Smart Buildings, Smart Boards If Phones Can Be Smart, Why Not Buildings?

Smart Buildings, Smart Boards

 If phones can be “smart,” why not buildings? With the ever-expanding array of consumer technology  available today, it should come as no surprise that residential buildings are  incorporating more and more cutting-edge technology into their communications,  security, and operating systems than ever before, and unifying building  operating systems so they can be monitored and run from a central location by a  building staff member, or by residents themselves with smartphones and iPads.  Many of these innovative systems are being installed from square one in new  construction, but also in the form of upgrades and retrofits in older  buildings. Let’s take a look at the state of the industry.  

 “Unit integration means combining multiple subsystems together,” says Mark Goldman, president of Sound Components, a Coral Gables-based company  that designs, sells and installs automation systems. “HVAC would be one subsystem, lighting control could be one, audio distribution  could be another, security cameras could be another. So it’s putting all those things together on one unified interface. So the user will  have one unified interface to view all of the different subsystems.”  

 Upgrading the Grid

 “We have 4.6 million customers throughout Florida; we’re the largest utility provider in the state since 2009. We have been upgrading  the electric grid and that includes intelligent smart meters in residences and  commercial buildings throughout the state and the integration part of it is  what we are improving,” says Florida Power and Light spokeswoman Kathleen Hinsdale. “With our smart meters, residential and commercial customers can log onto an  energy dashboard. With this dashboard, the customer will be able to see how and  when they are using energy. The dashboard is our way of putting the power back  into the hands of the customer to inform them and educate them on how and where  they are using electricity and hopefully make smart choices about energy usage.  Our goal is to complete that by 2013,” she says.  

 Generally speaking, commercial buildings are more likely to be ahead of the  curve with respect to systems integration, while residential buildings tend to  be behind the curve. This is changing, however, as more and more boards are  finding wisdom in investing in the new technology. At first blush, it would  seem that the needs of both kinds of buildings are the same, but residential  buildings have different needs.  

 According to Hinsdale, in the state of Florida, more modern building codes have  evolved in commercial buildings as opposed to residential buildings, which may  explain why commercial buildings may have a leg up over residential buildings  in terms of systems integration, but not everyone agrees.  

 “It’s not necessarily true that commercial buildings tend to be more state of the  art in terms of integration than residential buildings,” adds Goldman. “Within any particular unit you could have many subsystems and in a condominium  you might also have pool, spa and outdoor lighting that could be integrated.”  

 “Intelligent buildings typically tie together multiple, disparate systems,” says Rawlson King, communications director of the Continental Automated  Buildings Association, a 20-year-old international industry association,  composed of about 350 corporate members. CABA is dedicated to the advancement  of intelligent home and intelligent building technologies. “In fact, it can be argued,” says King, “that intelligent buildings transcend integration to achieve interaction so that  previously independent systems work collectively to optimize building  performance, including monitoring comfort levels, security systems, energy  systems and operations.”  

 Integration and interaction are what drive intelligent buildings. But what does that mean, and how does it work?  

 “Building automation systems and building energy management systems”—BAS and BEMS, respectively—“are designed to provide centralized oversight and remote control over heating,  ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, lighting and other building  systems,” King explains. “In simple terms, a BAS is a programmed, computerized network of electronic  devices that are employed for control and monitoring of systems. It primarily  aims at optimizing the performance, start-up and maintenance of systems and  greatly reduces the interaction of mechanical subsystems in a building. BEMS  basically performs the same functions as a BAS but varies more in capability  and functionality.”  

 Sophisticated Building Systems

 These systems carry out a host of functions, King says, including optimization  of stop-and-start systems, maintenance scheduling, alarm generation, and  constant monitoring of the whole integrated system.  

 “BAS and BEMS vary in capability and functionality, but typically consist of  sensors, controllers, actuators and software,” he says. “Depending on whether a human-in-the-loop factor is involved, decisions are taken  manually or by utilizing embedded intelligence such as decision-making  algorithms.”  

