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Smart Buildings Will Transform Our Lives
Smart Buildings Will Transform Our Lives
Buildings are shaped by the needs of the occupants as well as the materials and construction methods available to build them.
Technology Briefing

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Homes, offices, retail stores, schools, hospitals, and factories are shaped by the needs of the occupants as well as the materials and construction methods available to build them. At the same time, these buildings shape the way we live and work, in and around them.

Whether we're talking about the tents occupied by herdsmen in the Middle East, mud brick huts occupied by South Asian farmers, or office towers occupied by OECD workers, buildings facilitate and constrain how people live and work.

Each Techno-Economic Revolution has reshaped our buildings, while those buildings have influenced the spread and impact of the revolutionary change. Now, the Fifth Techno-Economic Revolution based on digital technology is transforming our buildings. And, more importantly, our buildings are helping or hindering the spread of that revolution.

Trends previously documented the implications of the Fifth Techno-Economic Revolution for the way buildings are constructed. New materials, new processes, and new business models promise to make homes and workplaces more affordable and resource-efficient. In the next decade, this will enable many millions of people now trapped in the pre-industrial era to leap into the twenty-first century.

But it's not just construction that's being revolutionized, it's the buildings themselves. To understand this, consider what happened during the Mass Production Era, which plateaued in the '70s. The widespread availability of air-conditioned buildings enabled the economic emergence of the Sun Belt. The widespread adoption of automobiles meant that buildings were built with parking as a major consideration. Electric lighting, elevators, and the telephone, which had emerged in the Third Techno-Economic Revolution, became ubiquitous and helped shape the buildings of the twentieth century.

Now, digital technology is transforming buildings into active participants in our lives.

For our purposes here, we'll focus on commercial buildings like offices, retail stores, schools, hospitals, and factories. We'll look at smart homes again in a later issue of Trends.

Over the past few years, commercial buildings have been quietly turning into Software Defined Buildings (SDBs). This is not only lowering the operational cost of the building, but also fostering smarter cities, increased safety, and generating greater occupant comfort. As such, building has already become one of the fastest growing market segments for the Internet of Things (IoT).

Before delving into the details of smart buildings, consider these facts:
  • According to the U.S. Department of Energy, there are about 4.8 million commercial buildings and 350,000 industrial facilities in the United States; together, these account for about half of the country's total energy use.
  • The United Nations Environment Program estimated that buildings consume:
    1. 40 percent of global energy
    2. 25 percent of global water
    3. 40 percent of global resources
    4. 60 percent of the world's electricity
  • The UN's Water and Energy report estimates that investing $170 billion annually in "energy efficiency" worldwide could produce energy savings of up to $900 billion per year, and each additional $1 spent on energy efficiency in electrical equipment, appliances, and buildings lets us avoid, on average, more than $2 in energy supply investments.
  • The Green Energy Ensemble has estimated that switching from "dumb" to "smart buildings" could save 30 percent of water, 40 percent of energy, and reduce building operational costs by up to 30 percent.
  • The World Green Building Council estimates that 90 percent of typical building costs are associated with staff salaries and benefits; smart buildings could reduce these costs through automation.
How will smart buildings differ from traditional ones? Over time, as sophistication matures, buildings will begin to act like highly sentient beings. Consider five areas in which building sentience could make a difference:
  1. Various systems of the building, including fire, smoke, HVAC, elevators, and others need periodic checks and maintenance. The Internet of Things can help minimize manual checks and reduce maintenance overheads.
  2. Ambience Control. Capabilities such as fine-grained temperature control and automatic tinting of windows for optimal lighting could help improve student and employee focus and productivity.
  3. Location-Based Services. Identifying availability of the closest parking spots, empty cubicles, and empty conference rooms will be enabled through location-based services in the buildings.
  4. Incident Management. From security to building systems, smart buildings can enable better triaging and management of various types of incidents. A subset of these incidents could be bubbled up into smart city management systems for macro analysis and effective coordination with public resources.
  5. Flexible Integration and Reconfiguration. Based on the purpose and architecture of the building, there could be thousands of combinations that could be created "on the fly" to support building occupants; some of them will dove-tail with "smart city" infrastructure and management systems.
Like most technological revolutions, a certain specific combination of technologies maturing to the right level, at the right time, creates a tipping point. Consider just four of the key technological elements that are making smart building adoption realistic for the first time:
  1. Power over Ethernet and solid-state switches. Power over Ethernet (PoE) has been around for a while, but until recently the power ratings for these were low. Therefore, only devices with low power requirements (such as VoIP phones) ran on PoE. Networking vendors like Cisco now offer 60-Watt rated PoE switches that enable a much wider range of devices to be deployed. It turns out that a 60-Watt rating opens the flood gates for a wide range of devices to be IP-connected.
  2. Wireless connectivity. Wireless technologies like LoRa, 4G LTE, and 5G open up a variety of options for always-on In fact, it is reported that 5G will largely be focused on IoT use cases.
  3. IP-enabled devices and sensors. A bevy of devices and sensors for motion, temperature, light, thermal mapping, and smoke have now become mainstream and are available at reasonable price points for adoption. With PoE, it is easier to connect them on a network and orchestrate intricate sense-and-actuate use cases using them.
  4. Cloud computing and machine learning. Due to the economics of cloud computing, it is now feasible to perform machine learning on large data sets at scale. The widespread adoption of machine learning and artificial intelligence will continue to grow, leading to deeper sentience for buildings operations, safety, and resource management.

