Why engineers must keep the connected future front of mind in smart building design

Author : Mark Gauntlett | DesignSpark Applications Engineer | RS Components

03 March 2020

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In the thought-provoking 1950 short story, ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’, American sci-fi, fantasy & horror author, Ray Bradbury envisioned an automated house in 2026 that continued its daily routine, despite the fact that its occupants had been vaporised days earlier by a nuclear weapons exchange.

This article was originally featured in special supplement on Designing for energy efficiency, brought to you by EPDT & RS Components [read the digital issue].

Later in the story, the house is unable to extinguish a fire that ultimately destroys the building because it had squandered its stored water resources continuing to run baths and wash dishes for inhabitants that were no longer there. Here, Mark Gauntlett, DesignSpark Applications Engineer at RS Components explores the lessons engineers should take from this story as they design the smart buildings of the future...

Bradbury’s story is an almost perfect object lesson of where smart building implementation can fail as, despite clever automation technology, the building’s downfall resulted from an underlying lack of awareness of two key factors:

1. Those it was built to serve: its inhabitants.

2. The environment in which the building is operating: governing resource use to ensure continued (or ‘sustainable’) service.

A truly smart building needs to ‘understand’ its users, so that it delivers its services – such as illumination, thermal comfort, air quality, physical security and sanitation – in such a way that it seamlessly facilitates whatever activity the occupants are there to carry out. This means the building has to be able to adapt itself to the user’s requirements, which will not remain static, and do this with the lowest feasible cost – both financially, and in terms of environmental impact over the course of its lifecycle.

The importance of intelligent use of data

Data is the lifeblood of a smart building: flowing through information technology arteries connecting all the disparate, independently operating subsystems. How intelligently this data is used separates an awe-inspiring smart building, like The Edge in Amsterdam, from a mediocre one.

Intelligent use of data begins with what might be called a ‘Smart Building Mindset’. The kingpin idea of this mindset is that every aspect of a smart building is a closed feedback loop. This includes taking direct feedback on the happiness and productivity of the building’s users. Learning, from the user’s perspective, what works well and (perhaps more importantly) what doesn’t work quite so well – projects like The Edge are the starting point to enabling more efficient workers, more inclusive relationships, and better overall health and well-being for each occupant.

In terms of infrastructure, a lot of interest in the smart building feedback loop has been driven by the explosion of IoT-enabled technology. While this technology is particularly visible when interfacing the building to its users, the heavy lifting of plant control has tended to be the realm of open standard building management protocols such as BACnet® and LonWorks®.

Approved as ASHRAE, ANSI and ISO standards, these mature peer-to-peer networking technologies connect over a wide variety of physical layers, including twisted pair cables, fibre optics, RF and even powerlines – allowing lighting, air conditioning, fire suppression, security and other systems to pass data freely back and forth.

Nearly a decade ago, the enterprise and server level of building management systems began running these protocols over IP (BACnet/IP, LON/IP), allowing easier data exchange with cloud servers and a building’s other IoT devices.

In a summer 2017 report, Navigant Research estimated that the worldwide IoT market for intelligent buildings will exceed $22 Billion (out of a total market size of US$1,106Bn) by 2026.

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Facilitating data flow & collection

In an age where IoT allows the integration of information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT), it would seem that just sending all the data to the cloud for big data analytics, AI and any other third platform technology to crunch into ‘intelligent’ operation is the way to go.

Indeed, the initial trend for IoT-enabled buildings has been to make building management more centralised again, usually as cloud-based digital twins: a real-time digital representation of physical assets. However, a countertrend has begun to emerge, where more autonomous decision making happens at the field level. Using more intelligent nodes, lots of data, analytics and insight can be processed at the edge by IP level (IoT) field controllers – the control devices in the rooms and spaces. The result is far less information needing to continually flow up the line to the BMS system.

Technologies like Power over Ethernet (PoE) can make installing these nodes easier and avoids the interference problems that can affect wireless IoT devices. But some of the components in a building are heavy loads like motors, so there will still be a need for external power and local wiring.

Data also opens the door to better predictive maintenance. By comparing current data against the original digital twin (using techniques like infrared thermography (IRT) [variations in temperature], ultrasonic analysis [changes in frequency], current analysis [tracking voltage and current supplied to equipment] and vibration analysis [indicating misalignment, wear or imbalance]), systems can see indicators of potential problems and take corrective actions before products and systems fail, minimising unplanned downtime.

Energy efficiency is no longer a choice

With the Energy Performance & Building Directive (EPBD) in the European Union and the US LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certification spreading across the globe, pressure toward energy efficiency is not only legislative, but financial: environmentally aware buildings carry enhanced perceived value. Not only does the asset value of the building increase, it’s also easier to find quality tenants, who tend to be larger organisations with keenly developed ecological ethics.

Smart energy systems often have the capacity to sustainably generate their own power on site, from solar panels on south facing walls and roofs, thermal sources and even the kinetic energy of footfall on floors. By incorporating technologies such as smart glass, to maximize natural light while reducing heat and glare, these buildings can be so efficient in energy use that, for many hours per day, consumption is net negative: they have surplus power to supply back to the grid.

Using an aggregation of information like weather forecasts, hours of daylight, daily use patterns and building occupancy can allow the system to predict how the building will be used and set up the environment across the structure in the most energy efficient way. Constant monitoring and correcting helps to further reduce overall energy usage.

On a citywide scale, this type of technology can be ground-breaking, allowing the creation of smart grid systems. Electricity markets are already evolving toward real-time operation, where buildings can receive requests to reduce demand when grid load is high. Dynamic electricity rates, where buildings are charged the actual cost of producing electricity at the instant of use, rather than an average cost over an extended period, are a growing trend.

With only six years till 2026, it will be interesting to see what innovations in smart building this decade brings. The trends are strong for smarter buildings, but it is clear that how the industry falls in terms of centralising data or making more decisions at the edge will shape the form ‘smart’ takes in the coming years.


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