Have you been blackmailed by your Dishwasher? Who Owns the Smart Future?

This blog was written by BSRIA's Henry Lawson

This blog was written by BSRIA’s Henry Lawson

Having recently updated BSRIA’s key market studies on Building Automation Controls (BACS), Building Energy Management (BEMS) and Smart Evolution – towards the Internet of Everything, I was struck by a world in a state of flux with  implications for the built environment and technology in general that could be as profound as they are unpredictable.

The structure and make up of our buildings and cities have always been intensely political. The most visible of all human creations, they speak volumes about our abilities, our status and our values and our aspirations. I felt this last month  when viewing the ruins of Ephesus – once the second city of the Roman Empire –  as much as when  I am visiting London or Chicago.

At least since the turn of the millennium there has been a tacit assumption that while technology is the great enabler, much of the change in the way our buildings and cities are designed and organised will be driven by social concerns, typically expressed through politics. In particular, the perception that the threat of climate change requires far reaching action has led to a sustained series of targets, guidelines and regulations to increase both energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy, which naturally impacts on the built environment as one of the biggest consumers of energy.

Is this movement losing momentum? The financial crisis and recession affecting much of Europe, North America and some other parts of the developing world has proved to be the most prolonged since the 1930s. Even countries which appeared to escape the worst impact have since experienced either recession or a dramatic slowdown, including Australia, Canada and of course China.

With falling or stagnating production and rising government debt levels in so many countries, it is no surprise that finances and basic economics have come to the fore. Violent conflicts, especially in the Middle East, Africa  and Eastern Europe, but overflowing into other parts of the world, and in turn fuelling mass movements of refugees and economic migration are also seizing attention in developed countries as well.

All of this has sometimes appeared to leave the “green agenda” somewhat on the back foot. Even in countries like Germany, Austria, Australia and New Zealand, where Green parties have attracted mass support and had a major influence on government, they have seemed to become more marginalised. Britain’s recent elections resulted in a new majority government which has very quickly moved to relax requirements on the energy efficiency of new buildings, and also to phase out subsidies for wind power.

While there is argument as to how far this is simply a question of means, and how much it represents a shift in priorities, there is little doubt that measures to improve energy efficiency or to promote use of smart technology face an uphill path if they cannot also provide a quick pay-back.

Where governments get involved in technology, it tends to be for old fashioned economic reasons.  When  mega-corporations  like Microsoft, Apple, Google and Amazon have been in the spotlight it has mainly been because of accusations of anti-competitive practices or because of their tax policies. Rather less thought has been given to the ways in which companies like these could change the basic structure of society, the balance of power, and the whole environment.

Increasingly these global brands interact directly with a global audience, influencing their behaviour, and in turn being influenced by them. It is no accident that Microsoft, Apple, Google and Amazon, having established themselves as consumer brands, are now all active in the area of smart buildings, ranging from the smart home to, in Microsoft’s case, providing the data crunching to manage and optimise whole campuses of buildings.

Increasingly we can link these to wearable devices and to creators of virtual realities which could radically change our day to day activities and environment. Even the basic blocks  from which buildings are made can have ‘smart’ properties, from ‘self-healing’ bricks to glass that responds dynamically to different levels of light.

threatsWith artificial intelligence already surpassing human intelligence in certain well defined areas – such as chess playing – questions are raised about how far the technology goes, who owns it, and how much power they will have. Even our homes and offices can study, learn and predict our habits and our preferences, in ways that can certainly be useful, but also potentially disturbing.

For over a hundred years there have been fears about the prospect of vital areas of technology  being dominated by a single concern or perhaps a cabal of companies. So far, in practice, it has been innovation itself  that has come to the rescue. Even the most nimble footed technology giants have been caught off-guard by new waves of technology, from IBM, to Microsoft to Nokia. In the case of building technologies the requirements are particularly diverse, and  it is quite unusual to find a country where a single supplier accounts for more than 25%-30% of the market.

Nonetheless as we look to a future where corporations and, by implication, governments have access to information about almost every aspect of where we are, what we are doing, how we feel and what we want and fear.

While you can probably rest assured that your dishwasher probably doesn’t have a motivation to blackmail you (why were those extra glasses washed out at 3 o’clock last Thursday morning?) you can be less assured that it won’t soon have the evidence to do so.

