-building interaction.

The IoT is creating a shift in human interaction with the built environment, Kasper adds. “At one point, buildings were valued only for the protection from the environment and for creating an orderliness for how occupants, furniture, and even business functions were organized within a physical structure. Today, there is a shift in focus to creating a symbiotic relationship between human function, business function, and additional benefits that a building can provide.”

IoT-enabled building management systems can reduce energy usage, alert to needed maintenance and repairs, and lower administrative costs through continuous monitoring and predictive capabilities. Being able to address repairs and maintenance issues before occupants are aware that anything is wrong has been a game changer, but now data is able to do even more.

Data can track space usage patterns, identify consumer demands and occupant behavior, and enhance occupant experience, thanks to sensors that track motion, pressure, light, temperature, and flow, and can communicate through a network in real time.

As more devices are connected to each other, such as HVAC, lighting, and security, there is a more seamless user experience. “Data collected from these once disparate systems can now be used to cater comfort on an individual occupant basis or reduce energy use based on work schedules and occupant density,” elaborates Kasper. Rather than a control system tasked with creating a base level of comfort for all occupants, control systems and networked devices can deliver more precise comfort to individual tenants while reducing energy consumption.

Comfort and convenience are going to cost you—but they’re going to cost you less because the cost of sensors, data storage, and connectivity is falling. And, as the technology becomes more affordable, adoption is increasing.

While commercial buildings have been the highest adopters and users of the IoT, industry insiders forecast that smart homes will surge past them in 2018 with more than 1 billion connected technologies. “The technology used in building control systems spills over into the residential realm,” explains Daubenspeck, who observes “a lot of innovation like cloud-based technology” moving in that direction as both standalone and distributed devices begin leveraging algorithms.

A study by the Deloitte Center for Financial Services predicts that sensor deployment in the real estate sector will grow at a compounded annual rate of 78.8% from 2015 to 2020, reaching nearly 1.3 billion.

GreenBiz estimates that cities alone could spend $20 billion on sensor networks by 2020, and cites a Navigant Research report that revenue related to installations of sensor-equipped lighting, climate control equipment, thermostats, and other automation systems could quadruple over the next decade to about $732 billion. GreenBiz also states that “ABI Research predicts that revenue related to IoT-enabled smart building technologies [predominantly smart lighting and HVAC control systems] should grow to more than $8 billion in 2020.”

The IoT has had, and continues to have, a considerable impact that reaches beyond cost savings to operational efficiencies, improved occupant experience, and revenue generation opportunities. More recently, it goes beyond smart thermostats that adjust temperature and humidity levels or lights that sense a presence. Making buildings more efficient centers on data collection.

Installing sensors and automatic features has been done for years, yielding cost savings and operational efficiency by way of better energy management and lower personnel costs. “Smart thermostats, HVAC, and lighting controls are low-hanging fruit,” says Daubenspeck, adding that building managers can save 10–30% by doing “simple stuff like schedules.”

It’s easy to make the business case for IoT technology, Daubenspeck believes. “Energy is easy. You’re looking at a 12–24-month ROI. It will have a productivity impact on operations and maintenance because you can detect issues early and fix them.”

On the horizon, he envisions the opportunity to leverage smart buildings to drive common retail sales, conceiving the ability to customize the environment per customer to control things like lighting, temperature, and music. “Better lighting could improve sales!”

Customization makes customers more comfortable, but communication with them helps build relationships. Sensors in shopping malls can offer services directly to the consumer. The same technology that improves customer experience also helps business owners track retail sales via smartphones. “Our ability to interact with buildings will continue to evolve—and it will be integrated,” predicts Daubenspeck.

But—there is always a but—there can be security issues when customers are allowed to directly interact with a company’s smart systems. “You must get IT involved,” insists Daubenspeck.

In fact, IT may be involved in more ways than merely looking at the security of systems. Daubenspeck mentions one Ecova client, a global convenience store chain with headquarters in Texas that installed smart pizza ovens for improved energy efficiency and sustainability. “It was driven by IT internally,” he notes. “Corporate facility managers are not cutting-edge. You’re going to see other groups in corporate organizations push technological initiatives.”

Security, AI, and the Cloud

Smart building design has moved squarely into the electronic/data realm. While there are still progressive and evolving design elements such as materials, shapes, and sizes, the broader IT themes such as big data, cloud, IoT, artificial intelligence, and cyber security are driving, and will continue to drive, smart design. “Of those themes,” says Shircliff, “cyber security has taken a dominant position, since all the others depend on it.”

As the IoT and the idea of interconnected devices spread throughout the building industry, AI can be leveraged to do autonomous control, enhance security, and even interact with the occupants of the building. “Tesla is a great example of taking an ordinary mundane task, such as operating a vehicle, and applying AI to assist, and eventually completely control, a basic yet complex task,” elaborates Kasper. “I predict that the same will be true for operating a building’s HVAC, lighting, and security systems.”

It’s already starting to play a role in the buildings of the future. Today, companies such as Ecorithm use AI to understand how environmental conditions dynamically interact with the transience of occupancy and how a control system responds.

Artificial intelligence is the glue for all of it, Murchison believes. “In buildings, this will feel like a mix of controls systems, integrated systems sequence of operations, Amazon Alexa, and a scene from the movie Minority Report. You will be able to ask or command things about the building, in addition to it just knowing that, because you pulled in the parking deck, that you need an elevator brought down, security to let you in, ingress lighting to your desk, and heat turned on if it’s off-hours. We have nearly all of the tools to enable Minority Report, but as usual, it’s a matter of planning, willpower, use cases, and value propositions.”

It’s also a matter of more data, Elliott reiterates. “AI increases preventative and predictive maintenance, but it needs more data to look at patterns and conditions for the best scenario.” While the integration of systems allows for efficiencies by automating processes, she says tagging will help pinpoint the location of issues for “just-in-time” maintenance. The ability to analyze the data redefines the role of the building manager.

Emerging technology is redefining roles and processes. Daubenspeck talks about “bring-your-own-thermostat technology” for light bulbs, sensors, and meters that connects directly to the cloud. “It’s the future. Now you can build a solution in the cloud that is not dependent on any specific brand.” Previously, proprietary hardware platforms were the norm, but he explains that it’s more attractive to have a solution that’s not dependent on one vendor because it offers more options, fewer limits, and it might even be cheaper. “Technology will get smarter with the cloud; it understands functions and the sequence of operations. It’s a shift in business models, it’s the next step in the evolution: edge direct to cloud using agnostic devices. Closed-loop systems are in the past. This is a paradigm shift.”