Making Buildings Smarter

Automation systems help reduce energy consumption, add operating efficiency, but cost still matters.


Calling a building “smart” implies that technology is embedded to make that building more efficient, useful, convenient and profitable. The goal is to program efficiency beyond what humans can provide.

But “smart” also may imply a healthy dose of marketing hype. No one wants to live in a “dumb building,” but it’s difficult to define what makes a building smart. And while much is happening now to put real intelligence into buildings—a field known as building automation, it remains to be seen how widely that technology is adopted.

“The building automation industry is in a time of transition,” said John Ellis, digitalization portfolio manager at Siemens Building Technologies. “The building industry, like so many other industries, is seeking ways to use digital and intelligent infrastructure to optimize business value.”

And in some markets, there is certainly good reason to invest in this technology. Various reports forecast a compound annual growth rate ranging from 10% to 13% in the near future, with the building automation market reaching about $100 billion in 2022. Smart buildings also tie into smart city and smart power-grid technologies, with building automation playing an important part in sustainable building and resource management, some of which are built into local building codes.

Companies working on smart building projects are automating the functions of heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), the physical security of a structure, energy use, location technology, as well as other areas that building owners and their tenants care about. Better networks, increased connectivity and more compute power are making automation projects possible.

The best way to think of change in the industry is in terms of trends instead of specific innovations, said Ellis. “Among the top trends is the increasing endpoint intelligence and capabilities of sensors. Sensors are giving way to multi-sensors that, when assisted by at-sensor data processing, are providing an increasingly clear view into not only a specific metric, but entire-building situational awareness.”

Sensors, controllers, and servers are generally the building blocks of building automation systems, said Dave Clark, a facilities technical services manager at Mentor, a Siemens Business. The computing systems capture trends in the data generated by the sensors and do analysis.

The combinations of microchips being used tell the story of building automation systems. “In the past, I would say it was 1:1 building controller to automation chip,” said Ellis. “More recently, I would say it’s more 1:1 sensor to automation chip as compute power makes its way to the at-sensor level, supported by heavy analytics in the cloud.”

Simply put, building automation systems are Internet of Things (IoT) projects mixed with control and automation. Sensors that monitor a local condition send the data about the condition via a high-speed network to be processed. The data is then used to initiate a decision and take an action.

Using the cloud to handle all the data processing may be a necessity for some building automation systems. “We used to have to host everything in-house,” including the sensors, controllers, servers, databases, and trending analysis, Clark said. “With the Internet of Things, that server and analysis and databases can shift out into a cloud base. Where the industry is potentially heading, you can have access to some serious compute power to do analysis on that data.”

Another trend involves an industry shift toward open building automation platforms. “This is in part because of technology trends, but also for competitive reasons,” said Ellis. “Open standards and protocols allow automation companies to deliver more value to their clients by being able to connect to not only their own systems, but provide connectivity through the partner systems as well, ultimately improving the capabilities of the whole system.”

The rule of thumb in designing building automation is security, reliability and ease of use for customers, in that order. Or as Aniruddha Deodhar, principal for smart buildings and smart cities in Arm’s IoT Services Group, summed it up: Security, interoperability and connectivity abstraction are the three crucial factors about building automation.

“Help customers and their managers connect any type of device to any other type of device, and to the cloud, without being encumbered by the burdens of protocols, and the alphabet soup that ensues with all that,” Deodhar said.

Security is a special caveat. Along with exciting improvements in connectivity come serious responsibilities. IoT is still a new technology that hasn’t tackled security. “We think about security right from the foundational elements, right from the devices all the way to the cloud, including security in the communication itself,” said Deodhar.

Looking for faults and anomalies in the building systems—another trend in building automation—is useful for more than security. “Fault detection and diagnostics (FDD), for instance, is now a reality,” said Siemens’ Ellis. FDD examines data from building sensors and can identify off-normal conditions, which can be used for alarms or just optimization of a system.

Having access to all this data and comparing it to key performance indicators all boils down to “looking for abnormal situations,” Mentor’s Clark agreed. After abnormal situations are identified, “we’re really hoping to have a sequence of operations that allows us to respond to that abnormal situation and automatically make some adjustments to equipment. The sequence of operations is probably the heart of a building automation system.”

