Intelligent buildings: Building better 

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Pradyumna Pandit, VP of EcoBuilding UK and Ireland at Schneider Electric, explores the role intelligent buildings have to play in contributing to a smarter, more sustainable future.

The future belongs to smart cities. While it feels like we are far away from a reality without traffic jams, polluted air and power failures, change is happening fast. Global spending is projected to grow to £34.35 billion by 2020, more than double the level of investment in smart cities in 2015. 

Yet what is a smart city if not a collection of smart buildings? When we look at the cumulative impact of cities on the environment, buildings demand large quantities of energy and, often, waste it. Government and central planning can only do so much. Ultimately, it will take millions of businesses, upgrading and optimising their real estate in unison, to provide the smart cities future. 

However, in addition to the many boons for the environment, smart buildings can also pay dividends for those who own and work in them. The potential for savings, innovation and optimisation within organisations is enormous. Smart buildings represent a substantial return on investment which businesses cannot afford to dismiss. 

 

Smarter buildings = smarter cities

The Internet of Things (IoT) is at the heart of both a smart building and a smart city. Without it, neither would be possible. The power of the IoT lies in its ability to integrate the various and complex components and IT systems that comprise any modern building. It creates a cloud-based network where devices can communicate and collaborate. 

Only through cross-system communication is real-time monitoring, optimisation and automation possible. When building systems can ‘talk’ with each other without the need for complex interfaces, the resilience of the infrastructure as a whole is strengthened. It provides access to a greater volume of intelligence, as well as a better use of building resources.

Such a system augments an organisation’s pursuit of greater energy efficiency, where the rapid collection of and reaction to massive amounts of information are essential. 

For example, having IoT devices and sensors integrated with a heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system, means that organisations can collect real-time data on all their products and services. Here, thousands of sensors are gathering data to be analysed while the system is communicating with the outside world.

The data will include actionable data from outside the building itself, including electricity, utility and commodity prices. Then by understanding and organising this information, the system will enable organisations to take a fresh look at their current practices, generate business change and create efficiencies. 

Of course, none of this would be feasible without the IoT’s accommodation of automation. Tools that visualise and report utility bills, monitor assets, detect and diagnose system faults through benchmarking and analysis and enable fixes and optimisation are nothing new.

However, most solutions have tended to demand a considerable amount of human involvement, reducing speed and overall effectiveness. 

The benefit of an IoT network where devices communicate with each other without the need for human intervention is that adjustments can be made on-the-fly and instantaneously, provided that the right software is in place.

By taking advantage of the IoT to better manage the day-to-day running of a building or facility means that an organisation can reallocate its human capital to tasks where creativity and decision making are more important.

 

Waste not, want not

How then does this benefit an enterprise in practice? There are significant opportunities for greater efficiency and sustainability in an IoT-optimised environment. For example, consider an office that is minimally-staffed due to employees suddenly going out to lunch. 

An occupancy sensor, integrated through the IoT to the building management system (BMS), will detect a reduction in the office’s CO2 levels and set off an immediate chain of actions.  It will communicate this data to the BMS, which will then switch off heating, ventilation and lighting systems and place the environment into a deep setback, low-power mode until the employees return. 

Where this kind of system is absent, energy is wasted, emissions produced and money lost. Though relatively minor in isolation, the cost of, for example, leaving the air conditioning running on a cool day builds rapidly over time.

Indeed, the energy efficiency potential of buildings stands at 82%.In the long term, the presence of a smart system saves energy and reduces waste, amounting to a substantial cost-saving.

 

Eagle-eyed efficiency

Smart buildings can also be a driver of superior maintenance. Proactive and predictive asset maintenance practices rely on the monitoring capabilities of an IoT-connected system. Taking care of equipment is cheaper and more effective when a building’s devices are able to communicate with each other. 

It is more difficult for failures and malfunctions to go unnoticed and unrepaired when a BMS can detect a fault and automatically schedule maintenance, all without human input. This cuts down on the number of equipment failures and instances of costly and unexpected repair work, helping to ensure that maintenance is scheduled for a time that is least disruptive and expensive to the business.

As the effects of climate change worsen and sustainability rises on the international agenda, our current cities are too large, too polluting and too inefficient to ignore. As they continue to grow, urban areas consume more than two-thirds of the world’s energy and generate 70% of its emissions.

If we are serious about tackling this, then we need to start at the bottom. More sustainable buildings that use less energy are our only recourse. 

Yet sustainability does not have to be painful. The economic benefits of IoT adoption in factories, retail settings, work sites, offices and homes could total as much as $6.3 trillion by 2025. 

Connected, intelligent equipment and systems have proven their ability to provide greater insight into performance and deliver a considerable, measurable return on investment. By forming the foundation of tomorrow’s smart cities, they also have the potential to reduce energy waste and consumption on an impressive scale.  

Smart buildings are a smart decision, for people and the planet.