Is My Building Smarter Than me?

Buildnig Automation

The question in the title is rhetorical, but in reality the buildings in which we work, play and even live are getting smarter says Jim White, CTO of IOTech

They may not be able to recite Shakespeare or explain quantum mechanics, but today’s offices, factories, stores, warehouses, entertainment centres and homes know increasingly more. As a result, they make our lives better, safer and help care for our planet more than we may do ourselves.

The facility and building management organizations and the technology companies supporting them are pouring a lot of resources into the buildings you occupy to make them smarter. Why? Yesterday’s building management organizations, with their building management systems (BMS), were paid to detect fire, and keep the HVAC, lighting, water and power running. Some went as far as providing some badge-reader access controls, and security monitoring through CCTV. These basic functions are still important. But why are management companies sinking massive amounts of resources (an estimated $265B by 2028) to go beyond providing the basics? Why are they making our buildings so smart?

Technology use boils down to a few drivers and they apply in these situations as well: helping save/make money, keep people safe and happy, and save our environment. Building management organizations are leveraging more cost effective, available and easily deployed technology to do these things. Smarter buildings are the end result of this drive, not the target itself. Smarter buildings save money, make money, help people or help our planet.

Saving Money

This is typically where building management organizations start in their smart building efforts. I live across from a hotel. Each night, I see almost every room lit. Guests or cleaning staff leave every light on, even when there is no one in the room. Occupancy sensors hooked to building automation can detect when rooms are empty and automatically shut off lights, adjust the temperature and turn off other appliances. More aggressive savings come from collecting more information about people occupancy, movement and environmental conditions to optimize space and support equipment in a building. During off-peak hours, a smart building can shut down some elevator cars in the elevator bank to save energy and reduce maintenance. Smart buildings can turn conference rooms into private offices and vice versa, depending on the needs of today’s WFH workforce. This allows organizations to reduce even their office space needs.

Helping People

Smart buildings are helping enforce mask mandates and social distancing during the pandemic. A smart assisted-care facility can sense a senior person’s motion and measure vital signs. With proper sensors, it can detect the amount of energy they use to cook, recreate and otherwise live – tipping off caregivers to other potential mental or physical issues. Smart buildings have gone way beyond simple badge-readers. Smart buildings use Bluetooth technology tracking, voice recognition and facial recognition to grant access and prepare spaces (lights, temperature, work aids, etc.) for its occupants, based on their preferences. In emergency situations, smart building sensors detect hazardous materials, gunshots, or human falls and immediately alert the appropriate authorities. They even work lighting and signage to guide people to safety. Smart buildings require fewer people onsite or watching monitor screens to run a facility. Sometimes helping people means more remote and automatic operations that reduce the tedium and human error conditions found in legacy building management systems.

Helping the Planet

Saving energy or other resources typically saves money and helps the planet. Building management companies may have altruistic motives, but it helps when they are also tied to one of the other drivers. Occupancy sensors allow smart buildings to turn off heating, cooling and lighting that reduce a building’s carbon footprint. That’s straightforward, but many smart buildings are now being outfitted with renewable energy generating and storage equipment (e.g., solar panels and batteries) and even rain-capturing systems. A smart building can now conserve and share precious resources with other buildings.

Making Money

Smart buildings can actually help generate new revenue streams for their owners. They serve as huge deposits of data that know what people like to do and how/when we like to do it. That data can be monetized. Data about energy usage, water consumption, people movement, etc., is all there in every smart building. This might be one of the most exciting prospects to building management organizations. Smart buildings are providing alternate revenue streams to them.

Have you noticed more marketing/advertising space in buildings today – especially those in elevators and other shared space where you are at the building’s mercy for short periods? Wait until the smart building starts to learn that I like a coffee break around 2 p.m. every day. There is a deal that Starbucks and my smart building are going to make in the not-too-distant future that will let me know my mocha Frappuccino can be waiting downstairs if I just touch the screen in the elevator now. Smart buildings now come with more equipment (everything from printers and projectors to engines and tools). These assets can be shared by occupants, lowering the cost for the user by allowing the smart building to track, assign and repair these items more efficiently (and at a profit).

Jim White
Jim White

How Smart Must the Building Get?

There is no IQ test for a building (at least not yet). But fortunately, almost any intelligence can help buildings save money, help people, help the planet or make money (often doing many of these at once). One of my earliest IoT/edge projects was while working in Austin, Texas. We were testing some new gateways and edge software to collect data from thermostats and occupancy sensors already in the building. It didn’t take much to see that in the middle of a summer afternoon in Texas, the rooms on the south side of a building were getting uncomfortably warm while north-side rooms were like iceboxes – all while the A/C was set universally across the building. We also detected, through occupancy sensors, that the security guard traveled the exact path at the same time on patrols – exposing people/property security risks.  Just a “kindergarten level” smart building apparatus is a great start for many building management organizations. Small adoptions of IoT and edge sensors, hardware and software on top of existing equipment can yield some significant improvements (saving money, helping people and the environment, and possibly making money).

In fact, building management companies are going to have to look at operating buildings more efficiently and with an eye to new revenue streams. The pandemic has changed the way we work and live. Many of us are spending less time in the office and more time at home. We spend less time in retail stores but more time buying things online. If you own and operate buildings, you and your buildings have to be smarter to ensure you survive and thrive in this new world.


Is it difficult making a building smart? As I just alluded, low-hanging smart-building fruit can usually be easy to find and harvest. More sophisticated smart buildings will take some investment and time. My company works with many of those supporting or directly involved in building management. There are common themes we have learned in creating smart buildings:

1.           Open and Flexible. Many of the old building management systems, HVAC controls, power management, emergency and other subsystems of a building are proprietary. They are not open to new integrations and extensions. The subsystems and automation in a smart building must work together and be receptive to change and enhancements. Open-source technology and adherence to open standards allows components to work together and change over time. They help avoid vendor lock-in or high costs associated with single vendor/ proprietary solutions.

2.           Scale and Performance. Creating building automation prototypes with a Raspberry Pi and a few cheap sensors is a great way to conceptualize your smart building, but real solutions require scale and performance. Start small, but think big. Engineer and test to the scale and performance needs of your use case.

3.           Expertise and Support. When creating your smart building, you will need help. Smart buildings contain OT and IT expertise. You need people who understand sensor fusion AI/ML, and edge-and-cloud native computing as much as they understand PLCs and the BACnet protocol. You need partners that understand the spectrum of technologies and offer more complete solutions (and can leverage other partners to complement their own expertise).

Buildings becoming smarter is just a specific form of digital transformation that is happening everywhere. Humans don’t have to be smarter than our buildings, as long as we are providing them with intelligence to make our lives better, and to conserve the precious resources of our planet.

Jim White is CTO of IOTech

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