Intelligent Infrastructure

The trends, challenges, and future of smart building technology

Credit: iStock/Jakarin2521

Buildings are getting smarter every day, says Don Kasper, vice president of operations at Ecorithm. With more connected devices and better building management system data, facility managers can analyze and diagnose building systems to optimize comfort, energy efficiency, and maintenance.

“We’ve had Internet-connected HVAC and lighting for decades,” points out Tom Shircliff, a principal at Intelligent Buildings. Buildings have been digital and connected for 30 years, but the lines are now blurred between base building issues and tenant space issues. “The Building Internet of Things means all things in the building that are Internet-connectable. That includes everything from HVAC and elevator to lighting control, space management sensors, indoor air quality sensors, and even personal technology. If a smartphone drives the temperature setting, is that facility management, tenant, or both?”

He believes that the Internet of Things (IoT) is the driver and is creating the need for more holistic thinking about design, construction, and operations. “With the IoT, you inherently get ‘big data’ from all those thousands and millions of devices and systems. Data-driven decision making, or data analytics, is the tidal wave coming our way.” It can materially reduce risk, change cost structure, and increase productivity in profound ways if managed properly.

The problem, as Shircliff sees it, is that it’s been done “piecemeal” by different companies with different systems in a “crude, unplanned way.” Each vendor plugged in with separate controls, separate cabling, and different standards for security backup, leaving 95% of all commercial buildings with cyber security vulnerabilities.

There are millions of Internet-connected building systems, but many are not safe because they still use the “old ways,” says Shircliff’s business partner, Rob Murchison. But “now we are addressing the issues. We developed a building cyber security scoring system based on the government’s NIST cyber framework that is bringing some objectivity and order to this issue.” Today, smart buildings are driving conversations about how things are connected, about rules that they didn’t have before.

In the 1980s these different systems didn’t talk to each other. Historically, integration has been the key challenge for introducing new technology to buildings. Many buildings still rely on antiquated proprietary equipment and control systems, impeding the ability to bring in and connect new technology.

“That’s outdated,” states Tom Zaban, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Reliable Controls Corp. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers, an organization devoted to the advancement of indoor environment control technology in the HVAC industry, developed open protocols for inter-operability between different manufacturers’ products.

“It seems like a quiet and slow evolution,” says Derek D. McGarry, head building performance engineer with Abundant Power Group, “but ASHRAE’s open BACnet protocol appears to be growing steadily in adoption by HVAC controls companies.” BACnet, introduced in 1987, is a data communication protocol for building automation and control networks, with wide application from fire to HVAC to security. It achieved ISO standard status in 2003.

“BACnet is a virtual private network that takes care of security at a high level,” explains Zaban. “Cyber security is a big issue. Open community protocols make you vulnerable.” Explaining that no system is fool-proof, Zaban says this highly encrypted certified network can significantly minimize the threat of cyber attack.

The same protocol can be used in a variety of systems other than HVAC, but what’s important, Kasper emphasizes, is that HVAC is a natural starting point for the intelligent services industry to build off of. “HVAC is real and tangible, so open protocols that are consumable by technology companies right now, especially cloud-based services, enable new business models to evolve in a very practical way.”

Language Barrier
Owners of commercial buildings are moving to a data-driven management model, resulting in the rapid adoption of tools over the last nine months, states Vladi Shunturov, co-founder and president of Lucid. The issue is that commercial real estate is behind when it comes to technology. “It’s not a technology-forward industry.” It is a big industry, though: commercial buildings represent 15% of the GDP.

Despite the fact that real estate, a $15 trillion asset class, has tried to ignore technology as long as possible because “landlords don’t want to deal with it,” says Shircliff. IT has been “creeping in for decades.” Nevertheless, until it impacted risk, occupant experience, and cost structure, he believes it didn’t get a lot of attention. “It’s the only industry segment that hasn’t done it yet—incorporate IT as a core part of the business. Big data has been around for 10 years, but real estate is about a decade behind in using current that and current-day IT practices.”

Credit: Intelligent Building Systems
Intelligent Buildings Systems incorporates a “backbone” into smart building design for interoperability.

Part of the delay can be ascribed to a lack of education on the part of contractors about cyber technology. Where to start? The facility manager and IT vendors should work together. But in many cases, they don’t. “Building system contractors are not IT people,” says Murchison. “Most of them still use the default passwords provided in manuals. The culture clash between facility management and IT is epic. They speak different languages. Facility managers want to keep the system running, keep people happy, and meet deadlines. IT is focused on network integrity, firewalls, and passwords. They mandate requirements and then wash their hands of the rest of the facility issues.” That’s often when a consultant is hired. Consultants speak both IT and facility language, serving as a translator of sorts, located in a DMZ in the middle.

“You have to build a human interface,” says Shunturov, because these systems are designed for highly skilled engineers and managers, who are not speaking the same language. They may be looking at the same data, but they have different uses and goals . . . and language. “Engineers talk about run cycles, start-up times, kilowatt-hours; Managers focus on billing, budget, performance goals, costs.” And then there’s a completely different language for sustainability.

