George Adams, director of energy and engineering, SPIE UK looks at pulling intelligence together in a smart building.

Surprisingly, the concept of smart or intelligent buildings is actually not new. In 2007, Kevin O’Donnell referred to them in great detail in his book “Connected Real Estate”. In parallel to O’Donnell, the world was heading towards a Climate Emergency, and we now face ambitious net zero carbon targets to reach by 2050. This situation has stimulated people to look into how smart buildings become a key part of the solution. Consequently, smart technology in this industry is projected to continue increasing, particularly around how to utilise new remediating controls and data capture solutions. Interestingly, at least 80 percent of all new homes, commercial buildings and infrastructure incorporate one aspect of smart technology such as smart lighting, HVAC controls or security.

However, implementing smart technology into buildings can have its challenges. Presently, building users and owners, who thought such equipment would solve all their problems, can be faced with data overload. Coupled with uncertainty about which solutions to use becomes complex when decisions are to be made so that a return on investment (ROI) over time can be achieved within business constraints.

With smart building solutions having a higher initial cost, how can those seeking to invest ensure that they will not only install a best in class solution, but also get the most out of any technology that they have installed?

The right data source for me

At the outset of any smart building retrofit initiative, it can be somewhat tricky trying to decide what and how to measure the performance in order to reach the goal trying to be achieved. At the start of a project, otherwise known as the ‘discovery stage’, this selection should be determined by the outlined key objectives. By undertaking an analysis of the characteristics of the building, as well as examining the facility, those involved can gain a more comprehensive understanding of the operational requirements that can be accomplished. Additionally, studying and interviewing future occupants or users of the building to get a deeper understanding of how they use the facility is imperative if an effective solution is to be realised. As a result, this information can inform the overall strategy for how the building and its internal systems can be enhanced.

Pulling together all this intelligence can help to locate where enhancements or modifications to the building and its operations should be completed. With the data from the discovery stage it is relatively straightforward to build up a thorough understanding of what the most important data to collect is so that the most appropriate changes can be made, as well as the most suitable methods of collating and evaluating that data. It is also important to factor in economic parameters including ROI. At what can at first seem like an expensive undertaking, there are actually a range of affordable solutions now available which allow staged enhancements over time and are also fairly easy to implement.

Coping with a deluge of data

There are now so many ways to collect information about a building, deciding which technology to use can be somewhat overwhelming. From sensors, smart wearable devices, identity cards for entering a building, or having tracking apps on mobile phones, gathering data without being invasive has never been easier and there are solutions available that suit a range of budgets.

After the most suitable data source has been decided upon, the next step is to ‘clean up’ the data. There is now technology that can automatically sift through the information gathered to help operations and management decide on the data that should be prioritised for future decision making.

Cross-checking is key

In order to validate any data, it is vital to substantiate it via a second means or collect hard data from two sources so they can be cross-referenced. Taking the example of trying to reduce energy use, cross referencing techniques are vital for the process to work and data from several sub meters within the building should be analysed to recognise any discrepancies. When making investment decisions, verification is particularly important so that concrete information can be presented to the Board.

Fortunately, temporary verification is an option when budgets are limited. The systems and processes required don’t have to be permanent. For example, if a company needs to understand how many members of staff are in their building at one time, they can install temporary additional monitoring systems, so they can guarantee any readings from their permanent systems are accurate.

Is privacy a problem?

Even the slightest mention of tracking and monitoring employees will spark questions around privacy and security as well as technical integration. However, these concerns can again be dealt with at the discovery stage when the users of the facility are interviewed. By taking into account any feedback from members of staff, it is then up to the client to decide whether data should be collected on the facility’s occupiers. Alternatively, the building’s users can be monitored confidentially, with any data collected and stored being done so anonymously. For the facility manager is it more important to have a better understanding of the data as a whole and a wide-ranging overview of how a building functions, rather than see personal information about every individual.

As the industry as a whole tries to improve the future environmental impact of the built environment, data from smart buildings will have a crucial role to play. However, organisations are still holding back from improving how they use data in the workplace mainly because fit out is commonly heavily contractor-led rather than design/technology-led. Quite simply, these teams aren’t equipped with the right understanding of the technology, ergonomics, neurology, and operations of the building to make the best decisions on how to use this information. But the Climate Emergency isn’t going anywhere, so the industry needs to get to grips with data as the future of the built environment is in their hands.