Conference room with computer monitors Thinkstock

Get Smart

As the smart building trend unfolds, owners of existing buildings may wrestle with whether to join the crowd.

It’s rare to find a building going up these days that doesn’t aspire to be “smart.” Structures that can be wired for aggregated building systems data collection, interoperability, diagnostics, and control are increasingly within reach of owners eager to make properties more energy and operationally efficient. But the jury may still be out on the practical capabilities of today’s smart buildings as well as the future course of smart building technology.

“Our buildings today are certainly smarter than they were 10, or even five years ago, but I still think there’s a lot of progress to be made to create a truly smart building,” says Todd Boucher, principal at Leading Edge Design Group, an Enfield, N.H.-based supplier of critical infrastructure and smart building solutions. “There’s a technological evolution that will continue to happen to enable that transformation, but we’re still in the infant stages because that convergence of technology and demand is not quite at its peak.”

Nevertheless, steady advances in building management and automation systems (BMS/BAS), data analysis tools, and communications protocol design are occurring. Buildings are surely better positioned than ever to meet at least today’s definition of smart: the ability to learn from experience about how they function and to leverage that knowledge day-to-day — even minute-to-minute — to boost efficiency.

Indeed, some recent studies see more smart buildings on the way. One, from IDC Energy Insights, predicted in March 2015 that spending on smart building technology, following a recent period of surprisingly slow growth, could advance at a compounded annual rate of 23% through 2019. The research firm put 2014 spending at $6.3 billion and theorized it could hit $17.4 billion in five years. Among the reasons were growing confidence in the ability to measure the value of investments, declining costs and growing sophistication of solutions, and mounting pressure to be energy efficient.

New buildings are sure to account for much of that spending due to energy efficiency mandates; smart systems are often core design elements. But retrofits will gain interest also. Aging buildings growing more energy inefficient and struggling to maintain their value against newer, smarter structures will almost surely be nudged into the smart fold by building owners and tenants.

Casey Talon, a senior research analyst with Navigant Research, authored a 2015 study on intelligent building trends. She sees retrofits accounting for a hefty share of smart building deployments in coming years.

“There are a lot of buildings out there that people don’t really have their heads around when it comes to energy consumption,” she says. “There’s still a lot of low-hanging fruit there, and these [smart building] tools can be a very effective way of setting that baseline and starting to deploy some strategy around energy and operational efficiency.”

Handicapped structures

Turning an existing building into a smart building can be fraught with challenges. A common technical problem is the mishmash of equipment, components, systems, and interfaces that often can’t talk to each other or coordinate. A legacy BMS with its proprietary architecture, perhaps assembled in a piecemeal fashion, is rarely up for the smart building challenge. It’s not set up to deliver the measure of coherent data collection and analysis, information sharing, and master control capabilities needed to manage all of a building’s systems at the level sought in the most ambitious of smart building models.

“Many of these older buildings have systems that operate independently without a fully common infrastructure that allows for communication,” Boucher says.

The solution then becomes one of uprooting or extensively modifying an existing BMS or BAS. That requires construction of an IT-empowered ecosystem in which a single building’s — or multiple properties’ — electrical, gas, mechanical, HVAC, plumbing, lighting, power, and other observable, controllable, and sensored systems can interconnect to a master control hub and drive critical information to a common database. That’s no simple task, but it’s groundwork that must be laid, says building automation expert, Ron Bernstein, president of RBCG, an Encinitas, Calif.-based consultancy.

“In the smart buildings world, this stuff all coexists on the same network —  whether it’s an Ethernet or a LonWorks backbone or whatever — and we’re going to share information to one front end,” he says. “The only way smart buildings can take advantage of things like energy efficiencies, operational efficiencies, or maximizing the reporting, trending, and logging is to be able to have one common backbone.

Technical hurdles

But getting older proprietary building equipment and systems up and onto that single communications backbone poses technical challenges.

One of the most formidable hurdles is the presence of assets that weren’t designed or configured to work in an interconnected infrastructure environment. The quickest — but not necessarily the cheapest — route to becoming smarter may lie in wholesale investments in modern components and systems that may also deliver a bonus of improved overall performance.

Many next-generation building assets — from lighting to HVAC to building security — are now built to conform to multiple “open” communications and data exchange protocols: BACnet I/P, Modbus TCP, SOAP, SNMP, and others. Those standards exist to make mixing and matching systems from different vendors and suppliers easier, giving building owners valuable flexibility and freedom in formulating more tailored and cost-effective total smart building solutions.

