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FEATURE

New Wave of Smart Buildings Give Occupants More Control

A look at systems that save businesses money on utilities, and end the temperature control wars.

Mary Ann Azevedo
January 27 , 2014

The number of companies developing analytics that can collect and analyze energy-related data is growing exponentially. Eager startups are scrambling to meet surging demand for ways to manage energy consumption more efficiently.

It's a hot market and one that stands to be lucrative. Investment in smart building solutions is growing across business segments and regions. In fact, the global smart building solutions market is expected to top $10 billion by 2016, according to a December 2012 report from IDC Energy Insights.

For example, one Boston startup called WegoWise Inc.'s cloud-based application helps real estate development companies analyze and compare utility costs among its buildings and other properties in the same markets. In doing this, it helps turn up areas where buildings could operate more efficiently. In a case cited by the Wall Street Journal, WegoWise's Web-based analytics uncovered that one of eight apartment buildings on a particular property was using 1 million more gallons of water per year compared to other buildings on the same property. Ultimately, ill-fitting flappers – the rubber seal in the tank that controls flushing – that resulted in extra water leaking were found to be the culprit. Replacing those toilets resulted in a savings of $80,000 per year – and led to greater efficiency.

Menlo Park-based Gridium manages energy usage spanning more than 100 million square feet of real estate for several big companies. Its Snapmeter product works to, among other things, identify anomalous off-hours energy use.  Over the summer, it delivered a report to a new customer managing many small buildings that revealed time periods the buildings should have been closed but where energy use is especially high. According to Gridium, the property manager was surprised to see elevated weekend energy use was costing her about $90 per week, or $5,000 per year.

TACKLING THE COMMERCIAL REAL ESTATE MARKET

One startup aiming to grab a piece of the growing $10 billion smart building solution market is Building Robotics Inc., an Oakland, Calif.-based company that makes intelligent software systems for office buildings. Founded in 2012, the company recently raised $1.14 million in its seed round.

Commercial office buildings are slowly going through a sea change in terms of owners and tenants becoming significantly more concerned with smartly managing how, when and by whom a building's energy is being consumed.

Building Robotics' first product is aptly called Comfy and is essentially a software system that is designed to "meaningfully reconnect people to the heating and cooling in the work environment."  Office workers can directly control the software - which is designed to be compatible with most existing HVAC and management systems - via mobile apps or over an Internet browser. Comfy works by providing instant warm or cool air to people while its machine-learning algorithm analyzes their usage patterns and feedback to reduce energy use over time.

Allowing employees to individually control their workspace is a concept that is appealing to many companies clamoring to provide new and interesting perks in an effort to recruit and retain sought-after workers in a competitive technology industry, notes Lindsay Baker, vp of research and marketing at Building Robotics.

Comfy is based on an open-source platform developed by Building Robotics co-founders Andrew Krioukov and Stephen Dawson-Haggerty while they were Ph.D. researchers in computer science at U.C. Berkeley.

The startup is currently undergoing pilot deployments at several large tech companies in the Bay Area as well at a federal building through the General Services Administration's Green Proving Ground (GPG) program. The GSA plans to install Comfy in some of the 300 million square feet of real estate it manages for the U.S. government.

 "We've been getting a lot of responses from the building industry that they've always wanted this kind of thing to happen but the technology wasn't quite there," Baker says. "Temperature problems are the most commonly reported problems in office buildings…the thing workers complain most about."

"It's a big hassle for building managers and employers because it can impact the performance of people while working," she adds. "It's been a difficult problem to solve."

There's plenty of energy-efficiency technology out there but Comfy is different in that it actually engages building occupants, Baker says.

"A worker can basically tell a commercial building's digital system that they would like to be warmer or cooler via an Internet browser or through a mobile application, and get an almost immediate response," she explains. "Within 10 minutes, the system will stream warmer or cooler air into a particular zone and then over time, start to set preferences for users."

For example, eventually the system can automatically start warming an office in the morning and then cooling it in the afternoon for a worker who typically gets in at 8 a.m.  Another area where this can be useful is in empty conference rooms, which are being heated and cooled at all times even though people are only using them for a fraction of time every day.

"Existing systems theoretically have the ability to account for that but it's been tricky to actually manifest as it took a lot of hands-on management," Baker says "But Comfy relieves that by allowing occupants to turn on a button when they enter the room and have the system respond immediately rather than have the thermostat set for a month before someone adjusts it again."

Over time, a machine-learning algorithm is created so that the system will gradually transition a space to a more efficient state when no one is in it.

Building Robotics angel investor and engineer Peter Rumsey believes the company addresses a problem that he's spent most of his career trying to solve: how to make buildings more efficient and more comfortable.

Rumsey was the first to design a net zero energy commercial office building and pioneered the use of radiant cooling in office buildings

"When I was introduced to Building Robotics I immediately said ‘this is a solution we've been waiting for.'  he says. "A worker is able to interact with their environment and then a computer interprets that feedback so that a system can respond and adjust and start to learn what is needed in a particular area."

And since Comfy can be used by pulling up a Web page on a computer or through a mobile app on a smartphone, it's more accessible to everyone.

"It's almost so simple that I can't believe it wasn't developed earlier," Rumsey says. "It takes the lockbox off the thermostat."

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Related Tags: Innovation , Smart Connected Communities , Mary Ann Azevedo

 
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