More information about the latest editions of BSRIA’s market studies on Building Automation, Building Energy Management, and Smart Evolution is available here.

Smart Building Conference – The Human Factor

This blog was written by BSRIA's Henry Lawson

This blog was written by BSRIA’s Henry Lawson

On 7th October I attended the SmartBuilding Conference in central London, in the course of which we were treated to the views of a range of industry-experts including BSRIA’s own Jeremy Towler.  Like all worthwhile conferences, it presented a mixture of familiar messages being elaborated and reinforced – such as the all too frequent gap between the vision and the delivery of smart buildings, and the vital role of retrofit in a world where 80% of the buildings we will be using in 2050 have already been built, and some less familiar insights. These are some of the main points that I took away.

While we often talk, rather platitudinously about, buildings, or businesses being “all about people”, we spend less time thinking about what this really means in practice.  An often overlooked fact is that people’s statements of what they want is often a poor guide to how they will actually take to new technology. This is not just because we often lack the understanding and vision of what is possible (as in the famous Henry Ford quote that “What people ‘really wanted’ was not cars, but faster horses.”), but also because (as every psychologist knows) we are much less rational and consistent in our judgements than we like to think we are. This places a premium on observing how people actually use buildings and adapting them and, even more so, future buildings.

Effectively observing and responding to the way people use buildings has wider implications.  One speaker suggested that the general move from a product-based to a serviced-based approach (as exemplified by cloud based solutions and the increasing tendency to lease equipment and facilities) is likely to penetrate from the “easy hits” to the more general areas of building services and smart technology, even potentially to the concept of a “building as a service”, where those who design and construct and configure the building are also those responsible for running it, helping to combat a problem where a building is designed supposedly to be smart, by people who then walk away having handed it to a completely different group, resulting in a loss of understanding, continuity and accountability.

Having buildings that genuinely learn and evolve in response to users’ changing needs over time calls for flexible and adaptable approach to design and construction so that they can cope better with changing needs. One way of achieving this is by using more modular construction techniques, which can at the same time reduce construction costs. Project Frog which has been responsible for a number of modular buildings in the USA was cited as an example of this.

Where an end-to-end approach is lacking, smart technology is too often a late add-on which means that it is not fundamentally designed into the building, and that those implementing it lack a connection with the original concept.

With IT increasingly at the heart of buildings, IT departments need to be involved from the early stages, and if engaged correctly they can help identify and address problems, including some of the most potentially serious challenges such as building cyber security.  Too many organisations still see IT and Facilities Management as separate disciplines to be kept siloed.  This can lead to failures of communication, and worst case, to actual conflicts.
There was also a lot of discussion of the role of more specific types of technology. For example, wireless technology is recognised as a useful backup, and for fixes to problems where the building can’t easily be rewired (historic buildings come to mind here) or where a ‘cheap and cheerful’ solution is sought, but is unlikely to become reliable enough for critical services, owing to fundamental problems of potential interference and obstructions which can arise unpredictably. This reminds us that “You cannae change the laws of physics” is a maxim that extends well beyond grainy back-editions of Star Trek.

There was much discussion of the way in which companies that have not traditionally been thought of as buildings- related, even in the most technological way. BSRIA research has already identified how IT companies like IBM and Microsoft are starting to make an impact in the world of smart buildings, now joined by Google and Apple, especially at the residential end of the market. This raises intriguing questions. On the one hand these companies bring not only deep knowledge of key areas of IT, especially in processing ‘big data’, on the other they  also have massive financial resources and proven commercial acumen, which could help to spearhead and open up  new markets.

However there are also fears that the delivery model typically deployed by companies like Google and Apple may not lend themselves to the more complex demands of building management. Simply buying a “smart home kit” from an Apple or DIY store is unlikely in itself to give you the hoped-for results in terms of improved energy efficiency, comfort and security. This could even lead to a consumer backlash that sets back the technology. There was a consensus that consumers will need experts who can provide advice and also ensure that systems are properly implemented. This in turn requires a range of skills broader than the “traditional” electrician, plumber, heating engineer or security engineer.