Fig. 1: Smart building features. Source: Senseware

Use cases for building automation
While home automation systems are often too complicated for consumers to master, building automation systems take on even greater complexity, such as making elevators run more efficiently or allocating meeting rooms on the fly throughout the workday. And those automation systems are often specialized for various industries, offering different applications for factories, stores, and warehouses, in addition to office buildings.

The major systems targeted for automation are:

• Energy efficiency, from lighting to HVAC
• Security of building occupants and assets
• In-building use needs: room reservations (office buildings), wayfinding (hospitals, hotels), asset visibility (hospitals)
• Human-centric design: allowing humans control over their own micro climates

Making buildings more energy efficient has been one of the most important goals for building owners. The smart grid is key to energy efficiency. How do smarter buildings interact with the smart grid?

“Building automation and the smart power grid have everything to do with each other,” said Ellis. “Traditionally, the interface between the building and the grid was at the power meter, and this was a one-way conversation. Through the mid-1970s, we started to see the introduction of demand-response programs, which allowed a building owner to generate revenue by accepting requests for a curtailment of energy usage. Fast forward to today and we still have demand response, but we also have significantly more on-site energy generation, including renewable energy. More commonly, we are also seeing on-site energy storage as well. Each building now has the potential to be a mini-power plant. At Siemens, we work with our clients to make the systems that meet at the meter work well with each other and, in many cases, present our customers with new revenue opportunities previously unavailable. We help clients transform their buildings from costs to revenue generators.”

Beyond energy efficiency
Energy efficiency and sustainable building development traditionally have been key to the building automation market, said Arm’s Deodhar. Now the field is looking to provide “higher-level value.”

“Energy is almost table stakes when you start thinking of building automation as a given,” he said. Instead, building automation is being used by building owners and operators to focus on the comfort, security and use of their people and assets. “Can you use IoT, can you use this increased connectivity for things like space optimization, for helping employees with wayfinding, asset visibility?”

Building automation can tackle many aggravating problems. For instance, in hospitals, more than 90% of the assets are mobile assets, but they’re only used 50% of the time because they’re hidden, stolen or lost. “How do you track those, how do you use object detection, computer vision, machine learning?” Deodhar asked. “That can help with security. Those are the things, in terms of use-case trends, are getting more and more traction.”

“A significant market trend toward human-centric design is maturing rapidly,” said Ellis. “Instead of having a top-down control perspective of the building environment, we are seeing a democratization of occupant comfort driven by technology. Increasingly, building occupants are able to complete actions such as control individual lighting or request temperature changes, but also book rooms, order catering services or request other in-building services. Human-centric design is the future of buildings. However, it is important to remember that it is supported by vast interoperability of the underlying technology.”

Buying into the market
Leading vendors creating building automation products include ABB, Cisco Systems, Creston Electronics, Delta Controls, General Electric, Honeywell International, Knight Watch, Lutron Electronics, Robert Bosch, Rockwell Automation, Schneider Electric, and Siemens.

Arm last year acquired Sweden’s Mistbase and the U.K.’s NextG-Com to add narrow-band IoT technology to the company’s portfolio of intellectual property. The company is paying attention to the whole building environment, from cameras and lights, to sensors to gateways to servers, said Aniruddha Deodhar, Arm’s principal for smart buildings and smart cities in IoT Services Group. Security is a key focus for the company.

“We are thinking about protocols, but also interoperability between systems, both HVAC systems and lighting systems, and all the facility systems, like access control and computer vision,” said Deodhar. “We are dealing with so many different kinds of radios and protocols.”

Siemens has been acquiring building automation companies, as well. The Siemens Building Technologies Division bought Enlighted, a supplier of lighting control systems, which offers a sensor-based IoT platform for commercial buildings. Siemens also has just purchased J2 Innovations of Chino, Calif., which offers its Fluid Integration Framework software for IoT and for controlling, monitoring and operating automation systems used in large and small buildings.

“Siemens Building Technologies offers a wide portfolio spanning from automation, security, and fire solutions, on to remote digital services and a world-class technical branch network for on-site service delivery,” said Ellis.

