Progress in building science, making structures better for users and their physical environment, has long been defined by advancements in the hard and the tangible: architectural design, structural integrity, building materials, mechanical components and the like.
Those priorities remain as vital as ever, but now there is a new wrinkle when it comes to creating structures that will perform to modern standards and expectations. Today, the qualities of a building’s digital infrastructure, the information and operational technology network embedded in everything that enables its routine functioning, easily rivals the physical infrastructure in importance.
Digital technology, it is safe to say, has been revolutionising buildings for some time, just as it has been upending so many aspects of the human experience over the last several decades. More controllable, better monitored and increasingly responsive, technology-aided and -enhanced buildings are delivering better user experience and operating more efficiently.
But the future of buildings is still being written. Present now, but still very much in the process of refinement, is the smart building, one characterised by the presence of a digital infrastructure robust enough to collect and amass building operational data; provide the connectivity needed to analyse, learn from it and share it; and ultimately leverage it for the benefit of the broad roster of stakeholders.
All of those capabilities are being exploited in many new buildings designated as smart. But just as there is no ceiling on human intelligence, there is yet no evidence that smart buildings are nearing their full capacity in terms of functionality.
While many technologies that make building intelligence possible are now robust and capable and delivering on their promise, more advancements are possible and bear watching, just as new technologies now in their embryonic stages must be closely followed by all stakeholders.
A few core technologies and technology applications, in various states of build-out, should be on the radar of those interested in monitoring and evaluating smart building progress.
Data Connectivity And Analysis
Building self-learning, which enables high-level automation and control, relies on effective data capture, sharing and crunching. Data captured from sensors in a building’s complex web of systems that keep it running must be accessible and capable of being interpreted and leveraged.
Networks, in turn, are elemental to smart buildings, which are fast becoming an offshoot of the rapidly spreading and maturing Internet of Things (IoT) – an environment in which individually addressable devices communicate via the Internet using a set of commonly understood communications standards and protocols, sharing data, responding to commands and even acting autonomously.
With the rise of smart buildings, the Building Internet of Things (BIoT) is now taking shape. It aggregates data from a building’s connected systems, devices and assets, which may be separate from or incorporated into a building automation system (BAS).
The BIoT comprises several basic building blocks: sensors to capture data; actuators that use data and analytics to provide a response; network standards that allow hardwired or wireless transmission of data; application platforms that provide the language for communication; and data storage and analytics that form the brains of the system and the functionality needed for automation.
Many elements of the BIoT are well in place, but progress is still needed in the area of meshing and merging different technologies and systems. Common standards and the availability of flexible, open architecture for data networks are vital to seamless communication.
Planning is essential to the development of smart buildings that end up utilising technology effectively and working as intended and to the benefit of users. An important emerging element of the planning process is the virtual fashioning of the structure utilising Building Information Modeling (BIM).
One product of the process is a ‘digital twin,’ a virtual computer model of the structure that permits simulating, testing and correcting design options before construction. The twin simplifies coordination with multiple designs and engineering disciplines, sidestepping possible design conflicts that can be costly to correct during or after construction.
In the context of designing a smart building’s features, the twin would enable an analysis of a structure’s response to changes based on such variables as occupancy levels or different energy supply sources. The effect of, say, adding a door or window, could be analysed in the twin in the context of different building evacuation scenarios and the impact on heating and cooling costs.
Post-construction, a digital twin can incorporate live data from the building and allow ongoing comparisons with the original design. Serving as a central repository for all information associated with the building, the twin becomes a platform for testing and optimisation of building control scenarios as needed.
Connected devices are the foundation of smart buildings, and little could be accomplished without them. But their presence also poses a security risk that technology must be capable of addressing.
An Internet of Things configuration offers multiple points of entry for potential hacking. That exposes both building information and operational technology systems. With critical building systems networked to allow remote management and monitoring, and both IT and OT communicating with each other, a cross-contamination risk is real.
To limit the security threat potential, smart building technologies must address both physical and cyber-security risk. On one layer, physical building access must be monitored with occupancy monitoring and control systems for anomalies that could indicate a cyber-attack. On another, digital networks must be safeguarded with firewalls and data encryption. Thirdly, system integrity must be ensured with individual systems and terminals protected from access by unauthorised individuals as well as unauthorised changes.
In short, the trend to extensive building digitalisation, and increased reliance on it, can be a double-edged sword when it comes to security. Utilising the full range of security features a smart building system offers can limit the potential for a cyberattack that could put building operations and users at risk.
Gaining a better understanding of exactly how occupants use a building is a central component of the smart building approach. Data captured through sensors is the foundation of being able to program a building’s operational system so it aligns with usage patterns and responds appropriately to needs.
