Smart Buildings: Smart and Smarter

By Alex Cakkos

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In 1874 the world’s first elevator was installed in a New York building, paving the way for the construction of the world’s first sky scrapers. A simple example of how technology has impacted building use.

The smart technology of the present and future does not only provide a useful immediate function, such as the early elevator- but is proactive, reactive and most importantly connected. Sticking with our example, imagine an elevator that is be able to anticipate occupancy rates of a building, sending signals to a centralised node to better provide services such as lighting, heating and water.

The ability of a building to do this- to communicate and anticipate occupants’ needs and preferences- occurs through Building Management systems (BMS). BMS are not a new concept, but viewing them in this light is; and can therefore be considered important for defining what constitutes a smart building.

The ability of a building to predict and provide will require mind boggling amounts of information to be recorded, analysed and executed upon. Though how do you go about recording all this information in the first place? The answer is literally all around us through the “internet of things”- which refers to the vast global network of data generating devices. This network of sensors is growing at a phenomenal rate and is expected to reach an estimated 50 billion appliances and sensors by 2020. In the future, every time you swipe through security, enter a motion sensor lighted room or flush a toilet- sensors will relay information through the BMS and with the help of a few clever algorithms a smart building will adjust services to your needs, without you ever knowing about it.

Such seamless service provision will not only have a profound effect on how asset management services are conducted but also on the bottom line.  The ability to accurately anticipate provision will mean buildings are more energy efficient and occupiers more productive. There is even a term for the energy savings produced as a direct result of energy conservation or efficiency- Negawatts. In the future these negawatt energy savings may also be viewed as a commodity of value in energy trading markets, as energy providers battle to provide energy at the lowest cost. Simply put, firing up turbines that sit idle the majority of the time can multiply energy costs for energy providers, therefore paying big users like large corporate offices to cut consumption when the need arises is an economically effective solution.

Financial savings aside, smart buildings will be pivotal in achieving a low carbon, energy efficient economy. Smart Buildings will play an increasing role in the environmental missions of organisations as companies continue to become more attuned to their surroundings, no more so than their place of work – the physical manifestation of their enterprise.

The Royal Academy of Engineering has identified several challenges associated with implementing smart buildings. Primarily establishing public trust in a highly perceptive automated system; equipping users with the knowledge and skills to maximise the potential of smart buildings- especially those with non-technical backgrounds; and avoiding the human tendency to abandon technology when it fails to be more attractive than tried and trusted low tech solutions. Ultimately education and an associated shift in cultural attitudes will be pivotal to the future of smart buildings.

Furthermore, for all technologies’ benefits, the rate at which it becomes obsolete may well pose a challenge within itself. This is especially so for smart buildings given the disparity in lifecycles between buildings- that have a lifespan of roughly 50-100 years; and digital technology- which becomes outdated every few years. As a result, how we view buildings may need to completely change. Buildings will need to be thought of as “evolvable” spaces- comprising a core infrastructure into which applications can be continuously changed to reflect technological advancements. A new paradigm may need to emerge to accommodate buildings’ new found intelligence.

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