We were reminded that major disruptive technologies are normally led by new entrants into the field, posing a challenge to the major established players. Indeed it seems quite likely to me that the companies that are leading the field in 20 years’ time could well be ones that most of us haven’t heard of, or which don’t yet exist.

I left the conference slightly haunted by one further thought: We heard a lot about how buildings must learn and adapt to their users’ actual needs and behaviour. This led me to wonder how far this change, if it emerges and it surely will, will in turn change actual human behaviour.

Since our ancestors emerged from the forests and savannah thousands of years ago, humans have gradually been losing the need to be acutely aware of the physical world around them. First there was the loss of contact with the wilderness, and nature “red in tooth and claw”. Then the industrial revolution alienated us increasingly from the basic processes of producing food and the physical manipulation of nature.

Smart conferenceThe electronic revolutions mean that we need to understand less and less about the way that for example, our cars or heating systems or computers operate and indeed we meddle with them at our peril.

If even buildings and cities come to observe, know and “understand” us and anticipate our actions, will humans then become, physically at least, almost wholly reliant on outside intelligence, and end up, in effect almost leading an artificially controlled ‘virtual’ existence, and what role will human intelligence then play as opposed to artificial intelligence?

This might seem far-fetched, but big changes often tend to occur much faster than anticipated, and often, far from being incremental, can depend on sudden tipping points. There are also of course  formidable barriers, not least the public reaction to the prodigious level of data sharing that would be needed to make all of this even remotely possible.

Nonetheless, I for one find it intriguing that the development of the smart building could just be part of the gradual emergence of a new “breed” of human, in terms of what they think and more importantly how they interact with the world.  Could we be seeing the emergence of a kind of “virtual man” where the boundaries between the human and the buildings, vehicles and cities we use and inhabit are hopelessly blurred?

Building services now look more exciting today and indeed  look closer to science fiction than could have been imagined when BSRIA started out 59 years ago.

Who Will Rule the Smart New World?

While Analysts’ predictions of the next big developments in Technology have become as much a January tradition as are hangovers and the task of hoovering pine needles from the carpet, it is often even more illuminating to look at what is actually happening, but which may be “hidden in plain view”.

Henry latest

While BSRIA has been reporting on and working with developments in building technology for decades, two recent trends have become clear:

  • The pace of development is accelerating, as buildings move increasingly into the IT mainstream, with elements such as software becoming as important as the more ‘traditional’ electronic and mechanical aspects.
  • Other areas of smart technology are not only developing apace, but are converging, in ways that are both predictable and perhaps more surprising.

Already smart technology is ubiquitous and affordable enough to influence every area of life from home and leisure to commercial premises to infrastructure and the most basic processes used to run cities and the governments of whole countries.

Whether it is using a smart phone to adjust your home heating or to pay your local taxes, or a smart meter to indicate the cheapest time to run a load through a smart washing machine, or smart glass that lightens or darkens in response to ‘instructions’ from a building, or smart cars communicating with traffic signals, we are seeing technologies that we have always thought of as independent interact, as the Internet of Things steadily expands to becomes the Internet of Everything.

This interaction is not only convenient; it also means that the same goals can be pursued simultaneously using different smart systems. To take one example, if we want to reduce greenhouse gases, we can use smarter and more energy efficient devices and appliances, we can manage the energy consumption of our home or office through building controls (or even by using smarter building materials), or wider society can invest in smarter grids and smarter sources of energy production. The balance of the mix that brings the best result can change depending on the situation, so they need to be interconnected.

All of this opens up huge potential opportunities for companies to emerge as leaders in the smart new world. Some of the leading automation companies are already well established here. But other sometimes surprising challengers are emerging. As information and analysis becomes more central to the smart world, including the smart built world, so software and IT services companies are seeing and seizing opportunities, and other companies are also branching out.

While the “smart homes” market may initially have been slower to take off than some expected, it is telling that Honda entered the market in 2013, and Google followed, with its acquisition of  Nest Laboratories in January 2014.

Of course growth by acquisition is not in itself enough. The much more challenging task is integrating diverse offerings into a single seamless and coordinated whole. Here the advantage will go to those companies who can develop solutions that naturally fit together, and who also understand how to develop and market them in a coordinated and holistic way.

