The DNA of Smart Buildings

Ram Venkat, Smart Buildings Marketing Manager, Schneider Electric, considers what makes a building smart, and the importance of data

Smart buildings have many different functions to fulfil, says  Ram Venkat, Smart Buildings Marketing Manager, Schneider Electric.
Smart buildings have many different functions to fulfil, says Ram Venkat, Smart Buildings Marketing Manager, Schneider Electric.

We spend over 90% of our time inside buildings. Buildings today are expected to provide a nurturing environment as well as leveraging technology to aid productivity and comfort, all while minimising operating costs, reducing cybersecurity risk and downtime.

The concept of Smart Buildings is certainly not new — in fact, buildings have been getting ‘smarter’ from the advent of Building Automation solutions some decades ago. However, today’s definition of a Smart Building goes beyond automated operation, towards intuitive operation. There are several considerations of what makes a building truly smart today.

From Net Zero Energy to Zero Carbon

A Net Zero Energy building generates as much energy as it consumes on an annual basis. However, such a building will still emit carbon depending on the type of on-site generation, as not all buildings have the potential for renewable energy.

With the likes of the EU targeting 40% carbon emissions reduction by 2020, buildings need to move towards zero carbon operations, when no fossil fuel is burned on site. To counter the increased demand on clean electricity grids, generation and load shedding can be optimized using demand-response programs.

Contribute To the Building’s Purpose

The goal of a hospital environment is to improve patient recovery, while that of an office environment is to improve productivity. While their purposes may be different, Smart Buildings ultimately contribute to the well-being of the occupants. For example, studies indicate that there is 35% less sick leave in well-ventilated buildings. Therefore, a smart building has to intuitively adapt to the environment depending on occupancy, activities that may affect air quality, and the environment outside the building.

Help Attract and Retain Talent

Millennials, who will form around 50% of the workforce by 2020, tend to value employee brand as much as they do their consumer brands. Their priorities in the workspace include flexible working, technological aids, diversity, rapid personal and professional development alongside good work-life balance, and the power of their employer’s brand.

They tend to be less loyal to their employer, and multiple employers in a short space of time has become the norm. Therefore, organisations need to invest in the culture, if not the people. By leveraging smart buildings that create an innovative,  digital environment, organisations can poise themselves to appeal to the best talents in the industry.

Increase Operational Efficiency, Reduce Operational Costs

Buildings have not lost the need to be as efficient as possible, with operators now looking for an integrated approach to building management. Smart buildings are expected to be able to go beyond disparate systems, to an environment where the BMS, lighting, power, and occupancy pieces can share data to improve operations, and there be some form of visualization of said agglomerated data on a platform that is easily accessible either on premise or on cloud.

Bringing Together People, Connectivity & the Built Environment

Today, buildings are expected to go even beyond systems talking to each other. Systems are expected to interact with people, and people expect to have control over their environment. Indeed, Smart buildings are evolving to include artificial intelligence devices, to apps on your mobile device that crowd-source comfort conditions, or can help you choose and find your way to the ideal workspace in your office, to virtual and augmented reality. Today’s smart building vision is that of a fluid environment, where everything you touch is part of the building’s DNA.

So what is the Smart Building ‘gene’? The answer is simple — leveraging data and the Internet of Things to collect cross-system information, and come up with actionable insights. Platforms such as Schneider Electric’s EcoStruxure enable collaboration and efficient operation of multiple systems on a single pane of glass to provide intelligent and intuitive environments.

Sensors and IoT: The Backbone of the ‘Smart’ Gene

Sensors are data mines, enabling the building to start producing the raw information needed to be ‘smart’. By 2020 there will be an estimated 1.3bn IoT sensors deployed worldwide, a 78.8% increase from 20151.

We’ve come a long way from just thermostats and motion detectors. Motion detectors are combined with occupancy sensors to ascertain how many people are in a room. More complex devices can provide information about the air quality, temperature, ambient noise and many other conditions — all in one device.

However, it is what one does with the data that really makes a building smart. IoT enables a wealth of data to be collected from disparate devices, which may be used locally for accurate control of the environment, but also remotely processed to provide actionable insights.

Digital Twins

A Digital Twin is a digital replica of a building’s physical infrastructure, processes, and systems. It is not to be confused with BIM, which in fact is a key enabler for twinning. Digital Twins take BIM a step forward through real-time data, obtained largely through sensors, to not only analyse performance, but also employ predictive analytics, test future scenarios, and ultimately overhaul planned maintenance philosophies.

Digital Twins are an evolution of smart buildings that cannot be stopped. The reality, however, is that a clear majority of the industry is still struggling with digitization. An intermediate solution, is to prepare the building for such a future by ensuring that the IT infrastructure is in place, and deploying sensors to start communicating with crucial systems to enable condition-based monitoring.

From Proactive to Predictive

Maintenance philosophies are evolving — we are in an era where your system can diagnose its assets and alert you of impending issues far in advance.

The evolution of neural networks has enabled systems to learn from past patterns of operation and failure, and predict future occurrences, enabling facility managers and operators to optimize maintenance costs through condition-based monitoring and diagnosis.

Sensors remain the fundamental blocks of this technology, and capturing continuous operation data enables both actionable insights, and continuous improvement of the technology. Utilization of the cloud to store this data enables cloud-based services such as Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), which add a further layer of dynamism in data analytics, also enabling more economical subscription models for predictive maintenance programs. These services can further be completely managed by the service provider (MSaaS) to provide total peace of mind to the end user.

Setting the Vision

In preparing for the digital present and future, building owners are wise to begin with a digital strategy for their estate. Often this strategy begins with an Intelligent Building Management System (iBMS).

Systems employing open protocols enable easier integration of disparate building systems such as their HVAC, along with lighting controls, fire and security, and importantly the power distribution and IT networks. Efficiency gains are achievable not only through the simpler operation one visualization gives to the user, but also though the collection of common data, processing, and sharing, enabling a gradual digitization of the building.

Decentralization of electrical distribution and evolution of the mesh grid also brings in the need for similar digitization of the power system.

By adopting a model of IoT-enabled connected products, sitting underneath a software layer providing control and analytics, building operators can realize a more efficient, resilient, and sustainable building system. Digitization will enable dynamic interactions between the building and the power system to deliver stronger control capability in an increasingly complex operating environment.

So what is next? One of the main challenges for digitization is the extremely high average age of buildings today. How can we plan for an economically sustainable digitization journey, while keeping up with the pace of technological advancements?  

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