The smart value of intelligent buildings

21 June 2018

Smart cities use technology to provide connectivity, transportation, air and water quality monitoring, security and for the general well-being of its residents. With humans spending more than 80 per cent of their time indoors1, it is natural that one of the fundamental building blocks of smart cities is smart buildings.


Smart buildings allow for an efficient, productive and cost-effective use of space. In the digital workplace, employees are active consumers, rather than passive recipients, of flexible, adaptable workspaces that improve their comfort, engagement, and productivity2.


What makes a building smart?


At a fundamental level, any building that uses automated processes to control basic operations can be deemed as being “smart”. These include heating, ventilation, air conditioning, lighting and access security, among others3. These buildings can contribute significantly not only to revenue generation but also towards environmental sustainability.


The numbers speak for themselves. Globally, buildings account for 40 per cent of energy consumption4. Left unchecked, according to the International Energy Agency5, energy consumption by buildings globally could increase 50 per cent by 2050 without assertive energy efficiency action. Office buildings, retail stores, hotels, schools and hospitals make up a large part of this energy consumption footprint6.


Businesses in the US spend about US$100 billion on energy for their offices every year. It is predicted that smarter buildings could save US$20-25 billion in annual energy costs.


Various governments around the world are looking at how to ensure buildings become more energy efficient and smart. Singapore’s clean energy strategy features a national target of greening at least 80 per cent of its buildings by 20307.


While the advantages of smart buildings are well documented, the process of making a building truly “smart” is less well understood. A decade ago, “smart” focused only on heating, ventilation and air-conditioning in single buildings with the intention of lowering operating cost8.


With the advances in sensor technology, particularly networked IoT devices, coupled with powerful analytics, the process has moved forward from just building automation systems to truly smart buildings that are both self-contained and remotely accessible.


Previously building occupants had little to no direct control over their environment and building operators had little to no data to understand how comfortable their occupants are.


Newer applications like mobile apps that allow for control of air temperature or lighting within the building have revolutionised the user experience of occupants. It has also helped the facilities manager to improve their response time to maintenance calls from occupants.


The ability of an occupant to use an app to directly control the building’s environment is the closest thing to the textbook definition of IoT for smart buildings that there is. No new connected devices necessary.


With network technology becoming the focal point, there are greater efficiencies to be had if buildings are managed together by a single operator as opposed to managing single standalone buildings. One of the biggest advantages of this approach is that it allows for lowering of infrastructure cost.


A good example of the operational advantages that can be achieved from centrally managing buildings is Microsoft’s experience at its Redmond campus.


In a pilot programme, Microsoft’s Real Estate & Facilities organisation evaluated smart building applications across 13 buildings within the company’s main 118-building campus9.


These applications added an analytical layer on top of existing building management systems which enabled Microsoft to aggregate and analyse building data to generate actionable insights to save energy and costs. Microsoft’s experience has demonstrated that a smart building solution can be established with an upfront investment of less than 10 per cent of annual energy expenditure, with an expected payback period of less than two years.


The company’s building engineers have become far more productive: instead of “walking around” to find issues, they’re now “walking to” the problems that have the greatest impact on cost or comfort. By itself, the ability to continuously identify issues and optimise the performance of building equipment is expected to deliver annual savings of more than one million dollars.


Interestingly, smart systems generate terabytes of data10 that can be shared across platforms. This provides crucial insights that can be analysed to optimise the facility, thus creating a competitive advantage for the companies that own or use the facilities.


For this kind of deep dive analysis of data, it is no longer sufficient to have the data sitting in computers or servers within the building. The data has to be shifted to the cloud. The use of virtualisation and the cloud can result in major competitive advantage for the facilities operator. Also, as more operations are automated, the threat of a cyber security attack on the building becomes more possible and having a cloud service provider taking care of operations allows for automatic security updates and patches to the computers that run the building.


The systems integration community has put in a lot of effort for more than 20 years to bring about a standardisation of the data output of automation systems made by various vendors. This hard work now makes it possible to write common applications for the analysis of data in many useful ways.


There are plenty of opportunities for buildings to adopt new technologies to solve some of the most vexing problems of the industry. However, the value in IoT for smart buildings will not be in the addition of millions of new internet-connected sensors, but in new software applications that use data from existing equipment to make buildings operate better.


The possibilities that smart buildings offer are endless and any building can be made “smart”. In order to achieve optimum results, facilities operators should team up with partners who have the expertise in network connectivity, cloud services and analytics as well as cyber security. Such partners would provide the technical inputs needed to make truly smart buildings.


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