InfoComm: What You Need to Know About Smart Buildings

This column was reprinted with permission from InfoComm International and originally appeared here.

By Brad Grimes

Lobby_Left-1112It’s always a good sign when like minds come together and confirm something you’ve long suspected. Like the fact that demand for smart building technology is real and AV professionals are positioned to fill an “expertise void” in its integration and operation. It’s an especially good sign when the like minds aren’t just peers, but also potential customers, trade partners, and industry experts — in other words, not necessarily of the AV industry.

And so it was this fall when the InfoComm 100 gathered in Reston, Va., to tackle the subject of smart building technology and the role AV professionals could play in implementing it. The group included AV integrators, consultants, programmers and manufacturers, as well as architects, technology managers and specialists in intelligent building systems. The agenda centered on “The Smart Building Imperative,” the latest initiative to come out of InfoComm’s Smart Building Task Force, chaired by David Wilts, CTS, LEED AP BD+C, and associate principal for Arup Engineering and Consulting. The conversation ranged from the expected (“what exactly is a smart building?”) to the insightful (“smart buildings are not a future trend”).

Whether you’re well versed in smart buildings or you’re new to the concept, here are several important insights from the InfoComm 100. You can view all the sessions here.

Building Owners Are Going to Want Smart Building Technology. U.S. buildings eat up more than their share of the world’s energy supply. Building owners who want to fight this trend have a couple options. First option: Install all new high-efficiency building systems. Second option: Integrate the systems they already have and make them smarter. In his presentation to the InfoComm 100, Jim Sinopoli, PE, LEED AP, RCDD, and managing principal of Smart Buildings LLC, which provides engineering and consulting services for the design and operation of integrated building systems, cited research that indicates option one pays off in more than 11 years; option two pays for itself in less than two years. Integrating building systems over IP networks makes better business sense than ripping and replacing.

Smart Buildings Require Smart Operators. Though the business benefits of integrated building systems seem obvious — and clients inherently comprehend the benefits of “greening” their buildings and making them smarter — there’s one significant hurdle to overcome before some owners will sign off on a smart building project. Bruce Toman, principal at architecture firm Perkins+Will, said that some building owners ultimately shy away from smart building systems because their building engineers don’t know how to operate them. “Smart buildings really require a new kind of building operator,” Toman said. “The guy with the wrench and the blue shirt who goes around and checks things just doesn’t cut it anymore. We need someone with sophisticated operational skills, who understands the electronics and the mechanics of the buildings… We need qualified smart building operators. Right now, there’s a shortage.”

Architects Don’t Know What You Know. It’s as simple as that. In a nod to the pro AV industry, Toman — who knows pro AV better than most, being a member of InfoComm’s Smart Building Task Force — told the InfoComm 100, “You guys are doing it [building integration]; we just didn’t know it was out there.” And that’s the rub. AV integrators, consultants, and programmers have more experience making disparate systems work together than anyone else on a building project. Making connections, staying abreast of technology developments, and educating trade partners on what AV professionals do is a key part of the Smart Building Imperative.

It’s More IT Than You Think. Forget, for a minute, that a real smart building will require integrating AV systems with IT systems with building systems — all communicating via Internet protocol. Really, it’s what comes next that makes smart buildings a major IT undertaking: data. Lots of data. Tons of data, or what IT types these days call “big data.”

Ultimately, the same things that make you smart (your senses), make buildings smart (their sensors). That in itself might not be revolutionary, but when you increase the density of sensors, integrate them in places you didn’t think to before, and find new ways to manipulate what they learn about their surroundings, the possibilities for smart spaces appear endless. Bruce Kasanoff, smart building strategist and co-author of Smart Customers, Stupid Companies, said, “If you look at the next two, three, four, five years, things will happen that you can’t possibly imagine now… For example, meeting rooms, conference rooms, lecture halls will be capable of knowing who in the room is bored and who is engaged, so you can do something about it, so you can rate the speaker… That capability is here today, it just hasn’t been commercialized.”

In part, because that type of building intelligence requires lots of data, as well as software that can mine and analyze the data (some of it in “the cloud”). Jim Sinopoli, PE, LEED AP, RCDD, and managing principal of Smart Buildings LLC, which provides engineering and consulting services, said that to achieve a higher level of building automation, “We need granular data. Getting data on what the whole building is doing really doesn’t tell us much. We need to get to the granular data for each space in the building. We need vast amounts of sensors.”

Don’t Monitor Smart Buildings to Find Out What’s Wrong Now. With sensors in place, smart building operators and integrators need to think differently about how they apply them. Yes, sensors can tell operators if the HVAC is malfunctioning or the lamp in the boardroom projector is dead. But that puts them in a reactive mode (a big improvement over inactive mode, but still). The goal, ultimately, is to learn what’s about to go wrong, or to piece together separate data points to expose inefficiencies. Tom Shircliff, co-founder of Intelligent Buildings LLC, a Charlotte, N.C.-based consulting firm, said the focus should be on day-to-day “faults”– issues with building systems that may not manifest themselves as failures but if detected and corrected could ensure uptime and cut costs.

Shircliff called the practice “continual commissioning,” and guess what? It means more data. Because to detect and diagnose faults and take corrective action, you need sensor readings on an ongoing basis — say, every 15 minutes. And if a building’s sensors are generating data points every 15 minutes across 1,000 or more sensors, that’s 35 million-plus data points a year. “If I get the data from that building, I can get the daily faults that when fixed can lower operations expenses,” Shircliff said. “I don’t mean an alarm that says, ‘There’s no air.’ I mean the hundreds and thousands of little faults that say the damper’s stuck, a sensor’s not working, or a valve is leaking.” When a smart building crunches those data points, it can figure out that even though there’s no alarm, or even though the building’s occupants are comfortable, there are less obvious issues that could use correcting.

Smart Buildings Aren’t Futuristic. Shircliff, whose firm deals with smart buildings from the customer/owner side of the equation, said he’s been involved in dozens of smart building projects and emphasized to the InfoComm 100 that this isn’t some future trend. “Smart buildings aren’t about the future,” he said. “They’re about mitigating risk and dealing with business problems that companies are dealing with now.”

When it comes to smart building technology and integration, AV professionals may be dealing with new clients in the real estate business. Shircliff said you want to speak to them in terms they understand. “Don’t try to define smart buildings, because it just stops the process. It’s about leveraging technology to get to your business goals, which is what you do everywhere else in a business. Sometimes when you break it down like that it takes the pressure off the client.”