Feature Story

Smart Buildings Offering Clever Ways to Reduce Energy Consumption

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Internet technologies are helping integrate environmental building controls for greater efficiencies, but real estate industry slow to invest in these new systems

July 21, 2008

by Charles Waltner

Smart building technologies are not only saving building owners and their tenants some cash, they are also offering significant help in saving the planet.

Thanks in part to Internet protocol-based networks, new digital technologies are ready to make dramatic contributions in how buildings function, particularly in reducing their energy consumption.

The idea of smart buildings has been around for decades, but the lack of a standard communications infrastructure has stymied efforts, says Mark Golan, the head of Cisco Systems' Connected Real Estate group. Now, however, Internet protocol (IP) networks are providing the foundation to unify a wide variety of building automation tasks. "These systems have been begging to be converged onto a common wireless network," Golan says.

Though it might still sound a bit far-fetched for bricks and mortar to have a brain, industry experts say today's technology is now more than capable of giving buildings this kind of intelligence. With advances in such areas as "smart dust" micro-sensors and wireless mesh communications, IP networks can now plug into some pretty cool stuff for making buildings work better.

Smart buildings, green buildings offer clever ways to reduce energy consumption

Despite such potential benefits, smart buildings are still a puzzle to many, including the real estate developers and owners who must pay the bill for installing these futuristic systems. The realities of real estate make developers extremely sensitive to initial capital costs, as well as to investments in anything but the most established technologies and building methods.

Also, though Internet technologies are helping integrate various components, tying together all the possible systems in a building is no easy task. The market is still fragmented and no comprehensive turnkey offerings are yet available. Because of this, industry experts say the real estate and construction industries have been slow to embrace smart buildings.

"The products and services are in place, the challenge is to get people to use them," says Rawlson O'Neil King, a spokesperson for the Continental Automated Buildings Association (CABA) (Cisco is a member of CABA's board of directors). "Most companies are moving towards intelligent buildings. It's just a matter of speed."

Integration Equals Efficiencies

A smart building can be almost any structure, from a shopping mall or home to a hospital or an office high-rise. They all share the common ability of "knowing" what is going on inside their walls and being able to respond accordingly. Smart buildings control what the industry calls building automation systems for monitoring and regulating such tasks as heating, air conditioning, lighting and other environmental variables. They can also oversee other building functions such as security, fire suppression, and elevator operations.

Beyond integration, smart building technologies focus on bringing more detailed monitoring and sensing "awareness" to buildings. Typically, heating and cooling systems have one thermostat for an entire office floor. But new smart building networks can now cost-effectively provide far more detailed monitoring of the conditions inside a building, helping a structure's environmental systems deliver just enough heat, air, or cooling when and where it's needed.

Smart buildings equipped with an integrated array of sensors can also monitor such things as the amount of sunlight coming into a room and adjust indoor lighting accordingly. And advanced smart buildings can know who is visiting a building after hours (based on the key swipe from the security system) and turn on the appropriate lights, equipment, and environmental controls.

King says integration is the key to smart building benefits. "When all the systems talk to one another, you gain efficiencies," he says.

The bottom-line result of this intelligence and coordination is much lower operational expenses for commercial buildings. Industry research suggests that such overhead can account for as much as 80 percent of the cost of a building during its lifetime (including construction). Much of that expense is from energy usage.

Traditionally, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems operate independently of each other, says Tom Hartman, a building systems consultant in Georgetown, Texas. Hartman says conventional environmental control systems typically waste 50 percent of a building's power. Much of this inefficiency is because each element, such as an office building's water chiller or heating unit, relies on a single control that measures only one variable.

He says by integrating systems and providing information from more sensors, all environmental devices can operate far more efficiently with new control strategies based on what he refers to as the "equal marginal performance principle." "All the elements in a building need to work together," Hartman says. "It's not rocket science, but it does require some effort to design."

