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.

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)

If Buildings Could Talk to us…

It was really only a matter of time:

This blog was written by BSRIA's Henry Lawson

This blog was written by BSRIA’s Henry Lawson

Buildings are where we typically spend the greater part of our time, both at work, and often as not outside of it.  They already consume about 40% of the energy used in most advanced countries. They represent a huge proportion of our investment, both as individuals and as a society.  For centuries the technology of the day has been deployed to make them more efficient, comfortable and healthier for their occupants.

The surprise is surely that it has taken so long for information technology to really  move centre stage in our buildings. While smart homes remain, at least in most countries, a slightly geekish luxury item, many of us already spend our working day in environments managed by quite advanced  building automation systems, which aim to maintain a safe, secure and comfortable environment.

As building systems become more sophisticated, the more critical it becomes to be able to collect information about the state of the various components, and how they are interacting.  Accordingly, leading building automation and controls (BACS) suppliers, including Honeywell, Johnson Controls, Schneider Electric and Siemens have increasingly been making software available in order to process and make sense of this information.

In this they have been joined both by some of the big enterprise software players, but also by a host of  comparative newcomers. A key factor here is that the amount of data and the complexity involved can be quite large. It is easy to see that if you are in the position of managing a large portfolio of buildings, perhaps as a facilities management company, then if these buildings are automated then you may have to analyse a large volume of data to ensure that your estate is performing efficiently in terms of energy usage, costs, maintenance schedules, etc.

What is less obvious is that even for a comparatively modest sized building, the data can be potentially quite complex.  To get top performance from a building you need to look beyond the obvious. This means not just taking account of data from individual sensors or other information generators, but how these each  interact with one another. For example, one surprisingly common scenario is where the temperature in a given zone is fine, but only as the result of a heating system and a cooling system battling each other to standstill, wasting alarming amounts of energy – and money – in the process.

To identify these types of scenarios the system needs to be able to check very many different measurements against other ones and

The BACS Market

The BACS Market

identify relationships and correlations. And once the “normal” patterns and correlations have been identified it can then look for anomalies, which may be a warning sign that something has gone wrong, or at the very least that something abnormal has happened. Why for example, might a temperature be spiking in one part of a building at an unexpected time?

It is these kinds of challenges, as much as sheer volume that we are talking about when we refer to “big data”. Not only is this far beyond the capacity of the best human brain to process in any acceptable timeframe, it requires advanced analytical software to identify and prioritise the most important events, almost literally to “understand what your building is trying to say to you”.

A whole range of suppliers are now active in this space, and some of them at least are likely to have a huge impact on how building automation develops going forward.

Here at BSRIA, in the latest regular update to our Hot Topic study on Threats to BACS Hot Topic for October 2013,  we focus on this area, as well as taking a look at the implications of another, less fortunate, consequence of the growing importance of IT and software in the built environment: the spectre of cyber-attacks on buildings.

An intelligent building is one that doesn’t make its occupants look like idiots

Air conditioning controls in an office in Adelaide

I’ve spent about nearly 20 years in the post-occupancy evaluation (POE) of buildings, many of which were designed to be sustainable and low energy. Some even claimed to be intelligent buildings. If only they were. Sadly, as many working in POE will despairingly concur, unmanageable complexity is the enemy of good performance.

It’s important to remember that the term intelligent building is very much the lingua franca of the controls and building automation community. It’s not a natural phrase in architectural and engineering lexicons. You won’t find many clients using it either. It’s also a very ‘nineties’ term, like its not-so-distant relation, sick building syndrome (which, somewhat ironically, seems to have died a death). Most of the design community is now working to the ‘keep-it-simple, fabric-first’ definition of intelligence. Why? Because the high-tech approach has proved to be a mirage.