Equally, the smart new world will rest not just on technological ingenuity and innovation. Equally important will be the understanding of the world of organisations – from private companies to governments, and on the behaviour of individuals. Each of these will interact and influence the other, often in unintended and unpredictable ways. The larger the scale of the system, the more complex and unpredictable it becomes. (It is telling that it is huge projects which interact both with governments and with a myriad of individuals that are especially liable to go wrong, as witness the debacle over the roll-out of the computerised elements of the new American Health Care system – ‘Obamacare’).

The companies that do best in this environment will need to offer the soft skills, including the social, the psychological and the political, in order to prevail.

BSRIA has just published a major new Market Study Smart Evolution 2014: Convergence of Smart Technologies: Towards The Internet of Everything which considers these questions and much more, and identifies the companies who are currently best placed, and those who are set to emerge as challengers.

This blog was written by BSRIA's Henry Lawson

This blog was written by BSRIA’s Henry Lawson

It is a new world that sometimes appears as through a looking glass. As Lewis Carroll didn’t quite write:

The time has come to talk about the Internet of Things

Of BEMS and BACS and web attacks

On automated Buildings

And power from bricks and glass that thinks

And should smart cars have wings?…

To find out more about the study  Smart Evolution 2014: Convergence of Smart Technologies: Towards The Internet of Everything   or to order it , please contact:
Steve Turner Steve.turner@bsria.co.uk
T +44 (0)1344 465610

The Smart Response to Managing Buildings’ Energy Problems

This blog was written by BSRIA's Henry Lawson

This blog was written by BSRIA’s Henry Lawson

Issues around energy continue to dominate many of the news headlines in the UK, and are seldom far from the forefront in other developed countries. While much of the focus has been on rising domestic energy price- tariffs, the way that buildings use, and all too often waste, energy remains a huge concern. This is hardly surprising given that in both Europe and North America, buildings account for a whopping 40% of all energy consumed.

One thorny problem is the high cost of improving building energy performance, especially in a country like the UK where the building stock, especially  the residential building stock, tends to date back to an era when the principles of energy conservation were much less well understood, let alone acted on, and where the cost of improvements and renovation can be high, and the ROI correspondingly long – a daunting prospect when governments, companies and consumers are all still hurting from the financial hangover following the worst recession in decades.

All of this means that institutions, companies and households need to look at smarter ways of coping with high-cost energy in buildings that are often not ‘designed’ to be energy- efficient.  Here at BSRIA we have just completed a regular update of our report into Building Energy Management in Europe and North America, which has given us the chance to review some of the key current developments. As part of this, we looked at 17 of the leading suppliers to this market.

One immediately striking conclusion is that all of the leaders incorporate a level of analytics, in some cases as part of a wider portfolio, in others as their central specialised offering.  In one sense this is not surprising. If you want to improve a building’s performance then you can either take a direct physical approach– for example more energy-efficient construction or insulation, or cheaper or more environmentally friendly energy sources – or you can take steps to change the way the building uses that energy, which means interacting with its occupants and their requirements in an intelligent way, which in turn requires that you have all relevant information to hand. We can expect these analytics to become increasingly sophisticated, with buildings “learning” based on usage and performance over time.

This also helps to explain another striking finding:  that most of the suppliers in this sector now offer some level of on-going commissioning. Improving building energy performance is a continuous undertaking – reflecting the fact that buildings’ usage patterns and the behaviour of their occupants will themselves change over time, as processes and equipment become more, or less, efficient. In providing or supporting an on-going service, companies become less like suppliers in the “traditional” sense, and more like partners, providing consultancy as well as software or hardware. In some cases the service supports the actual procurement of energy and management of energy suppliers.

Another capability which is fast becoming a “must have” is the ability to offer a Software as a Service (SaaS) model, with all of the advantages in terms of cost model, maintenance, accessibility and flexibility.

wmi-thermostatAs buildings become increasingly integrated into the wider “smart world”, Demand Response, already well-established in parts of the USA is being taken up more seriously in Europe as well, with an increasing number of BEMS suppliers supporting  the move to automated demand response.

While the problems faced by large commercial buildings clearly differ in important ways from the light commercial sector and from residential buildings, there are likely here as elsewhere, to be important elements of crossover. Some suppliers are also providing differently scaled BEMS solutions and energy management is already one of the central elements of most “smart home” solutions.

