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Beyond the Smart Buildings Hype
Smart buildings are the latest hot topic in the building industry, with the potential to become a significant industry catalyst for new development projects and to create massive quantities of additional data from Building-Internet-of-Things (B-IoT) devices. However, is this really just hype?
Smart buildings are touted as providing more efficient buildings in terms of resource utilization, renewable resources, and energy efficiency, and as delivering improved indoor air quality (IAQ), productivity, and connectivity with the digital world. They hold out the promise of seamlessly weaving people, technology, and business into an enhanced and optimized ecosystem.
New technologies, like artificial intelligence (AI) and smart B-IoT devices, are supposed to make nearly any problem readily solvable; yet we see very few examples of these types of infrastructures being designed or constructed today.
While the promise of smart buildings stands to revolutionize how we design, build, and work in the built environment of the future, are these claims to fame just speculation or is there some validity to them?
Barriers to action
The excitement surrounding smart buildings is arguably at its peak, which raises the question: Where are all the smart building projects and demonstrated applications?
There are many barriers to action for smart buildings. Some barriers are higher than others, but each of them presents a real challenge to making smart buildings a reality. Some of the major barriers include:
• Governance. Bureaucracy across all levels of government influences how funding is budgeted, planned, and allocated for projects. Laws and codes are in place which inhibit innovation and are difficult to challenge or modify. Decision making via committee is slow and cumbersome and often stalls out due to lack of consensus.
• Traditional contracting methods. The design-bid-build process invokes methods, tools, standards, and workflows that are designed for a well-established and predictable building construction process.
• Architecture/engineering design processes. Mechanical-electrical-plumbing engineering firms have divested themselves of B-IoT and technology topics as controls moved from pneumatics to electronics to direct digital controls to B-IoT. The result is that traditional architecture/engineering firms do not have a technology consultancy group, which is pertinent to successful (and profitable) smart building design.
• Lack of Division 25 contractors. The Construction Specification Institute includes Division 25, which is meant to articulate guidelines for integrated building systems, in its master guide. But it has yet to be published with content, leaving the industry to go forward without guidelines or consensus.
• Lack of smart building roadmaps. The lack of roadmaps developed by consensus-based, ANSI-approved organizations creates confusion and vague smart building criteria definitions continue to perpetuate through the industry.
• Early adoption. The smart building maturity model is in its infancy. Firms seeking the smart building path will find few qualified consultants and contractors. They will also find there aren’t yet financial economies of scale for them to enjoy.
• Disconnect in timescales. Evolution and progress for governance, construction standards, IT hardware, and software for smart building application are occurring at different rates. This is further exacerbating the industry misalignment which is making progress so slow and challenging.
Smart building frameworks
When we study the broad variety of available smart building frameworks, maturity models, readiness guides, and strategies, three concepts surface as key to the successful implementation of a smart building.
The first is multi-vendor environments. While most vendors will pitch an ecosystem, it is rare to have an entire building of connected, interoperable systems from a single manufacturer or conglomeration. As a result, one key to a successful smart building is working with a provider that is vendor-agnostic and has the expertise and process methods to work across all technology vendors.
The second is unified networks. If an existing building currently has information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) on separate networks, they will have to be unified as part of the evolution to a smart building. The priorities and governance for the networks must merge at fundamental levels. Differences in priorities, teams, and policies of these networks make this merge difficult, but the challenge is not impossible to overcome.
The third concept is unified data management. From data storage, to data tagging, to data presentation, to data analytics — no efficiencies, business insights, or process improvements can be realized without unified data management.
Until the construction industry takes up the challenge to remove these barriers and to apply these three key concepts, smart buildings will continue to be very difficult to achieve. Compelling arguments and multiple motivations exist for the pursuit of smart buildings, but these need bolstering by a series of processes that will serve as enablers of the new technologies and solutions:
• Build public awareness of smart building use cases and barriers.
• Adopt industry smart building indices, frameworks, maturity models, standards, and codes.
• Develop owner program requirements and owner design concepts.
• Renew and realign development processes.
• Overhaul bidding processes.
• Reset construction execution.