Times are changing. Shunturov believes that profits are driving adoption of smart technology. While rent is at an all-time high, vacancies are at an all-time low, creating budgetary issues. Therefore, “building owners want to manage more efficiently,” thereby saving costs. Using smart technology can help them reduce energy consumption by as much as 17% from an operational perspective. “It’s having an effect on efficiency and how projects are deployed; instead of deploying capital first, they go after efficiencies and identify opportunities. The price point of technology is scalable, and the ease of use by running all the systems together makes it more affordable.”

Advanced analytics from Ecorithm provide detailed feedback on how a building can be operated to improve energy efficiency, as well as occupant comfort, while reducing maintenance demands. “Ultimately, analytics are allowing us to push the boundaries of building science and are leading us to understand how a building and its many systems work independently [and] together under ever-changing environmental conditions,” explains Kasper. “We are understanding how a specific portfolio, campus, or even class of buildings are operated and how they can be improved.”

Credit: Lucid
Data streams integrated with the help of software technology

This is possible because of advances over the past five years in open protocols and the interconnectedness of equipment and systems in a building, allowing companies to develop software capable of looking at the building as a whole instead of focusing on separate sub-systems. “As a result, we’re seeing an exciting shift from reactive management to proactive, holistic analysis, and commissioning of buildings,” indicates Kasper.

One Source
Building smart from the beginning brings order to high-tech buildings, if done properly. At the macro level, Murchison says there can be chaos with too many systems and too many user interfaces unless they are coordinated with unified user interfaces. “The more systems and data you have, the more you need a strategy.”

Intelligent Buildings’ strategy for new construction is a building “backbone”—a LAN—that vendors plug into for interoperability and added security. Rather than building separate infrastructure and then having to translate all the different system languages, they all have to be compatible with the backbone. “The backbone is a better way to build and run building systems. In addition to HVAC, lighting, and elevators, you have irrigation, parking, barrier gates, and other systems,” lists Shircliff. “Each vendor still does their own thing, but now there are consistent standards and protocols for basic connectivity and allowing interoperability.”

Energy management is highly fragmented, agrees Budderfly chairman Al Subbloie. “It’s a non-integrated, fragmented market. There are way too many vendors; that’s not sustainable.” He believes it’s too hard to build technology to manage an integrated system with a single backbone. Taking what he calls a “disruptive approach,” his answer is to outsource. “The market needs to go to one outsourcer. We need a total solution; we need to go after it all. Get one player to deliver the software to manage and deliver it all.”

Digitization happened 30 years ago with direct digital controls becoming the norm in building controls systems, including HVAC, elevator, lighting, metering, parking, and more. Because of this, Shircliff says, they already operate and require computers, networking, operating systems, and protocols. “The problem is nobody called it ‘digitization,’ so it was never addressed properly in terms of networking, big data, cyber security, and staffing.”

The biggest issue as a result of digitization is cyber security. There are more than 14 million controls systems world-wide connected to the internet; the vast majority have no cyber security considerations, according to Shircliff. This includes high-rise elevator systems, HVAC and airflow controls, lighting, electrical metering, and power management
—and even window shades, parking, and irrigation.

Security isn’t the only concern or the only thing that can take down a system. Depending on how the system is designed, it may be capable of stand-alone communication in bad weather or other adverse circumstances. “Short of a complete power outage, it doesn’t matter if the WiFi is down or the internet is down,” explains Zaban. “The controllers continue to function. An issue in one area doesn’t take down everything.”

Credit: buildiStock/chombosan

While the internet is sometimes unreliable, for systems not designed for the internet, security is a challenge. With many utilities making smart meter data available in 15-minute interval resolution and providing automated billing data and sub-metering technology that makes it easier to connect with the software, there can be numerous security and connectivity issues.

There are many vulnerabilities, Shunturov believes. One Achilles’ heel is that upgrade cycles are not as rapid as in other industries. “There are a lot of legacy systems, and often, facility managers want to make changes without agreement from IT.” The system is designed for onsite management, making it easy for them to do so.

To address security issues, Lucid is launching a secure, encrypted cloud integration system. But, Shunturov warns, there are limitations and he says that to eliminate security risks, you should never go into a system from the cloud; instead, you push data to the cloud.

To minimize issues and take responsibility for liability, the landlord must create infrastructure policies. For new buildings, it’s necessary to create standards and requirements for contractors to address cyber security up front. For existing buildings, rules and requirements must be created for new contractors to access the building. Password custody plans must be implemented. For example, what happens when an employee is fired? And don’t forget the boss. Do you share a network? Your personal account shouldn’t be connected to your business network.

“Due to an ever-growing need to use the cloud to help process, store, and analyze data,” says Kasper, “we need to adapt our understanding of network connectivity, security, and each of their roles in building operations.”

We also need to understand business goals and provide easy-to-use, cost-effective access to data on building operations and performance, according to Shuntorov.

