Smart buildings; are they the wave of the future or simply a fad?  Do we want smart buildings?  Let’s start out with discussing what a smart building is.  Many people may hear “smart building” and immediately have visions of HAL 9000 or Skynet, but the reality is much more benign.  The definition of a smart or intelligent building is as follows; a building that integrates technology and process to create a facility that is safer, more comfortable and productive for its occupants, and more operationally efficient for its owners. Advanced technology, combined with improved processes for design, construction and operations, provide a superior indoor environment that improves occupant comfort and productivity while reducing energy consumption and operations staffing.  In simpler terms a smart building is one which is connected to the electrical grid and telecommunications services in its location, to provide real time information to facilities managers in order to provide a more pleasant and efficient environment.

The benefits of a smart building are myriad.  Connected or smart buildings are designed through automation and integration to be more efficient, lowering costs of ownership through maintenance.  Smart buildings are also designed to create a more sustainable environment, by helping to maintain the existing equipment in optimum working order.  A benefit to a more efficient, maintained, and balanced building is tenant comfort, and by extension, tenant retention.  An optimized building can keep costs lower, which, along with greater comfort, may help persuade tenants to remain in the facility rather than moving on.

Creating a smart building is done using a combination of automation, integration, and data analytics and visualization.  The more you can implement from each of these areas, the more connected or smart your building is considered. Automation can be achieved using hardware or software for monitoring and controlling building systems.  Many school systems currently use an automated system to control the HVAC for all of the schools in their district from one central office location.  These systems use information sent over the internet to control heating and cooling for remote locations.  Using automation allows the facilities manager to enjoy greater efficiency over manual systems, allowing the machine to regulate heat and cooling, rather than at the whim of an individual’s temperature shifts.  Automation based efficiencies help to lower maintenance costs, provide better indoor air quality, and increase occupant comfort and productivity.  Areas to automate include HVAC, lighting, access, security and CCTV, fire/life safety, window shading, irrigation, etc.

In addition to automation, integration of multiple building systems is key to a truly smart building.  A fully integrated building would have all automated systems connected and controlled by one central hub, using a combination of hardware and software to provide this connectivity.  Integrating the separate building elements may allow the facilities manager to consolidate service providers, providing potential savings in utilities.  At a minimum it’s suggested that inter-related systems be automated and integrated together, such as lighting, occupancy, and access controls.  Controlling the number of people in a space, will control the occupancy level, which in turn will determine the areas where lighting is required.  The greater more systems are integrated, the less number of people required to monitor those systems.

Another element in the intelligent building description is analytics and visualization.  These provide real time information to a monitoring station regarding the current conditions of the system being monitored, for instance real time temperature information for building HVAC.  A basic implementation of a monitoring system, implemented by many public school systems, is a central monitoring unit in the lobby of a school.  Many school facilities are now using the visual data gathering systems as teaching aids for HVAC classes, using the real time building data as real world examples of theories learned in the classroom.  Newer systems available today provide system dashboards and mobile applications to stay connected to the building at all times, providing far better maintenance coverage than in earlier system.

The current technology for smart buildings is limited to the building it’s installed in, but the future of smart buildings is moving toward complete integration.  The current power grid system in the United States is a one way system, power is generated at the power plant and consumed at the building.  If excess energy is created, it is wasted when not harnessed by the building being supplied.  The future of smart building technology is being designed to connect to a new power grid system, designed to flow both ways and the store excess energy for later use.  Buildings will be designed to store energy, as well as storage at the power plants.  The grid will be designed to receive power from buildings connected it, either through solar, wind, or other means of creating power.  Additionally, all connected buildings on the grid will be integrated with each other.  This integration will provide real time feedback between buildings, allowing energy consumption to be calculated for efficiency.  If one building has peak usage in the morning, another building may have peak usage in overnight hours, this connectivity will allow the power company to customize power distribution to not waste power created.

In conclusion smart buildings are here to stay.  As systems are continually developed and become more integrated, buildings are going to continue to provide more information to the users involved.  Smart buildings are not an evil entity to be feared, but simply a tool to be used for the betterment of facilities management.  The end result should be less “2001: A Space Odyssey” and more “Star Trek”, computers in place and designed to make life easier for all involved.

- Andrew P. Jinks

AuthorLauren Erickson