Making sense of smart buildings (and why they matter)

Fri, 2016-03-18 06:00 -- Doug Peeples

What makes smart buildings different from a traditional building with HVAC, lighting and electrical systems? At its most basic, the biggest differences between the two are how they're managed and what they're intended to do.

Then there's the business value side. Buildings worldwide use 42% of all energy produced, so energy bills are a huge part of a building's budget. Add equipment maintenance, repairs and general operating expenses and it's easy to see why buildings are such spendy investments.

What smart building technologies do
Smart buildings, or more specifically their energy management systems, have evolved to reduce those costs in a number of ways, including increasing energy efficiency and to make it far easier for building managers and operators to see how their building is performing. Bluntly, you can't fix something if you don't know it's broken.

Building design has changed focus over the years to accommodate the needs of building occupants and device connectivity. So IT systems and open source platforms to collect and analyze more and more data are more evident -- meaning data analytics, sensors and other technologies have a growing presence in buildings, whether they're new or being re-commissioned.

In  report on the building energy management systems (BEMS) market -- also referred to as building automation systems (BAS), Navigant Research laid out the benefits of all that building intelligence, IoT and data-driven decision making:

  • Visualization and reporting
  • Fault detection an diagnostics
  • Predictive maintenance
  • Constant improvements and optimization

It's all about monitoring and controlling mechanical and electrical systems as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible.

But why should cities care about smart buildings?
The simplest answer is cities and smart buildings are both working to create sustainable, livable environments and higher quality urban services. As the Harvard Business Review put it in a recent article, smart buildings' energy efficiency help reduce energy waste and a better environment for occupants helps improve a city's livability and its attractiveness. And that in turn can help a city be more economically strong and competitive.

Need some examples?
Smart buildings are a relatively new market with a crowded field of competitors offering wildly different approaches and solutions to meet customer's various needs. However, some of those companies have the resources and commitment to stand out. Here are examples from Council Lead Partners IBM and Microsoft.

IBM partnered with Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh to provide a cloud-based analytics solution to cut energy and operating costs at its facilities. The solution, IBM's Building Management Center provided on its SoftLayer cloud, is designed to monitor thousands of building automation and control system data points. The management center also can detect and correct malfunctions such as simultaneous heating and cooling. Carnegie Mellon, said to the be first higher education institution to use the system, expects to save about $2 million in annual energy costs. The plan has been to conduct pilots in nine of the university's buildings, then extend the project through all 36 on-campus buildings.

The city of Seattle, which had won a DOE grant for new energy efficiency technologies, decided it was the prime opportunity to establish a smart buildings program. With a growing population, the city was facing stiff increases in power consumption and wanted to work with what it had rather than build new power plants. City leaders knew they couldn't do it on their own and called on Microsoft, Accenture, local utility Seattle City Light and a local non-profit to develop a program with the goal of cutting electricity use downtown by 25%.

Microsoft software and cloud services provided a way to collect more useful information from the data coming from building management systems, sensors, controls and meters. The program began with a small number of buildings and has gradually expanded. As Brian Surratt, deputy director of the city's Office of Economic Development said at the time "The use of Microsoft software to glean real-time, actionable insight from existing building data is a game-changer for building owners and utilities. We think our Smart Building project will not only enhance Seattle's energy conservation efforts and open new economic opportunities, but also serve as a model for other cities."

Getting creative with lighting
Smart building management strategies really do come in all flavors. Council Lead Partner Cisco recently announced its Digital Lighting approach. The company hit on the concept when it began working on an intelligent building network and realized a building's lighting system and wiring would be ideal as a network. Lighting is available in all rooms so Cisco engineers determined that DC-powered LED light fixtures would be the foundation of its control system. When it is fully operational, Cisco says the network will be able to connect building management systems, information, security, IoT and others to operate as one.

Related articles…
If the buildings in your city could be smarter, here's one way to do it

Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.