These technologies have existed for a long time. However, the economics and the technological maturity have finally reached the "Goldilocks Condition" necessary to make widespread adoption of smart buildings happen now.

Given this trend, we offer the following forecasts for your consideration:

First, over the next decade, new and retrofitted buildings will use IoT, networking, and cloud-based AI to manage connected energy and water resources more effectively.

Consider a few simple examples:

  • Energy Conservation. On hot summer days, the power utility could increase the ambient temperature of the building by a few degrees, thereby reducing the load on the grid. This is called demand response in utilities parlance. In California, three major power companies (SDG&E, SCE, and PG&E), in partnership with Honeywell, implemented automated demand response (ADR) and reported a 25 percent reduction in peak electricity usage. This particularly makes sense for unoccupied rooms.
  • Water Conservation. Infosys reported 40 percent savings in water consumption by leveraging smart sustainability technologies on their campuses. Smart meters give property owners deeper and more accurate data about water consumption.
  • Emergencies. Smart buildings enable remote shut-off of gas and electricity during emergencies, so that emergency first-responders can get into the building safely and quickly to save lives. On the same
    note, buildings with electronic internal maps and technical layouts enable first-responders get to the right areas of the buildings quickly.
  • Waste Management. Smart waste bins help cities lower the cost of waste management by optimizing pickup routes, timings, and frequency.
  • Parking. Cities like San Francisco have been rolling out IoT-enabled parking lots that save people the time and hassle of having to search for available parking. Smart parking mitigates traffic congestion and emissions from vehicles.

Second, new elevator technology will make buildings more appealing and user-friendly.

As soon as year-end 2016, Germany's Thyssen-Krupp will have installed the first such system. Their elevator uses magnetic levitation (maglev) to glide their elevator cabins up or down, similar to Japan's levitating high-speed trains.

This innovation allows for some exciting advantages, such as:

  • No more height restrictions on buildings-we can start constructing buildings at sci-fi heights.
  • Faster service since maglev elevators produce no friction and have far fewer moving parts.
  • Elevator cabins that can move horizontally, as well as vertically, Willy Wonka-style.
  • The ability to connect two adjoining elevator shafts, permitting an elevator cabin to ride up the left shaft, transfer over to the right shaft, travel down the right shaft, and transfer back to the left shaft to begin the next rotation.
  • The ability for dozens of elevator cars in high-rises to travel around in this rotation together, increasing elevator transport capacity by at least 50 percent, while also reducing elevator wait times to less than 30 seconds.

Third, programmable lighting and variable tinting of windows will deliver just the right combination of color and brightness to optimize each task.

LED lighting panels and electronically adjustable window tinting are becoming affordable. Research has consistently shown that varying lighting conditions can have a major impact on productivity. By monitoring who is in the room and what they are doing, the systems could adjust the ambiance to make the most of the situation.

Fourth, commercial spaces of all types will also optimize sound and odors to enhance sales and maximize worker productivity.

For years, the most innovative firms have used sound and scent to create the right psychology. However, it's been tricky to manage manually. But with sensors and AI, it will become commonplace.

Fifth, security systems based on integrating video, audio, and biometrics will make buildings safer, but also increase privacy concerns.

Omnipresent cameras and sensors tied to the cloud will be able to continuously monitor everyone, at all times. This will minimize security and safety issues, but it will also compromise personal privacy. Balancing these concerns is not a matter of technology; it's a matter of ethics and law.

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