That approach, however, can magnify the payback challenge. It can add to up-front investment costs, stressing the calculations needed to evaluate the economic case for smart buildings. That and other practical barriers to transforming existing buildings persist, says Boucher. But they’re worth pushing to overcome because there’s a great opportunity to upgrade the existing building stock by improving the long-term performance, life, and value of such buildings.

“One of the biggest challenges we face now in the adoption of smart buildings is that there is not a clear upgrade path for facilities that want to move toward becoming smart,” he says. “What we need to look for with existing facilities is that equipment providers need to continue to develop retrofit solutions that allow building owners to leverage their existing infrastructure but enable it to be smart or network-connected.”

One constantly evolving workaround is solutions that aim to close the digital communications divide. Sophisticated integration software exists that can interface with and gather data from systems using different communications protocols. “Middleware,” for example, can effectively translate and normalize different languages, allowing merged data from multiple components and systems to be readily generated and analyzed at the front end.

“All the top players in the technology and energy fields understand that communications is key — and that if you have the ability to communicate across multiple protocols you have the bridge to the development of a proprietary smart building system,” says Jim Mansfield, automation and process controls group leader for Faith Technologies, a Neenah, Wis.-based electrical contractor that works in the smart building space.

The technical aspects of bringing a building up to today’s conventional smart specifications are becoming progressively more manageable, especially if money is not an object. Suitable investments in a single or multiple properties’ infrastructure required to become smart can lay the groundwork for acceptable returns. In a world growing more connected, data-hungry, efficiency-focused, and energy-aware, those improvements will produce value.

The human factor

As enticing as they are, smart building transformations present a host of practical challenges. To pay off, these investments demand formulation of clear, attainable goals; buy-in from the highest levels; and thorough consideration of the element of the human-system interface. Another emerging concern is security; as building data and control is increasingly shuttled to the “cloud,” worries about building systems hacking become more real. The common thread is that building owners, their IT and facility management teams, and smart system suppliers must collaborate to ensure that a properly outfitted smart building can reach — and then maintain — its full potential.

A problem many smart buildings encounter is that their systems prove too complex and difficult to manage because they weren’t designed well. Overseers and operators sometimes find controls and interfaces hard to interpret, navigate, and troubleshoot. That leads to a steady erosion of user confidence and a smart building’s capabilities. Ultimately, elements of smart systems are overridden, neutralizing many of the promised efficiencies. In the words of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a smart building champion, over time, “buildings stray.”

To avoid that scenario, building owner stakeholders and solutions providers must work up-front to ensure that designers keep their eyes on the prize — delivering a system that effectively reduces the chances that control will slip from users’ hands.

Bernstein has a multi-faceted prescription for heading off that problem. It includes budgeting for the costs of ongoing system operation, such as training, better designed user control interfaces, and accounting for all the details of building systems integration onto a smart platform higher up the design chain.

“Some of the blame is on the way building automation systems are designed, where tools are oversold, and the building was never designed to run optimally,” he says. “There’s the question of who’s writing the specs, who’s the engineer of record, and who’s taking responsibility for ensuring that equipment is designed, sized, installed, and commissioned correctly. Today, unfortunately, that responsibility often falls on the lowest rung of the totem pole, typically a controls contractor guy who has to try to make it all work.”

Another obstacle to utilization is inflated expectations and misplaced confidence, specifically in relation to what data alone can provide. Though building system data collection is a prime function of smart buildings solutions, the real value lies in the ability of an enabled building to translate data into knowledge — and knowledge into operational results. There’s still a disconnect, some say, between the ability of smart building systems to collect a lot of data and the ability to utilize it. The missing link is astute analysis.

Questioning smart

Jim Benya, a lighting systems expert at Benya Burnett Consulting, is leery of some elements of the smart building narrative. He isn’t sure there’s consensus on what a smart building is, and questions whether there’s a need to change the mind-set from “ever smarter” to “just smart enough.” In the quest for smart, he says, there’s a fixation on data, and not enough on the practical, perhaps lower-tech, concrete steps that can be taken to improve building efficiency.

“Everyone talks about, well, I’m going to collect all this data — I’m going to have ‘Big Data,’” he says. “That sounds great, but what are you going to do with that data? You’ll fill up a hard drive with it, and you’ll know how many microwatts are being used on every circuit in the building every minute of every day. Are you going to change anything, modify anything, improve anything?

“Overall, a smart building in my opinion is one where the building owner and operator figure out what they want to be able to do, and they’re going to make a commitment to do it.”