Barring a sudden surge in cheap, readily available and environmentally friendly energy, which still sounds like a dream scenario, we can expect BEMS to continue its rapid advance in importance, increasingly integrated into related areas of Building Automation, and of Smart Grids.

To find out more about BSRIA’s updated study “BEMS Market 2013 Q4 : Developments in Europe and the USA”, please contact Steve Turner on +44 (0)1344 465610 (Steve.Turner@bsria.co.uk)

Smart metering makes BPE easy…or does it?

BSRIA's Alan Gilbert

Head of BSRIA Instrument Solutions Alan Gilbert

Building Performance Evaluation (BPE) is here to stay. With government driving towards 20% reduction in costs for its built estate and increasing unwillingness to accept design predictions as sufficient to prove outcomes, objective measurement will be key. Government Soft Landings (GSL) and the implied BPE activities attest to this. In the housing sector regulation is increasingly looking to proof of performance (airtightness for example) with a growing European focus on providing owners with objective labeling of homes. The recent announcements of the 2013 revisions of Part L have largely focused on fabric issues but it seems likely that attention will now turn to the performance of installed HVAC plant and associated controls which themselves will present a challenge in proving that combinations of low carbon technologies are indeed working properly.

All this is happening at the same time as measures to introduce smart metering are coming on-stream. With a commitment to have full implementation by 2020, smart meters should provide a powerful means to assist with BPE of both commercial and non-commercial buildings but will they really realise this objective?

Just how “smart” is smart in the context of metering? At its lowest level the smart meter simply offers a remote display of energy use (often expressed in £) so that users are sensitised to consumption. Rarely are both gas and electricity monitored and I know of no instance where water is included as well. This is a shame: water (especially hot water) is an increasing proportion of dwelling energy use and is largely ignored by householders. There is increasing evidence that this kind of visible display can have good initial impact but that users rapidly de-sensitise. Really, these meters are not smart but simply remote display devices.

More commonly “smart” means that meter readings can be transmitted to the supply company on a scheduled basis. This is the type currently planned to be used in the present roll-out. Again it is unlikely that all three services are monitored and the data is often collected at no more than half hour intervals. As an alternative to self-read or estimated billing they are undoubtedly an improvement and will help electricity companies come to terms with balancing home generation and network loading but the thorny problem of access to data remains to be overcome.

Finally there is the possibility of the “really smart” meter which will permit full two way communication between utility and user thus bringing into reality the possibility of sophisticated demand management options for the power companies. Potentially this could be a rich source of data for BPE but ownership of the protocols and access rights are likely to be a serious hurdle to potential third party users of this resource.

Even if full access to a multi-service, duplex remote metering scheme is possible it cannot provide the additional data that a proper BPE service demands. In order to interpret energy use data additional sensors are needed to enable forensic analysis. Internal temperatures, occupancy rates, casual gains from white goods and local weather, all are needed to understand and normalise energy use back to some design criteria. Even when all this is achieved there is often no substitute for “feet on the ground” to interview occupants or spot unusual behaviours.

Access to large volumes of user data is one key requirement to understanding just how the various interventions in existing dwellings or

British Gas Smart Meter

British Gas Smart Meter

the application of new regulations in the built environment sector are working. The Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) has developed a restricted access National Energy Efficiency Data-Framework (NEED) and this has proven invaluable in understanding the real impact of certain measures such as cavity fill retrofits. Unfortunately this kind of data is not readily available to the wider research community at present nor is it fed from real-time or near real-time sources. This makes it unsuitable for analysis of individual properties.

We want to really deliver truly low energy (an carbon) buildings that are also healthy, productive and comfortable to use but,until the tangle of issues associated with privacy and smart metering are resolved then there is little alternative or more of this kind of work that will not only resolve issues in individual dwellings but also create a new generation of people able to interpret complex building physics and behavioural data. Surely a good thing in itself. If however we really want to look at effects in the wider population of buildings then DECC should be encouraged to invest in NEED and roll it out to wider research community so that academics, business and industry can better identify opportunity for action in bringing UK nearer to its legal carbon commitments.

For more information about BSRIA’s involvement in BPE including a presentation defining BPE as well as information on how Soft Landings fits in click here.

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