By Janice Hoppe-Spiers
Intelligent Buildings LLC is a smart real estate services company that takes a technology approach to building owners' new projects and existing portfolios. “We have never been just about energy, sustainability or innovation as silo concepts,” co-founder Tom Shircliff says. “We have all of those elements, but the point is to focus on creating business value and reducing risks.”
Shircliff co-founded the Charlotte, N.C.-based company with his business partner, Rob Murchison, in 2004 to provide planning and implementation management of next-generation strategies for new building projects, existing portfolio optimization and smart community development. “We are a relatively small company, but have consulted on more than $2 billion in new development and developed strategies for customers with existing portfolios of more than 2 billion square feet,” Murchison adds.
The company works extensively throughout the United States and Canada in more than 85 cities, and also has performed work and market research in the Middle East, Asia and Central America. “We are a recognized thought leader with numerous industry firsts, including consultation of the award-winning ‘Smartest Building in America,’ conception and development of a Clinton Global Initiative public-private partnership, program management for the largest energy analytics project in North America, and development of national smart building standards for both the United States and Canadian federal government,” the company says.
Smart building conversations typically center on bits and bytes, technology and electronics, but Intelligent Buildings says owners can get sidetracked with all of that and forget why they are having the conversation in the first place. “Too many smart building conversations are about which technology widget is cooler or newer, for example,” Shircliff says. “A smart building is really one that uses technology to do what you are already trying to do faster, cheaper and with less risk.”
For example, computers are used in healthcare because it ensures consistency throughout the system and that patient information is accurate. “They can do what they do faster, cheaper and with less risk, and the same goes for buildings,” Shircliff adds. “We have always had our customers’ business interest and risk in mind.”
Buildings that were built or renovated in the past 30 to 40 years have a lot of technology in them already, Murchison says, but the vast majority did not use or require any IT design fundamentals and are at a greater cyber risk. “For example, an HVAC system in a 50-story building uses a computer server that is networked to a series of floor-level controllers,” he explains. “In addition to the computer and network, it has application software, protocols and remote internet access. Imagine it’s the same story for all other control systems. The cost structure of maintaining all of that slowly creeps up. It’s disconnected, unsecure technology and managed by non-technology contractors.”
When Intelligent Buildings partners with a building owner on a new development, it focuses on implementing systems in a much more organized, converged and cyber-safe way. “Take that 50-story office building example, you get no less than two dozen systems going in like elevators, HVAC, lighting, metering, parking, etc.,” Shircliff says. “Every one of the systems gets its own computer, cabling, software, connection and all by separate vendors. This is not about asking an owner to put in systems they were not planning to put in, but rather to determine how all those planned systems can be integrated and secure.”
The company says the myth associated with smart or green building is that you have to invest a lot upfront and then wait for the payback. “Give me your budget and let me work within that and I’ll leave you with a smart, converged building,” Murchison says.
With an existing portfolio, Intelligent Buildings does not go in and start ripping out “dumb stuff and putting in smart stuff.” The company focuses on implementing softer changes rather than the harder ones that include pulling out equipment. “Softer means connecting the portfolio of 100 buildings to the cloud, for example,” Murchison says. “If I connect everything to the cloud, I can see everything from one place and monitor performance and anomalies. Software is not as expensive as traditional capital improvements and big iron type things. The cloud, big data and analytics are the ways you deal with an existing portfolio.”
Intelligent Buildings’ clients look for a variety of different solutions depending on the customer profile and where they are in their thinking. It’s not always a linear process. “It’s much more like a subway system,” Shircliff says. “Each line has multiple stops, but wherever you get on the subway you can get to anywhere in the city.”
Clients may come to the company with building cybersecurity concerns to tackle first and then move into a smart building strategy. On the other hand, some clients want to start with a smart building strategy and training first before tackling building cybersecurity. “We have learned that everyone is in a different place and wherever you are on the subway map we can help you and keeping you moving on to your destination,” Shircliff says.
Intelligent Buildings manages project outcomes based on the cost structure of running a building. “There are too many individual ROI conversations about whether to put in this lighting system or that metering system, for example,” Murchison says. “The question should start at a higher level, ‘Do I need five people for every building or can I use four people for every building if I centralized operations? Do I have proprietary where I am locked into one vendor or open systems where I can bid maintenance services to multiple companies?’ It’s all about how you look at the business and run it financially.”
Instead of looking at separate purchases and separate ROIs, building owners should be focused on the total cost structure of running their portfolios. Stabilizing headcount and more accurately evaluating capital investments have lasting impacts. “They need to first look at the business metrics and then start turning the battleship,” Shircliff explains. “Too many people take a stab at individual systems to save a percent or two, rather than looking at the bigger picture and saving much more over the long term.”
How safe is each building in your portfolio? Do you know if a contractor has remote access to your elevator system? “We have been focused on building cybersecurity for a while, but the industry is starting to awaken to it,” Murchison says. “What’s interesting is that all those different control systems are put in and maintained by different contractors and all have periodic turnover. The building owner looks around one day and realizes that they themselves are not aware of the dozens or even hundreds of system types, brands, software revisions and remote connections that are in their buildings.
“They also acknowledge that industry-wide there are few to no technology and cybersecurity requirements for building contractors such as password requirements, turnover policy and ongoing monitoring.”
The building owner and not contractors needs to be responsible for their own cyber risks, and in fact building owners are calling Intelligent Buildings, frantic about the possibility of being hacked. “We tell them there are significant risks from not addressing this,” he says, “including life-safety, equipment failure, productivity loss, network hopping and brand or reputation damage, not to mention the competitive disadvantages.”
Intelligent Buildings developed the industry’s first cybersecurity assessment methodology specifically for building controls systems, Building Controls Systems – Cyber Assessment Methods & Procedures (BCS-CAMPsm). The approach is based on the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) cybersecurity framework that includes identifying risks and assets, detecting systems and access, protecting it through monitoring and management, responding and recovery.
“You wouldn’t believe the things we find that are remotely connected, have out-of-date software or are even abandoned in place but connected,” Shircliff says. “The risk assessment is objective and helps you prioritize the action items for remediation. Building owners can then use technology to monitor building cybersecurity and new contractor policies to ensure that in the future all vendors have to adhere to the same rules.”
Nearly every major industry uses data to drive decision-making except for the real estate industry, but Intelligent Buildings says that is starting to change. “We are finally seeing the change,” Shircliff says. “People are starting to realize that the historical process has limitations, making decisions based on actual ‘big data’ faster, more accurate and much more cost-efficient.”
Running a businesses on data versus just intuition can save building owners money, for example by allowing them to do capital budgeting more accurately. “People in multibillion-dollar real estate businesses make capital budget planning and decisions based on calendars,” Shircliff notes. “If the industry standard, expected life of a chiller is 20 years, and the capital budgeting plan was to replace it at that point, it may be too early or too late depending on its actual performance and operating cost. If they had used operational data and analytics to actively monitor performance, they might realize they could get two more years out of the equipment or even see an ROI on replacing it two years earlier.”
Intelligent Buildings is seeing a greater shift to data-driven decision-making now more than ever and believes it is well positioned in the industry to help building owners develop a strategy for success. “We are one of the rare companies that has only focused on smart building services and are getting ready to go into our 14th year,” Murchison says. “We are working in all the major real estate sectors of corporate, commercial, government, healthcare, campus and communities .”
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