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Most buildings today have some level of intelligence to them. But, whether it’s automation, HVAC, lighting, elevator controls, security systems, parking controls, energy management, audio visual devices, or a combination of multiple systems, the same big question should be coming to mind: How much intelligence do your systems have to have to ensure you’re creating a smart building of the future?
Although there is no one size fits all, building owners and facility managers can establish a framework that makes it possible to find the right smart building solution for their specific needs. Some organizations may start small, choosing just a select few systems to connect with an eye on integrating additional options down the road. Others are ready for a more aggressive approach, integrating multiple systems at the start, knowing it will ultimately save on total costs over the long run. Which is the right approach for your organization? In making that decision, consider ways to address four challenges faced during the implementation process of a smart building.
Benefits of Smart Buildings
Before looking at those challenges, it’s important to understand why smart buildings are in demand.
• Internet of Things (IoT): Worldwide technology spending on the IoT will reach $1.2T in 2022, attaining a compound annual growth rate of 13.6 percent over the 2017-2022 forecast period according to IDC. From lighting to wireless conference rooms to smart watches, everything wants to connect. While a centralized “smart building” platform certainly isn’t required to make everything run, having a centralized platform can provide building owners and facility managers with many benefits, such as having a single user interface and dashboard to monitor, control, and identify inefficiencies among all systems integrated into the platform.
• Building optimization: Data collection can give building owners and facility managers real-time insight into system usage and patterns. For example, by automating lighting and HVAC systems to respond to occupancy and weather conditions, a building can improve efficiency up to 25 percent resulting in significant energy savings.
• Operational efficiency: Connected systems can send alerts when equipment is damaged, inoperable, dropping in efficiency, or reaching replacement dates. By monitoring systems remotely, facility staff can reduce the number of on-site visits required simply to determine the nature of a problem. A problem can be diagnosed and parts ordered in advance of a repair visit, and unnecessary repair visits can be prevented entirely. Both reduce maintenance costs, improve workforce efficiency, and reduce energy costs.
• Maximizing occupant experience/customer value: The experience of occupants can be significantly improved through a variety of smart building technologies. Steps to consider include selecting the right infrastructure that can handle large amounts of data with adequate speed and accuracy, providing great cellular and WiFi coverage, thermal comfort, and safety, improving elevator and escalator inefficiencies, and more.
• Meeting occupant expectations: More and more, our homes are connected with systems like Google Home, Nest, Sonos, Ecobee, Ecoisme, Ring, SimpliSafe, etc. These same people are expecting the same level of system interaction in their office space.
Challenges facing smart buildings
Building owners and managers face many challenges when implementing smart buildings today.
Challenge #1: Picking the right systems. There are a lot of options out there, so where do you begin? Developing a smart building integration plan is a great starting point. First identify your business objectives, budget, and goals. Then you can start to list the systems you’ll need to meet those goals. For example, if the desire is to reduce operational costs, you might set a goal focusing on your core building systems, such as lighting, power meters, water meters, pumps, HVAC, and chiller plants, each connected with sensors and control systems the will help maximize performance and minimize usage and waste. Look for options that allow you to add-on other systems later.
It is important to select systems with open protocols like BACnet. BACnet is a data communication protocol that ASHRAE created in order to standardize communication between building automation system components. BACnet allows systems from various vendors, such as HVAC, lighting, security and fire systems, to communicate with each other by providing standardized methods for presenting, requesting, interpreting, and transporting information.
Challenge #2: Developing a programmable platform. Historically speaking, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems were designed to stand alone without integration (being IP-enabled) in mind. As a result, these systems may use different protocols to communicate and many of them are proprietary, not allowing the mixing and matching of data. Each system is capable of gathering data for its own needs but may not be able to share data with or respond to data from another system. The key is to follow the data: Plan your options in advance to account for the programming required to let these systems talk to one another so that they can integrate and normalize data from multiple sources, both internal and external, into a centralized platform to support your building operations.
Challenge #3: Demanding a team approach to integrating systems. The building industry traditionally has been set up around a model where each trade develops its own set of specifications and plans. As such, systems are specified under different divisions: mechanical (division 23), electrical (division 26), plumbing (division 22), and technology (divisions 27 and 28) without cross pollination between systems and sometimes contractors. With the introduction (or disruption) of smart buildings, the industry is moving towards a ‘let’s-work-together approach.’ Teams need to collaborate to develop and implement integrated and interconnected system platforms where systems and devices talk to one another. For example, HVAC and lighting controls might talk to each other so that if lights are off in a section of a building for a long period, HVAC might be aware that temperature for employees isn’t a priority.
Challenge #4: Whose problem is it anyway? You’ve built your smart building, so you’re done, right? Unfortunately nothing stays perfect. Building owners and facility managers also need a support plan. Support post-installation is often overlooked, which can create frustration for building owners and facility managers. Developing a support plan ahead of time — one that provides key performance indicators (KPIs) and shows how you’ll handle both onsite and remote support, training, commissioning, and system and hardware upgrades — can prevent many headaches down the line.
Building owners and facility managers who design and construct a smart building correctly are setting themselves up to both make and save money over the long run. But if it’s done wrong, building owners and facility managers will be playing the fix-it and upgrade game to keep up. Take the time to plan it right, insist that contractors collaborate together on solutions, and if you don’t have an expert to help you identify the options best for your needs, find one.
Gislene Weig (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate principal with Integral Group, a global network of design professionals collaborating under a single deep green engineering umbrella. The firm provides a full range of building system design and energy analysis services.