Such improvements have profound implications not just for building owners but also for worldwide energy consumption and global environmental initiatives. In the United States, for example, commercial and residential buildings account for 39 percent of the country's carbon dioxide emissions and 70 percent of electrical consumption per year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. And during the next 25 years, carbon dioxide emissions from commercial buildings are expected to grow faster than any other sector of the economy, according to the U.S. Green Building Council.

Hartman says that despite the profound potential of smart buildings, the real estate development and construction industries have held back from smart building because such technologies aren't tried and true. "It's all about risk," Hartman says. "If you try something new, that's risk."

Early Efforts Showing Promise

But some developers are now making the leap of faith in smart buildings, and their experiences are proving that these new technologies are not merely science-fiction fantasy. Ave Maria University, a built-from-scratch Catholic university in southern Florida, integrated all campus lighting, cooling, building access, fire protection, TV, phone, and computer systems on one IP network. Bryan Mehaffey, vice president of systems and engineering at the university, estimates his organization saved more than $1 million on building costs simply by eliminating redundant wiring.

More importantly, the integrated building communications infrastructure is creating on-going benefits. Mehaffey says the consolidated operations network saves his organization about $600,000 in annual energy expenses by making it possible to more accurately monitor and control air conditioning, heating, and lighting systems throughout the buildings on the 900-acre campus. The smart building network is also helping eliminate another $350,000 in yearly costs by streamlining staffing, thanks to the consolidated and centralized operations.

But smart building technologies are not just improving new construction. King says there is a huge opportunity in existing buildings as well. "Studies show that you can get a great return on retrofitting a 30-year-old building with an integrated environmental system."

Advances in smart building communications systems, for example, are helping real estate owners like Boston Properties more efficiently manage their buildings. Jim Whalen, the chief information officer for the real estate investment trust, says his company's state-of-the-art Cisco network allows Boston Properties to centrally manage more than 40 of its office buildings in the metropolitan Boston market.

The system includes alerts and controls from heating, ventilation, air conditioning and even security. "It gives us 24/7 visibility into what's happening in our properties," Whalen says, adding that the centralized monitoring capability has helped his company save money through more efficient operations management and staffing.

Whalen says advances in IP networking technology have made smart buildings more viable. New networks, for example can now securely segregate different kinds of traffic. Data on Boston Properties' accounting and finance systems, for example, can be safely isolated from the environmental information collected for building operations.

Whalen says connecting with the different operational systems in each building was relatively easy. While many building automation and environmental control vendors still base their products on proprietary protocols, most all of them now supply "gateways" that translate communications with IP networks. "It's just a given that they offer these new tools," he says.

Over the past two years, Boston Properties has added new electrical meters that provide near real-time monitoring for assessing energy usage. While a wireless infrastructure supports inter-building connectivity across many sites, Whalen is looking into using in-building wireless for running sub-meters and sensors for more detailed assessment of various building functions.

Whalen would still like to see more options for integration among the different vendors in the fragmented building automation market. Though he has been able to centralize his buildings' environmental and security information, groups of buildings operate on different systems, leaving staff with six or seven screens they must monitor. But he says that the top-tier building automation technology vendors are working on a new generation of products, which leaves him hopeful that systems from different companies will become more interoperable. "It's an exciting period in market," he says.

CABA's King believes smart buildings are in the early stages of mass adoption. He says green issues and global warming concerns are bringing a new focus to energy conservation. And with the development of more structured ways to assess green building techniques, particularly the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program for green building certification run by the U.S. Green Building Council, contractors and real estate developers in the U.S. will have more incentive for implementing these technologies.

Public opinion and governmental policies will be key to getting developers to invest in integrated building systems, Hartman adds. Just as building codes require contractors to take extra steps to ensure structures are more resistant to earthquakes or hurricanes, such governmental guidance can speed the adoption of smart buildings for energy savings.

With the right public policies and industry initiatives, smart buildings could do much more than turn the lights off when you leave the office. They could well be a key to turning the tide on climate change.

Charles Waltner is a freelance writer in Piedmont, Calif.