 Technology, as the futurist Ray Kurzweil points out in his books, is progressing  exponentially. Intelligent buildings are no exception. What began with modest  advances is now capable of astonishing feats.  

 “The origin of system integration or interfacing started with fire systems  triggering reactions from other related building systems; HVAC, access control,  elevators, etc.,” explains Jim Sinopoli, managing principal of Smart Buildings LLC, which  maintains offices in Florida, Texas and North Carolina. “Today system integration includes all of the control systems in a building, but  also encompasses facility management systems, business systems, and eventually,  utility grids.”  

 “Traditionally, building systems had been characterized by highly proprietary  offerings with limited ability to inter-operate,” King says. “As an example, in the 1950s, control over a commercial building's lighting  systems and heating and air conditioning would have been separate functions,  probably maintained by separate personnel. With the advent of computer systems  being integrated into buildings in the late 1980s and early 1990s, such  building systems could be centrally controlled”—that is, integrated.  

 Once that was achieved, the technology flourished. “With the advent of open networking and the Internet, now systems can be  controlled remotely, and building operations across a whole building portfolio  can be centralized in one regional control center,” King says.  

 Of course, just because something is possible doesn’t mean everyone is doing it; contrary to popular belief, not everyone tweets or  is on Facebook. “I don’t think the average building today is operating that differently today than in was, say, 50 years ago,” says Goldman, “Even though all of this technology is available.”  

 Of particular interest to residential buildings, with their multiple entries  (front door, laundry, common rooms, roof, etc.), is what experts call “key security.” The challenge of keeping emergency copies of owners’ apartment keys in a totally secure environment (so as to prevent employee theft  or other unauthorized access) while at the same time providing quick emergency  access 24/7. Twenty-five years ago, there was no system at all for this, and now there are  two: Keytrack and KeyLink. These are highly sophisticated lockbox  biometrically-operated systems, uniquely used by residential high-rise  buildings, auto-dealerships, and the U.S. military in Iraq.  

 As Sinopoli points out, “the idea of integration automation is driven by the owner”—that is, the board and the residents. If there is no push to update the systems—or, in new construction, implement them correctly—the technology is useless.  

 The prices of systems vary and depend on the particular needs of the user. “If you were talking about a 6,000-square-foot condo and you were going to go in  and do shade control, lighting control, install televisions throughout the unit  and HVAC integration, you’d probably be looking at three weeks with a two man crew start to finish,” says Goldman. “Including programming it would probably be between $15,000 and $25,000 for labor  and if you add the cost of the equipment with an automated system the cost could  easily be $100,000 on up.”  

 The Wave of the Future

 “If current trends continue, by 2025, buildings worldwide will be the largest  consumers of global energy, using as much power as the transportation and  industrial sectors combined,” says King. “Recent studies have found that improving energy efficiency in buildings is the  least costly way to reduce a large quantity of carbon emissions. By changing  energy management practices and instituting technologies that enhance energy  efficiency, building owners and managers can reduce energy consumption by up to  35 percent.”  

 Is a 35 percent reduction in energy costs worth the $4,000-a-year bill? Perhaps.  This is the wave of the future. More and more buildings will be upgrading and using more advanced technologies.  

 “In an era of volatile energy prices and increasing concern over climate change,  the need for the innovative application of technology has become highly acute,” says King. “Buildings with integrated intelligent building technologies can save thousands  and even millions of dollars in energy by delivering heating, cooling and  lighting more efficiently. Intelligent buildings are increasingly using solar  walls to capture energy from the sun, ventilation systems to recapture and  reuse heat, insulation strategies that enable better climate control,  high-efficiency lighting systems that enhance illumination with less  electricity and automatic systems that control building services based on  activity.”  

 Hinsdale believes that smart buildings and technology are part of Florida’s future. “We are definitely building a foundation of smart technology for the future,” she says. “In the future FPL customers will be able to purchase smart appliances.”   

 Greg Olear is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The South Florida  Cooperator. Staff Writer Christy Smith-Sloman contributed to this article.


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