Time and time again, almost without exception, systems and technologies that rely on complex automation in order to achieve energy savings usually fail because practice doesn’t mirror design theory. Practice is a heady mix of:

  • Over-complicated design with little understanding or appreciation of what occupants really want
  • Design that is difficult to apply in the real world, leading to poor detailing, poor installation quality, inadequate commissioning, and the unwitting introduction of technical risks by contractual and product interfaces that go unnoticed until it’s too late
  • Incompatibility of components that require constant adjustment or re-work
  • Over-sensitive and/or hard to adjust controls and settings
  • Excessive need for management vigilance over systems that were assumed by designers and the supply chain to be fit-and-forget, but which become fit-and-manage in practice,
  • General lack of usability, compounded by false assumptions that occupants will take an interest in controlling and optimising the operation of building systems, where frankly they don’t want the responsibility
  • Unexpected consequences and revenge effects: systems modulating automatically annoying occupants, systems that don’t allow enough occupant override, or which people don’t understand because the controls are not intuitive to use,
  • Systems that default to an energy-saving condition rather than putting occupant expectations first (in severe cases causing a breakdown in relations between facilities managers motivated to maintain set-points come what may, exacerbated by a professional belief that things are best controlled centrally)
  • The creation of a maintenance and aftercare dependency culture, where the building owner is dependent on expensive call-outs to maintain or modify the settings of digital systems for which they do not have the expertise to maintain, nor the access rights (and software) to modify themselves.

Is all this intelligent or just stupid?

The essential question a building designer needs to answer is simply this:  what problem are you trying to solve? The solution needs to be the simplest, the most appropriate, the least costly, and the most robust and reliable.  

Designers need to understand more about what end-users actually like and dislike about buildings and their systems. Although making things simple may not be the top of every designer’s list, they need to remember that buildings are intended for people – they are a means to an end not an end in themselves. Automation, in itself, should not be a goal. Building intelligence should therefore, above all else, lead to intelligible and sensible systems. Those systems shouldn’t challenge, they shouldn’t alienate, and they shouldn’t lock building owners into an expensive maintenance dependency.

Most of all, automation mustn’t disenfranchise occupants from making decisions about their working conditions, and prevent them acting upon them. It’s important to give occupants what they actually want, not what they don’t want but what designers think they ought to have.

As the author Guy Browning said: Most problems are people problems, and most people problems are communication problems. If you want to solve a communication problem, go and give someone a damn good listening to…

Smart Grid Impact on Intelligent Buildings

BSRIA WMI has just completed a major research study for the Continental Automated Buildings Association (CABA); an international industry association based in North America, dedicated to the advancement of intelligent homes and intelligent buildings technologies. The study was sponsored by 29 CABA member companies which included a broad mix of disciplines, from building management systems providers to electricity utilities.

What are Smart Grids?

The study, entitled “Smart Grid Impact on Intelligent Buildings” estimates that the North American smart grid non-residential marketplace was worth approximately $6.6 billion in 2011 and should reach $8 billion by 2013.

The smart grid will be an advanced power grid that adds and integrates many varieties of digital computing and communication technologies and services to the power-delivery infrastructure. It will allow bi-directional flows of energy, for example from renewable energy sources, and two-way communication and control capabilities.

The Smart Grid Framework

Benefits

The smart grid will benefit utilities in a multitude of ways, most importantly helping them to flatten the demand curve, which will result in increased grid stability and reliability, but also to help reduce the need for expensive standby generating capacity. At the same time, it will empower end-customers, allowing them to save on energy costs and buy at optimal times of the day when prices are lower.

The study found that the fastest growing components of the smart grid market are grid applications, followed by demand response and peak load management, building energy management systems, and smart meters. Whilst only a small proportion of building management systems are ready to be connected to the smart grid today, the study noted that smart grid development will become a major driver for the development and deployment of more intelligent building technologies.

The Future

The study emphasizes the need for innovative solutions to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of power generation, transmission and consumption capacity. Intelligent buildings are prime examples of innovative technology that will aid in the deployment of new smart grid infrastructure.

More utilities are now modernizing their infrastructure to make their grids “smart” in order to improve the efficiency, reliability, economics and sustainability of the electricity services delivered to both residential and non-residential building owners. The research found that there is a direct correlation between having a smart grid and attracting more customers and that in time, it will be this that helps to enhance the overall attractiveness of an area for business.

The study is currently under embargo but will be available for purchase by any interested companies from June 2012.

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