Building to last

Agnieszka Bachleda-Baca, Arbnco, Controls, energy efficiency, Internet of Things, IOT, operation, Smart Buildings
Agnieszka Bachleda-Baca

Agnieszka Bachleda-Baca considers how IoT can support sustainable building management.

Smart building technologies are revolutionising building management, streamlining processes, improving efficiency, and steadily removing the need for constant, active human management. The number of installed ‘connected devices’ in buildings last year was estimated at 151 million units; by 2022, it is projected to reach 483 million.

Similarly prevalent in the real estate sector is a focus on sustainable construction and building management. As the threat of climate change continues to loom, it is no longer sufficient for sustainability and energy efficiency to languish as an afterthought for the built environment.

Buildings account for nearly 40% of global energy-related CO2 emissions, so measures are needed to reduce this impact. Thankfully, the commitment to green building is growing; in a survey carried out by the World Green Building Council, 47% of respondents expected at least 60% of their projects to be green by 2021.

The surges in interest in these two areas could not have been better timed, as they are ideally positioned to complement one another. With regards to real-time awareness of energy usage, knowledge of where and how it is being used, as well as its efficiency, there is no more useful tool than an accessible IoT system. A comprehensive system allows data to be centralised and easily analysed, offering building and facilities managers a forensic overview of their building’s performance.

Though many buildings currently contain the sensors that would form the skeleton of an IoT system, much work needs to be done before the needs of building managers can truly be addressed. In many cases they are unconnected, and therefore of limited use to a building manager in need of a full overview. Along with this, data from utility meters often has to be manually collected, an unnecessarily time-consuming process. As it stands, many buildings have an abundance of data, but paradoxically present a shortage of useful information. Raw data, especially for a building or facilities manager with less technical expertise, has the potential to be overwhelming; something is required to cut through the noise and isolate the necessary information for easy access, removing the need for the process of extracting the useful information from the collected sensor information and the manual readings taken.

The ideal solution would include a system that provides real-time notification of issues, with a centralised dashboard to provide essential data to support the decision-making processes in a clear, accessible fashion. However, a lot of surrounding infrastructure is required; the bridge between the sensors and the dashboard is, perhaps, the most crucial component. Cloud-based software must be developed to collect sensor data, analyse it, and present what is relevant to the end-user on the dashboard itself. A key challenge is providing robust, reliable connectivity between all the system’s components.

Another challenge is discerning what exactly constitutes ‘relevant’ data; there is never a ‘one size fits all’ solution in building management. The information required by a factory operator will be vastly different to that required by a real estate investment trust, but to try and engineer a specific solution for each possibility borders on the impossible. The major challenge, therefore, is creating a standardised product that can be adapted by users to display the information that they need.

A suitable standardised solution is a system that allows data retrieval within user-defined boundaries, allowing each building or facility manager to receive the data relevant to them. These boundaries could include occupancy hours, critical operation conditions, or specified time periods to be analysed. Any solution that hopes to find wide usage needs the flexibility to adapt to requirements across the spectrum of building management.

smart buildings, controls, energy efficiency, Internet of Things, IoT, operation, Arbnco, Agnieszka Bachleda-Baca

Another important consideration is the system of sensors itself. Given that many buildings already have at least some basic sensors implemented, it would be costly and time-consuming to have these sensors all taken out and replaced. For those buildings already containing sensors, the focus should instead be on developing ways to utilise what is there and connect them to the IoT network through other means, such as an additional ‘gateway’ device, or a software add-on. In buildings that currently have no form of building management system (BMS) at all options can be explored for comprehensive BMS systems, as well as an entry-level ‘BMS-lite’, in which simple, low-cost sensors can be used to carry out basic but critical duties, such as monitoring fan operation hours through vibration, or boiler flow and settings through temperature measurement.

The benefits for building and facilities managers have the potential to be enormous. Immediate notifications when issues arise allows for their resolution as quickly as possible, giving building managers far greater control over moment-to-moment operations. An IoT system gives end-users the ability to make consistently informed decisions with automatic updates, as well as instant notifications when incidents occurs. In doing so, it also allows building and facilities managers to address any knowledge gaps they might have in building operations. By eliminating the needs for manual data collection and sifting through collected data, an IoT solution can save building managers huge amounts of time. A centralised dashboard would display information as it is required, and display a real-time log of issues in the system. This log will allow managers to identify the frequency of adverse events, and take better decisions on how to prevent reoccurrences in the future.

Furthermore, control over energy efficiency has significant financial benefits as well as environmental ones. Research from the World GBC shows decreased 5-year operating costs of 14% and 13% for new green buildings and green retrofits respectively, with costs being recouped inside 7 years. (see link below)

Engineering such a solution is precisely the goal of the Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) recently begun by arbnco and the University of Strathclyde’s Energy Systems Research Unit, and funded by Innovate UK. The partnership will closely involve end-users from a variety of building management sectors, ascertaining their individual needs, using them to pilot prototypes, and implementing their feedback throughout the process of incremental development. By bringing together cutting-edge academic research and precision engineering, and coupling it with pilot sites with a real demand for such technology, we hope to begin the process of changing the landscape of sustainable building management for good.

As we approach a new decade, and an uncertain environmental future, no building should be constructed without an eye towards sustainability. By incorporating emerging IoT technology into sustainable smart buildings, there is an unprecedented opportunity to make building management, simpler, more efficient, and significantly greener.

Agnieszka Bachleda-Baca is a building performance feedback engineer and KTP Associate at arbnco. She is leading on the development and deployment of a complete IoT solution for buildings as part of a new KTP with Strathclyde University.

Picture credit: /Metamorworks

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