The Sextant Group’s Intelligent Buildings Technologies Practice Leader

What is a Smart/Intelligent Building?
A “smart” or “intelligent” building can and should have different meanings for the various stakeholders who are tied to a building’s ecosystem. A common misconception is that a “smart” building simply has to do with creating energy efficiency and/or the Building Management Systems (BMS) being commissioned properly after a new installation. While the BMS system may play a large role in the efficient and on-going operations of occupant comfort, it does not by itself make a building “smart.”

At its core, a smart building is one that is capable of capturing useful data from various internal, and external systems, along with different types of occupant data to make better informed and actionable decisions. Actionable decisions can range from the very simple to the extremely complex depending on the nature of how the variables are configured to produce outcomes – often predictively. The criticality of these outcomes may depend on what role you play within the building or larger organization (i.e., campus, real estate portfolio or enterprise). This is achieved through thoughtful Solution Architecture (SA) and gaining a deep understanding of the missions, goals, pain points, and other factors from the different stakeholders. More on this below.

So, ultimately the definition of what makes a building “smart” will vary between facilities personnel, IT departments, financial personnel via short and long-term capital budgeting, third-party management groups, not to mention the everyday occupants – just to name a few.

What does it mean to you?
The most common example we hear associated with “smart buildings” involves the green movement. A building owner or portfolio manager of a REIT might implement smart building strategies to achieve sustainable energy savings. In addition, sustainable designing a building could make the property more attractive to a tenant occupancy and create higher long-term asset valuation (with or without necessarily setting LEED™ or similar type goals). Facilities or third-party property management groups can use smart building system data to contribute to on-going commissioning optimization processes (systems that track performance and learn over time to better perform on their own based on historical data and system usage). Finally, more recent developments in sensors (often referred to as the “Internet of Things”) and application software capabilities allow facilities groups to benefit from centralized remote monitoring of a building or multiple buildings. This allows for easier support scalability, saving valuable time and resources whether internally or externally managed.

While all of these are certainly worthwhile efforts, do these elements alone make a building “smart”? Not necessarily.

Consider the same building described above on a university campus or part of large commercial enterprise. There are quite often many other systems leveraged by different user groups that can provide valuable input to the buildings overall ecosystem. Let’s say the IT group utilizes room scheduling panels, with asset tracking for technology equipment? Furthermore, maybe IT or the facilities group also manages access control systems, security cameras, broadcast messaging and/or digital signage around the building. The data that are gathered from all of these systems becomes equally as valuable as the data generated within the BMS system when it is aggregated and leveraged as a part of the overall building environment.

Occupancy data and technology system utilization not only allow for the HVAC system to automatically adjust to changing conditions, but there becomes a whole host of variables that can be created to visualize data in different ways, and for different purposes. For example, for capital budget planning it might be very useful to know what equipment within the conference rooms are used most often, which are rarely touched, and those nearing end-of-lifecycle. What components have the most helpdesk tickets opened, or consistent downtime? Or, maybe it is beneficial to understand the correlation between the size of the room and the average number of people that schedule a particular room (space utilization).

When historical and trending data about how a building’s systems, rooms, occupants, and spaces are being used, analyzed and supported in real-time, immediate efficiencies as well as long term planning becomes much more accurate. In an increasingly digitized world, the value of data streams becomes extremely important to not only secure and contain, but also leverage in ways that can benefit different user groups and the organization on a whole.

What are the key components?
There are certain fundamental components to how data makes a building smart. However, it is important not to oversimplify many of the other elements that bring together an integrated and truly “intelligent building.” The fundamentals include:

Creation and Capture: To start, you first need the creation and capture of data from various systems, many of which are likely already implemented throughout the building (i.e. BMS, access control, cameras, room scheduling, other software-based network tools, etc.).

Interpretation: Data captured from various systems need non-complicated ways to be aggregated, analyzed and/or visualized.

Solution Architecture: Data interpretation is only as good as the purpose or goals for which it has been designed to achieve. Establishing a Solution Architecture is at the core of how data are utilized for various purposes. It is within SA that stakeholders will derive value from that data.

There are many other elements for defining the goals and establishing a solution architecture that provides value for an organization. Understanding how converged networks (AV, IT, Security, etc.), network security and data privacy, distributed intelligence (edge computing), various analytic tools and data storage are among just few important factors. It is essential to engage in a discovery process that puts a structure to what a “smart building” means for the different stakeholders who might benefit from the significant efficiencies and insights that can be provided.

J.P. Bonin is a Senior Consultant for The Sextant Group and leads the firm’s Boston office. Share your feedback with him at JPBonin@TheSextantGroup.com.