Smart Buildings: Rising to the Challenge of the Future

Posted On: 
Feb 27, 2019
Smart Buildings: Rising to the Challenge of the Future

It was only a few months ago that I heard the phrase “Internet of Things”, although it’s not a new concept. By definition, the Internet of Things, or IoT, is the network of connected devices that contain electronics, software, sensors, actuators, and connectivity which enables these things to connect, interact, and exchange data. It goes beyond the standard connected devices like computers, smartphones, and tablets, and applies to typically non-internet enabled devices ranging from vehicles, heart monitors, watches, and even buildings. So just how “not new” is the IoT?

One source states that the IoT was first mentioned by Kevin Ashton, co-founder of the Auto-ID Center at MIT, in a presentation he made to Proctor & Gamble in 1999. For the most part, he was referencing the internet. That same year, MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld’s book, When Things Start to Think, outlined a vision of what IoT would become. But this idea of a connected world was developed long before the 90s. For instance, in 1983, a smart Coke machine was installed at Carnegie Mellon University that was able to report its inventory and whether the drinks were cold or not. It would also seem that while scientists were working to create the IoT, writers and filmmakers were as well:

1. 2001: Space Odyssey—Stanley Kubrick’s film included a tablet computer and an interactive AI named HAL that controlled the spacecraft.

2. Minority Report— This Steven Spielberg film came out in 2002, but eerily predicted some technological advances we now see in real life: homes were voice-controlled; computers were controlled by touch screen and gesturing; and ads and billboards were personalized to the user.

3. Bladerunner—This 1982 Ridley Scott film includes video conference calls (as does his 1979 movie, Alien). It also includes AI robots who are unsettlingly human-like, and while those aren’t invented yet, we are closer than we’ve ever been.

4. Back to the Future—This futuristic film directed by Robert Zemeckis was released in 1985, and includes many similar technologies to today: tablet computers; wearable virtual reality gear; wall-mounted widescreen TVs; and biometric technology.

5. Feed by M.T. Anderson—This young adult dystopian novel was written in 2002 and deals with the deflation of the dot com bubble. The people in the book have chips implanted in their brains that enable them to tap into a digital network known as the “feed”, which allows data sharing and corporations can use that data to send people target advertising, much like a smart building uses data sharing.

6. From the London Times of 1904 by Mark Twain—In this 1898 short story, Twain came up with an invention called the ‘telelectroscope’ which uses phone lines to support a global network for information sharing, much like early dial-up internet. It also includes the ability to follow other people’s daily activity, like modern day social media.

7. A Logic Name Joe by Murray Leinster—Published in 1946, this short story is about a device in everyone’s homes called a ‘Logic’. It is connected to a main data center that has all the knowledge in the world, and the Logic is how the knowledge is given to people. The Logic is interactive and ends up with a flaw that causes it to become self-aware, thus providing information that it ‘thinks’ is helpful but isn’t. It sounds a little like a smart house gone awry.

But who would’ve guessed that it would be Disney that predicted what we now consider the smart house or smart building concept?

Pat: The Mother of Siri, Alexa, and Google Home

In 1999, on the cusp of the new millennium, the Disney Channel released the movie Smart House. It was a comedy of errors with a warning of how many different ways technology can make our lives worse. In short, a teenage boy wins a competition for a smart home operated and run by an AI named PAT (Personal Applied Technology). He moves in with his recently widowed dad and younger sister, and what can go wrong in a house wired ceiling to floor with technology in every single room? A house can make dinner, clean itself, manage schedules, and interact with humans is in no way a setup for disaster, right? Of course, that’s wrong. It all goes wrong, and disaster ensues. But now, twenty years later, we can see that Disney was on the right track, as we see smart buildings emerging as the latest AEC innovation.

Benefits of the Emerging Smart Commercial Building

There are lots of benefits to smart buildings. Some may wonder why it even matters, but as mentioned in a previous blog, people spend 87% of their time indoors. Therefore, “indoors” should be as comfortable as possible. This is where biophilia enters the design arena, making our indoor environment as connected to the outdoor environment. It also is why smart buildings are so beneficial.

A smart building by definition is a building that, “…provides the structure to automatically handle operations and functionalities in a building such as controlling lighting, security monitoring, ventilation and heating, parking, maintenance and various other systems. Smart buildings collect data using sensors, microchips, and actuators, and manage systems accordingly. This enables improved performance and reliability of assets, which automatically affect energy use, space optimization, and environmental impact of buildings.” Basically, instead of working separately, the different systems of a building—lighting, fire protection, ventilation, climate control—input data into a main control center and communicate via the Internet of Things. It seems like everything we use is “smart” anymore—watches, phones, TVs, speakers, radios, cars—so why not buildings?

Smart buildings offer many benefits:

1. They reduce energy consumption—It’s estimated that smart buildings see a 5-35% reduction in energy use, leading to financial savings as well as sustainability goals. This reduction in energy consumption happens when data is sent by building sensors, initiating adjustments in lighting, temperature, etc.

2. Enable predictive maintenance—It is much easier to tackle a problem from the front end and not the back end. In a smart building, sensors can detect building performance and activate maintenance before it becomes an issue. For example, if a pipe is leaking, a smart building can catch that before the pipe bursts and causes building damage.

3. Optimize occupant experience—Smart buildings are designed to make the occupants more comfortable, which then increases productivity. A more comfortable environment increases wellness elements—less stress, better moods, less sick days, more energy. A smart building can continually monitor and adjust the environment according to its present inhabitants.

Together, all these benefits lead to financial savings, which is always the desired ROI. But another unexpected ROI is that hard data is provided which shows whether efforts actually met the goal of a sustainable building.

What This Means for the Future

With the trend bending toward smart buildings, there aren’t as many true smart buildings yet as you’d think. But a handful around the world are examples of how brilliant this concept can be. These include The Edge, Amsterdam, Netherlands; Intel Office, Tel Aviv, Israel; Siemens City, Vienna, Austria; Palazzo Italia, Milan, Italy; Environmental Systems, Inc. Headquarters, Brookfield, WI; and Bill Gates’ Home, Washington State. This list is expected to increase as the push for more LEED v4 projects increases, the smart construction process becomes more efficient, and the benefits of smart buildings become widely accepted. As this happens, smart buildings will eventually begin to communicate with each other, moving forward into a smart cities concept.

There’s a lot to consider about the coming wave of smart buildings, and how it will affect specifications for manufacturers, as well as builders and designers in the AEC community. But it’s an exciting concept and worth considering all the reasons for and challenges of the smart building trend. In the meantime, in order to gain an understanding of what’s coming, it helps to understand LEED. One of the easiest ways to do this is to become a LEED Green Associate, and we offer a free LEED Exam Prep course that is a successful tool for that goal.

Do you have experience with smart buildings? What are your favorite aspects of them?

For more information or to discuss the topic of this blog, please contact Brad Blank