Stantec’s Robert Manna asks: Can smart buildings really benefit us?
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Increasingly the term “smart buildings” is bandied about as yet another buzzword when it comes to building occupancy, management, occupant comfort, and engagement. A phrase that is frequently used in conjunction with smart buildings is “the single pane of glass” – which often causes confusion. What does a piece of glass have to do with technology and smart buildings? Let’s peer into the glass and find out what it’s all about.
To understand the concept of the single pane of glass, it is important to review why people see value in smart buildings and the impact of technology. The idea of a “smart building” is straight-forward. With the increasing connectivity of devices, the ubiquity of microchips and networking (hardwired and wireless) and the availability of low voltage power over structured cabling – Power over Ethernet: PoE – it is possible to “converge” or link any number of building systems to “talk” to each other and share data.
It is also much, much easier to collect data. The ability to collect, connect, and share data between systems creates a variety of opportunities to improve performance. In this case, performance can mean many things to many people. The short story is that data collection and connected systems allow us to optimize control of the systems to achieve outcomes that may not otherwise be possible. This can range from light levels adjusting based on the amount of daylight and occupancy in a space to conference rooms and AV equipment preparing themselves for specific meetings. Connected systems can also control temperature and CO2 levels, pre-configure AV equipment, update an occupancy screen, and provide app-based guest navigation from reception to the meeting room.
If this all sounds a bit like Star Trek, you’re not too far off. While scientists haven’t yet solved the challenges of faster than light travel or transporters that convert matter to energy and back again, the fiction writers were pretty close in terms of the more mundane things about living with advanced technology. Ironically, the input screens envisioned by set designers nearly 30 years ago look comically archaic compared to modern interface design and the experience we have on our mobile devices, tablets, and computers.
Which brings us back to the concept of a “single pane of glass”. In Star Trek, ship-board functions (i.e., everything we’ve talked about in terms of smart buildings) are regulated by the ship’s computer. In fact, the crew regularly give the computer commands, like “computer, play me some guitar music.”
Sound familiar? Just replace “computer” with Siri or Alexa and the result is the same. Further, in the universe of Star Trek it is presumed that all the interface points (screens, portable devices, communication devices) are all linked to “the computer” (see where I’m going with this). Once again, the fiction writers weren’t too far off. Today we instead have mobile phones that are both communication devices and portable interface devices, tablets that provide a larger interface format, and good old-fashioned personal computers when a device won’t do. The thing that we’re missing in the “real-world” though is the fancy computer that ties everything together. What we do have though is a good set of network protocols that form the basis of the internet and the ability for different devices to communicate with each other.
This is in fact the Achilles heel of current technology. Unlike the Enterprise, who’s designers provided a fully integrated, self-sufficient isolated system, buildings have traditionally not taken the same approach, at least not to the same level. Building systems; the parts, pieces, and components that make them up are sold by a myriad number of vendors and installers. Traditionally (particularly in design, bid, build) designers focus on specifying how the systems and equipment should perform, but often from the isolated perspective of each unique system. Buildings as we’ve known them historically do not have a master computer brain, they have dis-aggregated systems focused on specific aspects or requirements. Occasionally those systems would talk to each other, but only in the most rudimentary way. For example. the fire alarm system shutting down the main heating and air conditioning system. This is a far cry from the computer of Star Trek, and certainly doesn’t provide a direct human interface for adjusting the lighting or asking for music to play.
In the last decade, we have seen the increasing availability of an array of technologies to help make buildings smarter. Whether it is better building control and automation systems, smarter lighting systems, or guests and visitors being able to “check-in” to the building from their mobile device and a QR code, the systems in our buildings can do more, and there are more options available targeted specifically at occupant comfort and space utilization.
The big problem though is they all, quite often, remain disparate systems. For example, think about how many apps you have on your own personal mobile device. Do you know how many you have? Have you installed apps that you used once or twice then forgot about? Take that same level of app proliferation in the consumer space and transfer it to the commercial—do you, your employees, or guests all want to download a variety of apps just to interface with the smart building? No, most would prefer the Star Trek experience. Do you want an app for: lighting control, AV control, temperature control, guest access & check-in, fire safety, parking, bike storage, catering, printing (for those agendas we think we should still print on paper) and lastly contract tracing and vaccination status? The example may seem extreme, but that is where we are today, and that is what the conversation about a single pane of glass is all about. While there will never be a single “computer” as envisioned by Star Trek, we still want a single “window” through which we can see and access all this data and functionality.
Smart buildings when designed and properly specified in conjunction with the client’s needs and objectives can bring real value, whether its optimization of resource consumption, increased occupant satisfaction and comfort, reduced risk to human and physical capital or a combination of all three. All of it can deliver a better result over the life of the facility. It is equally important to consider the experience, the journey, and not just the final outcome. End users will nearly always default to doing what is easiest whether it is what you want them to do or not. Sticks will only drive minimum compliance, carrots on the other hand can help to ensure that user behavior not only achieves the desired result, but very likely surpasses it. Taking the time to work with the design team upfront on not just outcomes but experience, and budgeting appropriately to have those conversations can have a significant impact on your project.