While Kasper believes that field performance data will enable detailed analysis of system design and performance in real-world environments and lay the groundwork for more intelligent control systems as adoption of analytics becomes more widespread, there are parameters, obstacles, and limitations.

One obstacle is the building itself. Most technology providers agree that it’s easier to work with existing buildings as opposed to new construction. Shunturov says that “nothing works” in new buildings, that deployment takes longer and involves a lot of finger-pointing. However, in an existing building, you have to deal with what’s there. “You can’t get rid of a building management system. An older system managing the mechanicals won’t go away.”

Each has its own challenges, Zaban hedges. With a retrofit, you know where the electric panels and the boiler are, but you have to figure out how to get wires connected due to spatial restrictions. New buildings have so much variability in cost-cutting and value engineering.

Old or new, Zaban believes that every commercial building over 10,000 square feet should have building automation. “The heart of every building is the automation system.” The reasons are many-fold: convenience, occupant comfort, efficiency, cost-savings, and environmental concerns. Reliable Controls, a leader in environmental design, provides harmonious solutions to minimize environmental impact and create a healthy addition to the community.

“Most countries are concerned about climate change,” assumes Zaban. One opportunity of impact is the built environment. Engineers have the chance to minimize and even counter the effects of climate change through building design.

Buildings consume 72% of all electrical energy produced, Zaban quotes, and 14–15% of all water, 20–50% of overall energy, and 40% of raw materials. In addition, they produce 30–40% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

“You must monitor, verify, and report on the performance of a building,” continues Zaban. “You have to measure—and smart technology provides the necessary data. Our service monitors energy efficiency, occupant comfort, and resource use.”

Sustainability is an important aspect of smart buildings—and it encompasses economic prosperity as well as productivity and health. It’s part of the biophilia hypothesis that suggests humans seek connections with nature, popularized in 1984 by Edward O. Wilson. Zaban calls it building design science. “It’s about balance. Employees want views—a direct line of sight to the outside—and comfort.”

Many designers are recognizing this shift. As Kasper says, “The convergence of operational analysis with information technology will enable a completely different experience for occupants in a building. Whether it’s an office, home, school, or factory, technology is changing the way we interact with buildings. We’re on a quest to not only operate buildings to an optimum level of efficiency, but [also to] explore the possibilities for how they can make us both healthier and more productive.”

Looking Ahead
It’s not the end of changes to building design. Therefore, the landlord needs to look beyond today’s needs and take responsibility for creating standards for scalability and flexibility that aren’t yet determined in order to position the building to continue to change. “There are advances all the time,” says Shircliff. “There are a lot of new systems coming out for lighting controls, humidity sensors, sub meters . . .”

McGarry believes that a new wave of LED lighting systems will be the driver of the future. “The energy efficiency and longevity of LED systems are the primary attraction, but it’s the enabling qualities of LED systems that make them really exciting,” he says.

New systems are starting to utilize power over ethernet and IP addressing for every fixture. This makes each fixture an easy vehicle for a wide variety of new technology-based services. They can be used as hubs for wireless communications and can physically host sensor bundles. The level of granularity that comes with an extensive grid of sensor bundles will enable greater, more customized occupant experiences.

As Shircliff says, don’t just think about a cool new system; a smart building should be set up to create an experience for the occupant.

That’s why Shunturov foresees more software innovation that provides both the tenant and the building owner with improved operational visibility. Software will allow democratic access. “The focus was on structure, devices, and connectivity,” he says, “but now we’re entering an ‘app’ phase that makes access quicker and easier.”

Reliable Controls is also working on solutions to make building management simpler and easier, such as their upcoming Automated Fault Detection and Diagnostic to keep the building running optimally. “Coming this summer, we’ll offer a high-performance sequence of operations for certain equipment,” says Zaban.

There are efficiency gains as well as convenience with advanced smart technology. With an open automated demand response, the utility works with the facility manager to shed load when needed, shutting down non-essential load to avoid mandatory or rolling brown-outs. And all of this, Zaban points out, is done in open protocol.

We are seeing signs of entering the data-driven stage, Shunturov observes. One of those is that buildings are hiring data managers.

Not only has the software changed; so, too, has the deployment. “We went from an Oracle model of deploying to a sales model,” claims Shunturov. He says the software supports standardized processes, but the biggest challenges are the budget and too much data. “We use a lightweight solution without a big investment.”

The key is to support the business without reinventing the wheel. It’s possible to build a consistent process from other programs. “The ultimate goal will be to positively impact our daily lives from home to office, while doing so as efficiently as possible,” states McGarry. He envisions the integration of Smart Building technologies with Smart Cities, which have been on independent development paths so far. “In our view, Smart Buildings will be the cornerstone of and should naturally interface with other components of Smart Cities.”

Whatever direction smart building technology takes, Shircliff says it’s not about “future Star Wars fun. There is a fire burning now and it must be addressed.” BE_bug_web


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