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Smart buildings: Moving beyond a buzzword

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Energy efficiency, revenue generation and occupier wellbeing. When it comes to building services, these are the triple threat occupying building occupiers’ and owners’ minds. But what can be done to get the most out of all three? Chris Reid, managing director at Sauter Automation Ltd explains.

For many years, controlling the internal environment of a building meant opening or closing the doors and windows, lighting a candle or putting more coal on the fire. Since the mid-20th century rapid developments in technology and automation have been applied to the management of commercial buildings and now the talk is about smart buildings. 

At the same time, advances in construction technology and the striving of architects to construct buildings that become iconic visual statements has given us many notable landmarks. However, have we lost sight of the fact that these buildings should be built to provide an environment in which people will flourish?  

Many of these modern-day megaliths demand that traditional controls, BEMS and the Internet of Things come together to deliver truly integrated building management and enhanced building performance. Energy efficiency, revenue generation and occupier wellbeing are all vying for top priority in building operators’ and owners’ minds, but what can be done to maximise all three and make their building truly smart?

Most existing buildings already have a range of controls and systems installed, ranging from simple thermostats and AC units to full BMS. However, building control solutions have evolved over the past few years and are now able to provide far more sophisticated, localised and individual control. It is only now that the BMS, building management system, can really live up to its name and deliver true building management.

For example, understanding where people are and, as importantly, where they are not, provides the basis for controlling areas to meet the actual, real-time, demand. Using this approach, an office or meeting room can be maintained at a lower temperature until occupancy is detected, upon which the temperature, air conditioning and lighting can be ramped up accordingly. 

Initially this was achieved by adding occupancy detection to the BMS, then by integration to the lighting system, thereby sharing sensor data and avoiding duplication. The next step is for smart sensors with localisation. This technology will provide all the benefits previously mentioned but with the added feature of allowing users to interact with their environment, changing temperature, lighting and shading settings, via an app on their mobile phone, without the need to manually select the room they are in.

Occupancy data can also be used to provide a ‘density map’ which would assist reception staff in directing people to quiet areas or collaboration spaces quickly and efficiently, something which has real value in today’s ever more condensed working environments. 

These features are required not only to ensure the exact control of building spaces but also to meet the changing expectations of millennial workers – apps to control things, control on demand, shared space, smart connectivity, MQTT, Alexa and Google Assistant are a few examples. This means turning the BMS into a tool for the non-technical user by delivering information in easy to understand formats, with intuitive operation. 

It is extremely important that when considering a refurbishment project or mobilising a TFM contract at a new building that the building and FM managers have the ability and expertise to invest time and resources to understand what is already at their fingertips and how these existing systems can be utilised and enhanced to deliver maximum efficiency and provide the best ROI for the ultimate client. 

Anecdotally, it is often the case that the installed BMS within a building is capable of providing far more sophisticated control than it is currently programmed to deliver. This can be due to many factors such as budget pressures during the planning and procurement phase, a lack of maintenance and/or a lack of training and knowledge for the staff who are interacting with the system daily.

This is an interesting time for the building services sector as organisations from numerous backgrounds are now staking their claim to get involved in, and sometimes even take the lead on, the overall management of the building. 

Many lighting control systems now include app control, Wi-Fi, mesh networks and numerous sensors and control options. However, BMS providers argue, and rightly so, that they have a range of sensors and controllers already installed and connected to a central control panel and that integrating other building services and data sources, be that lighting, security systems, solar shading blinds or occupancy, is straightforward and a natural development of their proven joined-up approach. 

It is imperative that whichever system takes the lead on the management of the indoor environmental quality, it does not lose sight of the primary purpose; to provide a comfortable environment in which the occupants can thrive. It does not matter how sophisticated the control system is if the building’s occupiers are not prepared or don’t have the knowledge and understanding of how to use it to its full capacity. 

Opening the windows, propping open a door or having a fan on because your cold colleague has turned up the thermostat, will soon negate any benefits, especially in terms of energy efficiency, that may have been achieved with sophisticated room automation sensors.

The next important consideration is data. Buildings are full of sensors and control points constantly logging and returning data. The FM manager therefore has an abundance of information available. As the saying goes, what you can measure you can manage, but with so much being measured this is not as easy as it sounds and can cause its own problems.  

FM managers need to give more consideration to the data they have available, how it is used and how this can help them to deliver a building that responds to the needs of its occupants. The adoption of cloud-based solutions is now widely accepted, with many of us used to the benefits of this technology in both our personal and professional life. The cloud and the plethora of data collected provides new opportunities for optimising building performance. By use of the right software and interrogation of the data, not only does the property manager have information about the indoor environmental quality, but they also have valuable information about the actual state of the monitoring and control systems that can help with maintenance planning and scheduling. 

However, the BMS sector must be alert to the challenges that are on the horizon from the likes of Google and Amazon. It is not a huge step to take the capabilities of an Alexa-style control system and transfer that capability to a commercial platform. Initiatives such as Project Haystack, an open-source initiative to streamline working with data from the IoT, which is designed to encompass entire building systems and related devices, offer the chance to add further value and make data management both easier and more effective.

To many the word smart is now overused, but if you check the thesaurus the alternatives such as agile, intelligent and spirited are all equally valid and the sector needs to encompass all of these attributes to continue to thrive. The BMS sector cannot afford to be complacent. 

Whilst we continue to build vast, glass edifices, average temperatures continue to rise and every employer expects tools to control their immediate working environment, there is no doubt that controls, connectivity and the IoT are going to become an ever more critical combination for every building owner and operator.

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