The concept of the “smart building” is gaining increased attention and discussion among facilities managers and building owners. This concept of a more automated building that can manage itself and its systems is attractive to building owners because of its potential to deliver something that’s very important to them – savings. But there are many other benefits that smart buildings can deliver that are equally welcome, albeit potentially less exciting.
The savings that smart buildings can deliver are often in the form of reduced energy usage, which inherently makes smart buildings greener and more environmentally friendly. And smart buildings can also play a large role in delivering increased comfort for – and subsequently – improved productivity from the people working within.
These benefits were among the many reasons why smart buildings were a hot topic at this year’s AHR Expo, which brought together the leading HVAC manufacturers and innovative technology companies to talk about the future of the industry and demonstrate incredible new HVAC solutions and capabilities.
During this year’s event, we had the opportunity to sit down with Leonard Tillman, a partner at Balch & Bingham LLP – a law firm with a long and storied history of advising companies in regulated industries. Mr. Tillman’s responsibilities include work with companies within the energy industry – an area in which he has immense experience and knowledge. In fact, he serves as a member of the GridWise Architecture Council, which was formed by the U.S. Department of Energy to promote and enable interoperability among the many entities that interact with the nation’s electric power system.
During our discussion with Mr. Tillman, we talked about the environmental and energy efficiency benefits of a smart building. We also talked about the technological advancements necessary to make a smart building a reality. Here is what he had to say:
Modern Equipment Manufacturer (MEM): In your opinion, what constitutes a “smart building?”
Leonard Tillman: What constitutes a smart building is changing and will continue to change over time. Just as in any other area, at least some of what now seems essential will be made unnecessary by technological advancements. Much of what seems “smart” in the near term eventually will become commonplace and ultimately, even obsolete.
For example, some communications equipment which now may be deemed essential to provide information regarding the energy usage of and the ability to control a particular piece of building equipment may be replaced by the ability to parse the overall building energy load profile to specifically identify and, ultimately, otherwise control such equipment.
However, at the higher, theoretical or “architectural” level, what constitutes a smart building is probably more enduring. In that context, to me, a smart building is one that can autonomously predict, monitor and rapidly respond to changing weather conditions, tenant – including visitors – count and energy resource availability to meet and exceed possibly conflicting tenant preferences for comfort, savings and protecting the environment.
MEM: What types of smart and connected systems and devices does it require to make a building “smart?”
Leonard Tillman: That will require a building that is self-aware of its current and future energy needs, the current and future availability and pricing of resources – including possible on-site generation or storage and demand response – to meet those needs, and then the ability to rapidly self-adjust and/or communicate and execute appropriate actions between those needs and resources.
The ability to be forward-looking and predict changing needs and resource availability is key. For example, predicting and constantly refining tenant count and location within the building on a minute-by-minute basis might be accomplished by collecting and utilizing information such as time of year, day of the week, past history for that or similar days, proximity to a holiday, other relevant national and local events, the net number of people actually entered but not exited the building and anonymized, appropriately provided calendar information regarding tenants’ expected times out-of-the building, all of which could help enable the building to be more proactive.
Of course, artificial intelligence will play an increasing role to process, refine, learn from and suggest additional data that could be helpful in improving performance.
MEM: What is the status of connected devices today? Are we only seeing smart devices and connected devices in segments like HVAC, or are we starting to see other, more tertiary systems/devices become smarter and more connected?
Leonard Tillman: Certainly, the status
of connected devices is improving and will continue to improve. But consistent with the discussion above,
what may be most helpful is increasing communications among the electric grid
and entire building systems regarding tenant preferences as impacted by
changing internal and external conditions and events, all both current and
Related, as tenant preferences change, there will need to be a near-invisible means for such information to be collected by the smart building that does not violate the tenants’ privacy or impose upon their time.
Expected improvements from the pending 5G rollout will help enable such communications and the deployment of the much-discussed Internet of Things. However to the extent communications and control are ”siloed” device-by-device, performance may not be optimized. Further, the need to harden and make such communications secure can hardly be overstated.
Of course, COST – not just possible benefits – associated with any change must be considered as lower cost remains a top customer and regulatory priority.
MEM: What are the energy efficiency benefits of smarter devices and systems? How are they helping with green initiatives?
Leonard Tillman: Clearly as buildings look not only to minimize overall energy usage, such as when it is aware the building is less populated, there is also a growing desire to shift energy usage to times when greener resources are more available. Accordingly, not only will more energy be saved, greener resources may be more effectively utilized.
Again though, such efforts will be enhanced if, and to the extent, as referenced above, abundant data can be collected, appropriately analyzed and shared to increasingly more accurately predict and respond to energy needs and the availability of greener resources.
MEM: What were some of the most exciting and interesting trends and technologies that you saw at AHR this year?
Leonard Tillman: One of the most exciting trends I see is the growing interest and desire to optimize – as opposed to merely reduce – building energy usage. Such optimization may vary building-by-building and tenant-by-tenant and reflect changing preferences for comfort, cost savings and environmental interests.
In that regard, the AHR educational seminar presented by the GridWise Architecture Council, in which I participated, outlined a paradigm for how buildings may become more central in shaping future energy usage optimization. In such paradigm, tenants – via their buildings – have many options regarding energy usage. And the use of the word “options” being important, as tenants likely would resent feeling as if they had lost control or were being mandated by the building owner.
Further, elected options may be subject to change, but tenants should not be required to devote notable time to help make their building’s energy use smarter. Accordingly, automation and artificial intelligence along with wider data exchange among the electric grid and building systems regarding tenants’ preferences, resource availability and internal/external conditions will be foundational to smarter buildings.
Of course, greater interoperability among all relevant systems – including the electric grid – and devices, as facilitated by appropriate architectures, standards and specifications not only will help expedite and secure necessary communications and control but also reduce costs.
Due to the regulated nature of the electric grid, it is worth noting that relevant regulations likely will not be rewritten to benefit a relatively small group at the expense of either the majority or disadvantaged groups. Further, reliability and resilience are and will remain paramount even when meeting changing tenant preferences for comfort, savings and protecting the environment, particularly in challenging circumstances, such as prolonged severe weather.
Importantly, there are values streams, enterprise goals and personal interests that likely will make smart building solutions highly attractive to building owners and tenants regardless of pure economics. Of course, different regions, building owners, tenants and equipment manufacturers have varying plans and priorities and will pursue those plans and priorities in different ways – some of which may be more successful than others, but all of which will help inform, improve and accelerate the role of smart buildings in shaping the future.