Getting Smarter: The Evolution of Smart Buildings, Part 1

The concept of the smart building has been around for more than a decade, but it’s still a little nebulous. We delve into two of the concepts -- open-source technologies and submetering -- to find out what they mean for building investors, owners and operators. By Dees Stribling.

The concept of the smart building has been around for more than a decade, but it’s still a little nebulous. Definitions vary regarding just what makes a smart building smart, some more succinct than others. Engineering and design firm Smart Buildings L.L.C. simply calls it “the integration of building, technology and energy systems” that “provide(s) actionable information … to allow the building owner or occupant to manage the building or space.” The European Commission is much more technical, referring to “the generalisation in instrumenting buildings with sensors, actuators, micro-chips, micro- and nano-embedded systems.”

Perhaps one reason that smart buildings are so hard to pin down is that they are evolving so quickly. Back in the early 2000s, “smart” and “green” were often synonymous. But smart buildings have evolved to be more than that: Every smart building is going to be green, because smart buildings’ information management includes a close track on energy usage. But not every green building is necessarily smart, since it is entirely possible to install a long list of LEED-compliant features without integrating systems to provide a constant stream of “actionable information.”

As the evolution of smart-building technology progresses, some important changes are on the horizon. In a two-part series, CPE addresses four of them: this month, open-source programming in building management systems (BMS) and the growth of submetering; next month, standardization of smart building terminology and the possible use of building system technologies in green building certification.

Open-Source Programming

James Sinopoli, managing principal of Smart Buildings L.L.C., predicts that the growth of open-source programming in the realm of building management systems will be an important trend in making smart buildings even smarter. And it is not far-off technological development, either, but has parallels in many other fi elds, most notably personal communications.

One of the reasons for the astonishing popularity of the iPhone and Android platforms is their use of open-source programming. Anyone who gets an idea for an app can run with it and sell it to users of those devices, to the benefit of both the app developer and the end users, provided the app is useful. It is not a precise comparison—iPhone and Android apps are mass-market items, while BMS will always remain specialized—yet something of the same principle applies. As yet, the push toward open-source programming in BMS is still a bottoms- up, grassroots movement, but Sinopoli believes it is gaining momentum.

“BMS as it exists comes only from a handful of manufacturers,” said Sinopoli. “And while they’re generally good systems, they have their limitations. They’re inflexible. One system managing one function in a building, such as HVAC access control or fire alarms, can’t integrate with other systems. Also, traditional BMS systems often don’t have advanced analytic tools, such as fault detection, to keep systems running optimally.”

Open-source BMS would help remedy these issues, he says, by creating products that go beyond the vision or skills of a particular manufacturer. However talented a particular BMS designer might be, open source draws on the wisdom of the crowd—a highly motivated, technically sophisticated crowd—to produce innovation. Besides, open source fosters competition that advances the state of the art.

A growing selection of BMS apps would also promote smarter buildings by offering fl exibility. Apps by their nature are created to satisfy a diverse set of needs, some of which are not addressed by standard BMS because only a small subset of buildings might need or want them. The physical variety of the CRE built environment is mind-boggling; open-source development of applications in BMS would presumably serve niche buildings better, since one size does not fit all.

The Rise of Submetering

Since energy efficiency is now a cornerstone of U.S. national policy, it is no surprise that the federal government is making its own push for smart buildings. The smarter buildings become, the better building managers can control energy use.

In late 2011, the National Science and Technology Council, a Cabinet-level interagency group of scientists and engineers, released a new report that details the usefulness of submetering technologies in commercial buildings. Submetering has long been associated with having multi-family tenants pay for their own energy or water usage, but with the push from the NSTC, it seems likely that submetering is coming of age as an important component of smart commercial buildings.

Submetering is not a particularly difficult concept, but in the past the state of information- gathering and -reporting technologies has not been advanced enough to monitor energy use on a micro-level in, say, an office building measuring in the millions of square feet. That is now changing, according to the NSTC, and the use of monitoring and measurement technologies to provide real-time information about resource use is entirely feasible. The report, ponderously titled “Submetering of Building Energy and Water Usage: Guidance and Recommendations of the Subcommittee on Buildings Technology Research and Development,” posits that submetering can yield up-to-date, finely grained snapshots of energy and water use in commercial buildings that not only help property managers cut unnecessary usage but also help smart buildings interact more effectively with smart energy grids as they develop.

In fact, submetering devices can be deployed at successively finer levels of resolution, from individual buildings and rooms down to specific building systems or water and electrical outlets (each plug in the wall or water tap in the building). Such technologies help pinpoint variations in performance, optimize automated building systems, and encourage building managers and occupants to adopt energy-conserving behaviors by providing detailed information on what is used, where and why.

While the return on investment for submeters depends on specific energy-efficiency strategies that may vary by climate, building type and other factors, the NSTC found in numerous cases “that the ROIcan be significant.” In addition, “submetering provides the necessary infrastructure for more advanced conservation and efficiency techniques,” it noted.

Submetering also lends itself to individual initiative on the part of property managers and their engineers. Last summer, that point was illustrated by two high school seniors who were the surprise stars of a White House event on smart grid policy. The duo had convinced their school to pay for the installation of submetering technology, allowing them to measure their school’s energy consumption in great detail. Among other things, the students discovered that the school’s air conditioning was running pointlessly in the gym at night, which led to a change that earned the school a 250 percent return on its submetering investment.