Changing the landscape

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Henry Lawson, BSRIA's senior market research analyst, discusses how building controls are evolving towards a future of smart, integrated buildings.

In the 30 or so years that BSRIA has been analysing the global market for Building Automation Controls (BACS), the picture has generally been one of steady, gradual evolution. BACS technology, typically installed to manage larger and more complex non-residential buildings, has been marked by incremental improvements and the BACS market has tended to expand a bit faster than the economy in general in the long term. It has also been influenced by the vagaries of the construction industry in the short term.

However, this picture of relative calm is now being disrupted by a combination of more dramatic technological and social changes. Three revolutions are combining to transform the world of buildings as they are already transforming much of the rest of society.

Firstly, over several decades, both the size and the price of micro-chips has plummeted, making it increasingly practical and cost-effective to install processors even in small and everyday appliances and devices, requiring little power. 

Secondly, we have seen a revolution in communications with spectacular improvements in the speed the reliability and the cost of both fixed and wireless communications.

Thirdly, we have seen advances in the capacity of software from performing calculations to ‘taking decisions’, to developing the ability to ‘learn’ and improve over time. Artificial Intelligence (AI), while sometimes over-hyped, is rapidly becoming a reality that is as relevant to buildings as to other areas of life.

These three revolutions have combined to create the Internet of Things (IoT). The consequences for building services are already being felt. Almost every device in a building now has the potential to process and share data about its state and function, from ‘big ticket’ items like AC units or boilers, to thermostats, sensors, valves and actuators.

Between them, these provide a vast mass of information which can be used not just to fine tune the building’s performance (for example to improve energy efficiency or enhance comfort levels) but also to ‘learn’ to identify problems, and potentially to predict and prevent them.

A move towards integration

BSRIA research is already showing a trend towards greater integration and convergence of building services. While BACS has ‘traditionally’ focussed on managing HVAC, it increasingly has a role in managing other building services. In some cases, such as lighting, or control of blinds, there is an obvious synergy with HVAC. However, we have also found cases where security and other building services are integrated.

This becomes even more relevant as building managers increasingly recognise wellbeing as a goal. For most organisations, wages represent a much larger outgoing than the cost of the building or that of the energy consumed, important though these are. While wellbeing is influenced by several factors, many, such as temperature, humidity, ventilation, air freshness and lighting levels, can potentially be influenced by building services.

However, to achieve this, the building systems need to be able to collect data at a suitably granular level, analyse that data and also ideally to have outputs that are refined enough to deliver to each building occupant a suitably ‘personalised’ environment.

Making the most of data

Communications improvements have also made it increasingly cost-effective to upload and process data in the cloud. This can be especially beneficial where a portfolio of buildings in different locations is being supported. To take a specific example, if someone is responsible for managing or maintaining the HVAC systems for a group of small buildings, such as a hotel or retail chain, then it may be more efficient to monitor these systems remotely rather than by attempting to install a management system on each site.

By doing this, not only can the manager receive real-time alerts when a unit fails, but the system can analyse data from a number of different sites and start to make predictions about when a unit needs servicing or replacement of parts. An engineer can then be despatched, with the appropriate equipment and address the problem, often before the end user is aware that anything is amiss. 

The IoT also enables data to be processed at the most appropriate level. It is neither necessary nor practicable to upload everything to the cloud. The IoT also enables building systems to interact more quickly and effectively both with the outside world – for example, by reducing power consumption if there is a spike in demand – and with people inside the building, for example by using data supplied by mobile or wearable devices.

All of this describes a kind of ‘ideal’. However, there are a number of important challenges that need to be addressed in order to achieve this.

Creating a fully smart building is likely to involve significant investment to collect and process data and then deliver the required outcomes. This is likely to be easier to achieve where the organisation that designs, specifies and pays for the initial cost of the building is also using it.

It is also important to understand that artificial intelligence is not a magic wand. It is a process that advances at varying speed, rather like the learning process of a human being. An intelligent building, like an intelligent human, sometimes learns through its mistakes. As the following illustration shows, it is not a case of a building being ‘smart’ or ‘not smart’. There are a series of stages or increments that a building can go thorough.

 

 

The smart building continuum

Most of today’s ‘smart’ buildings are still at the lower stages of this triangle. However, as AI advances, the prospect of building systems that can learn from information gathered over time becomes more real.

When a building, or a device within a building is designed to be smart and connected then there are also some associated risks. The most obvious is that of exposure to increasingly sophisticated cyber-attacks. While building services increasingly invest in cybersecurity, it is practically impossible to protect all elements of the IoT all of the time, so a containment strategy is called for.

Similarly, buildings which focus on wellbeing may rely on collecting data that is in some ways ‘personal’ and which needs to comply with data protection laws.

A building is much more likely to be smart where it is designed with smart capabilities in mind, rather than trying to retrofit smart features at a later stage. This applies as much to comfort and wellbeing as it does to aims such as energy efficiency or security. However, even a building designed to be smart will only deliver if it is correctly implemented and then correctly maintained.

This in turn calls for a further revolution in the skills needed to design, implement and support smart buildings. Increasing smart technology can make some tasks, such as the troubleshooting of problems, much simpler. But it also calls for understanding of the potential of what smart technology can and cannot achieve. Where wellbeing is a goal, social and psychological factors also need to be understood.

A key challenge for building services here will be that as the smart revolution sweeps through society, they will need to compete with other industries looking for the best and brightest minds.

As buildings interact more both with the people and processes inside them and with the wider world outside them, whether we are building services specialists or just building users, we are going to need to start thinking differently about buildings.