Good up-front planning and the establishment of goals and priorities are also dependent on the skills of sellers of smart building solutions. Far too often, says Mansfield, systems providers fail in their support role.

“A lot of companies that supply these systems walk away, and they let the owner fall back from a system designed for 95% success to one that’s only 80% or 85%,” he says. “There will be a plateau, and the ‘c-suite’ won’t be getting the return they wanted.”

While a central tenet of the model is increased automation, people ultimately design, install, and end up overseeing the programming, operation, and use of smart building systems. Perhaps until the arrival of fully reliable artificial intelligence, smart buildings will merely be an extension of smart, educated, and disciplined humans, abetted by technology.

“Adoption of smart building concepts will be driven by occupants,” Boucher says. “We’re giving users the ability to collect a lot of data, but a central system that can analyze the data, send commands to that building to change or optimize its performance — that’s still being developed.”        

SIDEBAR 1: Submetering’s Stock May Rise as Smart Buildings Take Hold

Data is the engine at the heart of the blossoming smart building trend. That could mean a surge of interest in a well-vetted — but still not widely used — tool for tracking building energy usage.

Submetering is a straightforward, proven method of sampling and collecting data on electrical consumption and other variables. It may be coming into vogue because it can be used to track energy usage and performance on components, systems, and defined areas of a structure. In the quest to drill deeper into a building’s energy usage, submetering can help identify patterns that smart building systems can identify, interpret, and act upon.

Navigant Research has been studying the submetering market for years. In a report issued in 2015, it predicted that submeter installations worldwide could be generating $2.5 billion by 2024 — up from $950 billion in 2015. It cited mounting interest in building energy efficiency for the growth prospects as well as improving technology, falling costs, and its ability to efficiently attain granular information on energy usage.

That could serve to propel submetering’s fortunes as smart buildings take shape. What Navigant describes as the steady commoditization of meters could mean it becomes less expensive to deploy the large number often needed to develop a comprehensive energy usage profile. Plus, new generations of wireless, IP-enabled meters that simplify the process of logging and transmitting data to building management systems could slash associated cabling infrastructure costs and ultimately lower the expense of collecting and managing submeter data. Plus, more affordable submetering could even help building owners use meters as part of a process of evaluating whether and what kind of a smart building system may be needed.

But as capable as submetering has become, it could well be supplanted by new technologies. The rise of the Internet of Things and the emergence of new IP-enabled sensor technologies could mean we don’t have a clear vision of where submetering is headed.

Todd Boucher, principal at Leading Edge Design Group, an Enfield, N.H.-based supplier of critical infrastructure and smart building solutions, says advances in smart building technologies mean that submetering as it now exists may not even be essential to a smart building.

“I don’t know that it becomes an absolute requirement, but it is an important component of collecting data and making smart decisions,” he says. “The question becomes the way in which it’s collected; what technologies will be developed that will allow it be done so effectively, balancing investment versus value.”

SIDEBAR 2: Lighting Systems’ Prospects as a Smart Building Tool

In the future, lighting system upgrades may illuminate the path to a more economical approach to making more existing buildings smarter. In addition to delivering lower-cost lighting solutions, smart lighting systems employing technologies like LEDs may be well suited to providing the sensing and control components of a smart building infrastructure.

Lighting systems expert Jim Benya, with Benya Burnett Consulting, Davis, Calif., sees a building’s extensive lighting infrastructure as a natural conduit for gaining intelligence on a building’s status and sending commands. Since each lighting fixture has a power supply and enclosure, the two most expensive parts of creating an electronic node are in place. At that point, adding sensors and the wiring is a nominal cost.

“Every luminaire is a node in a potentially intelligent system,” says Benya. “There’s no reason that a lighting node couldn’t have an output that could signal something else to do something. Lighting naturally lends itself, like no other system, to sensing and — to a certain extent — control because there might be a fixture every hundred feet or so.”

Another reason lighting may offer a good avenue to smart building command and control lies in its limited, focused capability. “It doesn’t offer the ability to provide streams of data communication,” he says. “There are limited instruction sets involved, which means there’s no way to hack into it.”

Building lighting may also have a future role as a digital communications medium, potentially benefitting smart building operations. Benya points to efforts spearheaded by lighting suppliers to use lighting to deliver a new take on Wi-Fi: Li-Fi.

“A number of installations are being experimented with where light fixtures themselves are the network,” he says. “One of the big advantages is that it’s confined to where the light goes. In theory, you have to be in the space to be able to have a device to be able to communicate with it, making it as secure as any Wi-Fi system.”


Article was originally published on

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.