Tracking and logging user movements, monitoring building area occupancy levels and trends, and providing real-time information to occupants, smart building technology helps improve space utilisation to the benefit of both users and the building’s energy requirements.
Space under-utilisation is one of the biggest inefficiency problems buildings present. Some research suggests that traditional assigned-desk configurations in office buildings leave those desks unused up to half the day and that meeting rooms and other shared areas are often empty as well. That means significant areas of a building, for significant periods, are likely being lit and heated/cooled when no one is present.
Activity-based working (ABW) approaches have consequently begun to blossom. They move workers away from a single desk and toward a setup where workers can congregate in more defined, but less restrictive workspaces. The approach offers more flexibility and potentially reduces the need to extend the power and a working environment across large areas of a building.
The smart building configuration could go a long way to making that more feasible for more employers. With real-time monitoring of desk and room occupancy via sensors embedded in desk or lighting systems, workers alone or in groups could quickly locate available work areas tailored to their needs. The information would be accessible via mobile phones or live CCTV video feeds analysed by facial recognition software.
Occupancy detection is destined to become a central feature of smart buildings as efforts to improve space utilisation advance. By extension, building users stand to benefit through enhanced productivity and better overall interaction with the building environment.
Predictive Operation And Maintenance
Providing an integrated platform for all elements of building management, digitisation can transform the approach to operation and maintenance. Typically, the current approach involves reliance on a mix of control and management systems.
That has long been achieved with an expert operations staff capable of managing troubleshooting, inspection, repair and replacement as needed. But even top-notch building operations and maintenance staff often must make guesses about the source of system problems and the timing of service cycles and replacement; actual performance data has played a limited role in decision-making.
In a smart building configuration, sophisticated sensoring technology enables deep monitoring of building physical plant operations that can supplement knowledge and expertise held in human hands.
With digitalisation, system performance can be monitored and tracked; servicing and maintenance needs can be predicted and planned, and costs can be better compared and estimated based on multiple variables.
They can include the age and service record of plant and equipment; its level of usage and how critical it is to building functions; and the investment needed to repair or replace.
The result is a more efficient and cost-effective system maintenance and movement toward a predictive or ‘just-in-time’ approach to maintenance. That means less unplanned downtime or outages, with necessary replacement or repair optimally scheduled.
Additionally, money is saved by reducing unneeded or premature parts replacements and by minimising the impact on building operations.
The energy needed to run building systems also can be better managed with smart building technology. In some buildings, energy management has become completely digitalised, with facilities managers able to review and optimise the building’s energy performance using a mix of real-time and historical data to adjust or upgrade equipment such as the HVAC system.
Facilities managers are thus able to adopt a more strategic stance informed by data provided by new technologies aimed at improving facility performance.
Monitoring And Control
Reduced energy consumption in smart buildings is a savings opportunity not only concerning money but the environment. Reduction of a building’s energy footprint translates to reduced energy production, much of which is still dependent on the burning of carbon dioxide-emitting fossil fuels.
The smart building, equipped with technology that closely monitors and controls energy consumption based on needs and resources, is well-situated to become another type of structure increasingly sought after: the green building.
The smart technology that enables improved operational efficiency and energy savings positions enables the smart building to be more environmentally friendly and sustainable.
Buildings increasingly designed to have on-site renewable energy to supplement or even replace grid-supplied energy are edging toward ‘zero energy building’ status, which is likely to become the next meaningful marker for a new generation of buildings.
The sustainable building model has long revolved around a building materials and equipment approach that ties energy reduction to better physical infrastructure design. That remains important, but the other emerging dimension relates to better building systems management.
A more proactive and ongoing effort to discover areas of energy waste in operations, using smart technology, may prove equally consequential. Improvements acquired through digitalisation could translate into a new target for building energy savings and reduction of the environmental footprint.
Mass digitalisation is a game-changer for buildings – from how they are initially conceived and designed, to how they are built and ultimately utilised.
The possibilities for using digital technology to create a broadly defined, across-the-board better building stakeholder experience are only beginning to be understood and appreciated, more so with the help of those with proven expertise in configuring smart buildings that perform.
On paper, both new and modernised buildings will likely have far more native intelligence than their analogue predecessors. The trick for these smart buildings, though, just as it is for the book-smart human, will come in translating that capability to the real world.
Indeed, the challenge that confronts all would-be smart building developers is mistaking the presence of raw capabilities for the ability to achieve clear, meaningful results.
But those are attainable when human intelligence and know-how intersects with smart digital technologies. In the end, that is what will produce buildings that truly work – for people – in the demanding 21st century.
Contributed by Siemens.
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