Siemens acquired Mentor Graphics in 2017. Since then, Mentor has been able to tap the German parent’s expertise in building automation systems. That includes more advanced data analytics for fault detection and diagnostics (FDD). “At Siemens, we are able to ingest data from the building and use it to identify ‘faults’ that are distinguished from a building management system alarm in that they represent off-normal conditions,” said Ellis. “One such off-normal condition is simultaneous heating and cooling. This behavior may not be reported as an alarm if each system is working well independently. FDD allows us to take a building-level approach to finding opportunities for optimization.”

Ellis also sees artificial intelligence being embedded into building automation systems. “[AI is] often portrayed as a shiny robot casually lounging near a computer, but this is probably not how it will play out. Artificial intelligence at present is being deployed to automate and remove error from more mundane but critical tasks, such as data cleaning and alignment. In the future, I expect that artificial intelligence will also assist in the decision-making process to a greater degree.”

Ellis observed that almost half the facility engineers and building staff will soon be retiring. “We estimate that nearly 50% of the facility engineers and building staff at many of our client sites are within 10 years of retirement. These individuals hold a vast amount of institutional knowledge that simply can’t be replaced. We are helping our clients to succeed and manage a changing workforce, while maintaining asset up-time, by providing a combination of remote digital services and hands-on industry know-how.”

The business of smart buildings
The idea of smart buildings and smart infrastructure has been around for some time. The idea has caught on in places like China and in some cities in Europe, but in other markets the idea has seen a mixed reception. While it may be an attractive concept, in many markets there also has to be a strong business case.

“Even if this technology is inexpensive, there are often other ways to do the same thing that are less expensive,” said Frank Ferro, senior director of product management at Rambus. “This is what happened with RFID tags, which were predicted to take over retail, but it turned out that bar code readers were still cheaper. If you have a bunch of sensors in a building, even if they cost $1 or $2, the total cost can still be enormous. In consumer electronics, pennies matter.”

This helps explain why smart buildings are rarer than the technology would suggest. “In North America there are no conversations about smart cities,” said Steve Mensor, vice president of marketing at Achronix. “All of those are government-led.”

It’s also one of the reasons why smart buildings stand out so much, and why they are more often marketed at the very high end of the real-estate market. OVG Real Estate in the Netherlands designed what it touts as “the world’s smartest building,” constructed in Amsterdam for Deloitte. The building, called “The Edge” inspired OVG to form a tech-oriented subsidiary, EDGE Technologies, to capitalize on what it learned from building the Deloitte office, said Erik Ubels, OVG’s CTO, at the recent Internet of Things World conference.

“Before the architect even starts to think about the design of the building, we will already have told him what to do with the technology,” Ubels said. Showing a photograph of EDGE Olympic, as the unusually shaped structure is known, he noted, “It’s a slightly different kind of building. It’s not a typical shoebox on its side. This is optimized for energy.”

The Edge uses power-over-Ethernet technology for LED lighting and incorporates 16 types of sensors. Noise inside the structure is measured to provide quieter rooms. Solar panels provide some of the power needed. EDGE Olympic has a fiber-based IoT backbone, Ubels said, enabling monitoring and control of various features through a single smartphone application.

There are 28,000 sensors in EDGE Olympic, according to Ubels, and future buildings are likely to have 100,000 sensors. Machine learning technology is incorporated in the coffee machines, elevators, in the “the whole building,” he said. No virtual machines or servers are inside the building; it relies entirely on cloud-based computing.

The era of more sophisticated building automation is upon us, but how widespread this becomes isn’t entirely clear at this point. Smarter buildings make use of the computing cloud, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence/machine learning, and other advanced technologies to keep workers comfortable, secure, and happy with their facilities. Now the question is who will pay for it.

Related Stories
Securing Smart Homes
Threat levels rise as more devices are connected. Solutions are available, but they are often ignored.
Challenges At The Edge
Real products are starting to hit the market, but this is just the beginning of whole new wave of technology issues.
3 Big Challenges For 5G
Technology gains moment, but important issues still need to be resolved to make this technology ubiquitous.


Phillip Kopp says:

GREAT article.

Leave a Reply

(Note: This name will be displayed publicly)