Smart Buildings – Taking Building Automation to the Next Level

To some degree those buildings could be considered "automated" but they were not "smart". Smart buildings are the...

For some, the term “building automation” may seem like a relatively new concept. In reality, building automation, as a working discipline, has been around for ~ 30 years. The early 90’s saw the advent of decentralized computers to provide digital monitoring and control of various elements within a building’s environment.

By the turn of the century many buildings were equipped with computers/controllers that could connect to the internet. These advances provided facility managers with the means to achieve greater control over many building parameters (temperature, lighting, access, security, etc.).

To some degree those buildings could be considered “automated” but they were not “smart”. Smart buildings are the next phase of this evolution. The Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), and Machine Learning (ML) are being combined to make buildings more dynamic, more adaptive, and more efficient.

What are some of the current challenges faced by building operators and facility managers? How are these emerging technologies being utilized to address these challenges and what are the impacts?

Challenges for Today’s Building Operators

Building operators are faced with a myriad of challenges. Increased pressure to control costs, increased competition for tenants, changing tenant expectations, and changing environmental regulations all contribute to make building management much more of a challenge than it was 20 years ago. Just a few of these escalating priorities would include……

Energy Optimization

A significant portion of a building’s operational budget is consumed by energy costs. Legacy methods of energy management do not provide the level of control necessary to achieve maximum control. Reactive energy management does not provide the level of real-time control that helps mitigate the adverse effects of energy spikes and wasted consumption. Savings in energy costs can either go directly to the bottom line or be put back into other areas of building improvement.

More Efficient Maintenance

The historical mode of building maintenance has been….something breaks and then someone fixes it. This reactive approach often results in painful downtime of a building’s critical assets: HVAC systems, elevators, escalators, access/egress mechanisms, etc. This lack of predictability also creates waste and inefficiency in the utilization of maintenance resources, both human and equipment. Tenant satisfaction can also suffer due to prolonged down-times of the equipment that keeps them comfortable and secure.

Regulatory Compliance

A building’s internal environment will be subject to varying degrees of regulatory rules and regulations. Depending on building type, function, and location these regulations can create a complicated maze of supporting processes, tools, and equipment. Manual management of this complex ecosystem can be expensive and error-prone. Non-compliance can also create significant legal and financial risk for building operators and owners.

Improved Tenant Satisfaction and Retention

Satisfied tenants are the lifeblood of most commercial and industrial buildings. Tenants demand comfort, convenience, and competitive pricing. Tenant attraction and retention is dependent upon a building operator’s ability to meet all of those demands. Tenants now have more options than ever and are now more willing to move in pursuit of those options. Building automation solutions that do not deliver cutting-edge benefits to tenants will quickly become non-competitive.

Reducing Cost and Improving Bottom-Line Results

All of the above factors combine to determine the financial health of a building’s operation. In most cases, the building automation of yesterday does not deliver the bottom-line impacts that are being sought after today. Building operators looking for world-class building performance are increasingly employing smart building technologies to deliver optimized operational and financial performance.

Solving Those Challenges

The evolution from legacy building automation to smart buildings is gaining momentum. Smart building technology now offers the means for meeting the challenges faced by building operators trying to remain viable within an increasingly competitive marketplace. The primary contributors to smart building technology are IoT, AI, and ML.

Making Buildings Smart With IoT, AI, and ML

The realm of IoT continues to expand. Smart devices continue to evolve. Compared to just a couple of years ago these devices are now: smarter, more diverse, more available, more connected, more reliable, and cheaper. Smart devices, and their corresponding technology, are now being utilized to provide advanced monitoring and control of a building’s environment and its internal assets. IoT-enabled smart buildings provide levels of real-time insight and management capability that had previously been so elusive.

Optimizing energy consumption

Connected IoT devices enable real-time monitoring of a building’s energy consumption. This information is easily accessed and consumed. The data generated by these smart devices provide building managers with actionable insights that lead to more efficient energy utilization and reductions in energy costs. AI and ML provide the means by which a smart building learns from the large volumes of data generated from those connected IoT devices. That learning translates into predictive analytics that can be acted upon.

Real-time maintenance support

Many smart buildings are equipped with a complete ecosystem of connected devices that monitor the status of critical assets. Fault detection not only occurs in real time but critical data is then immediately transmitted to those responsible for reaction. Al and Ml provide the intelligence and learning necessary to transition from reactive to proactive maintenance. These factors combine to significantly improve failure response times and to more accurately predict—and prevent—future failures.

 Maximizing tenant comfort

A smart building’s IoT ecosystem may utilize mobile apps that allow tenants to provide feedback to control systems. This feedback can be related to environmental conditions that impact tenant comfort (temperature, lighting, ambient noise levels, etc). This can also include the use of wearable devices that generate real-time data based on preset parameters. AI provides the capability to learn from previous tenant behaviors and preferences.

More robust regulatory compliance (health and safety)

IoT devices provide the level of data collection and dissemination required to maintain a safe and healthy environment for a building’s occupants. Air quality, contaminate measurement, security controls, and lighting quality can all be monitored from anywhere, at any time, to ensure compliance with all applicable regulatory requirements.

IoT, AI, and ML are being combined to transform buildings from static structures into environments that are smart and adaptive.  Building operators are employing these digital technologies to reduce costs, improve operational efficiencies, and improve tenant satisfaction. Smart buildings will continue to gain tangible competitive advantage over those buildings that are slow to adapt.