Bringing the Internet of Things to the Built Environment via Building Systems Integration

By Alex Herceg

Alex Herceg is an Analyst on the Lux Research Intelligence team, focused on the Efficient Building Systems service, based in Amsterdam. He regularly analyzes technologies, strategies, and business models of emerging companies in the green buildings space, focusing on building energy management. Alex holds a B.Sc. in Mechanical Engineering from Queen’s University, is a licensed Professional Engineer, and holds the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) accredited professional designation, with the Building Design and Construction (BD+C) specialization.

The evolution of commercial buildings over the past 100 years may be compared in scale to that of the airplane.

Air-conditioning was first devised for industrial applications in New York in 1902. Over the next 30 years, cooling technology trickled into home and office buildings, allowing higher occupant densities and increased comfort. Fluorescent lighting began to replace incandescent lighting in the 1930s, following the introduction of the first pneumatic control systems used to control basic devices such as space temperature and mechanical actuators in air handlers.

Through the subsequent decades, the building industry made numerous advances, both targeting occupant comfort, reliability, and reduced energy savings. Systems that are now employed include demand controlled ventilation, radiant heating and cooling, and daylight- and occupant-sensing lighting systems. Often, equipment and devices are Internet-connected, allowing for remote activation and the leveraging of cloud-based applications. The precise control of these systems has been enabled by the introduction of direct digital control building automation systems.

However, as the complexity of these systems increases, and as design tolerances decrease, a higher degree of control must be afforded. For example, chilled-beam systems require constant indoor relative-humidity control to avoid condensation forming on interior surfaces, while destination dispatch elevators queue up passengers to avoid unnecessary trips.

High-security critical environments, such as pharmaceutical labs require logging of all instances of access. Fire protection systems have evolved as well, with high-rise buildings, such as the awe-inspiring Burj Khalifa, adopting a “defend-in-place” fire strategy, using ventilation fans to evacuate smoke and provide air-conditioned refuge areas during a fire event while the 35,000 occupants remain in the building.

Despite their sophistication, systems such as lighting; heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC); and security often operate in silos. Products now exist that can tie them together, through building systems integration (BSI). This integration leverages “big data” and provides benefits to operations, maintenance, and data acquistion.

Lux Research defines BSI as the interconnection of primary building systems through controllers which are connected, allowing centralized monitoring, acquisition of data, and device control. This architecture has demonstrable benefits in terms of simplicity of operation, maintenance cost reduction, and comprehensive data acquisition, but represents just a tiny fraction of the overall commercial building market at present – 1% of the total U.S. building stock.

Why has BSI adoption continued to lag?

Complexity abounds in the world of BSI. Inside buildings is a tangled web of both open and proprietary communication protocols, which means systems may not be able to communicate with each other.

For example, in an office, the data and lighting systems should share input from occupancy sensors to know when a space is being used – however, this is not possible in many buildings because the lighting system and HVAC controllers don’t speak the same language. It is not that the building industry lacks standardization, it is that there are often too many standards, with new companies developing proprietary standards all the time.

Getting meaningful data output from building systems is usually very effort-intensive, but certain standards such as oBIX have made inroads. A building can be analogous to a gathering of UN delegates – communication is possible, but much translation is needed.

Budget is everything. The management of commercial real estate is extremely cost sensitive. While operations people often focus on energy costs, there are many other components that make up the cost of running a building. Some of these costs are fixed year-over-year (such as property taxes and insurance), while some are variable.

On average, building operators are spending 34% annually on fixed costs, with the remaining 66% covering administrative, security, maintenance, and utility costs. These variable costs – utilities, security, and maintenance – present an opportunity for cost reductions, both in reduced energy and full-time equivalent personnel (FTE) savings.

Full integration of building systems has promised building owners a finer level of control over all of these variables, such as proactive maintenance to minimize downtime, or making feasible the reduction in security staff from three people to one person. The issue is that these tangible benefits are not accounted for at the time of design and construction, as project design teams are often disconnected from operational teams within organizations that develop and manage real estate. This prevents stakeholders from clearly defining performance goals for a building, and focusing narrowly on first costs – which usually cut building systems integration out of the picture.

BSI is not just about energy cost savings. A common misconception related to the BSI business case is that it is of one of economics. Strictly speaking, it is not. The nuances of the benefits, while lowering costs in some respects, are not easily quantified.

While some vendors of BSI solutions have been drawn into such a proving exercise, quantifying “loose” variables such as occupant comfort, reduced downtime, and increased safety attributed solely to BSI are difficult to measure and largely case-study based. Energy savings for an individual primary system, such as lighting, are not necessarily any greater than savings realized by having a dedicated advanced lighting control system.

For example, emergency event notifications (such as calls and emails) can be generated using fire-panel output signals; university campuses are already leveraging this for use of mass notification emergency communication (MNEC) during an event. Collecting multiple data streams allows for improved contextual analysis of operating conditions.

In effect, it allows a property manager to establish baselines for resource consumption (even related to water, waste), and track performance based on occupancy. A nascent niche is that of the service of data analytics; specifically the generation of useful “rules” to correlate multiple data streams into actionable information.

Industry conservatism will limit adoption of building systems integration in the near term. Its benefits, such as reduced maintenance calls and opportunity for advanced data analysis, are quantifiable, however the technical challenges and stakeholder disengagement will continue to hinder BSI adoption. Building Systems Integration has an incredibly small market saturation to date, and will be implemented in specific building types, provided there is a forward-thinking, engaged building owner with a clear vision of building performance and functionality goals. Such an owner will not only need a savvy design team capable of mastering the technicalities, but an organization with the reporting and management structures necessary to fully leverage the new data and control capabilities afforded by building systems integration.

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