Graduating from smart to intelligent buildings

Technology is changing what is possible in the built environment. Smart buildings integrate the design of the infrastructure, building and facility systems, communications, business systems, and technology solutions that contribute to sustainability and operational efficiency.
By Steve Brown, CAP, Environmental Systems Design Inc., Chicago May 13, 2015

This article has been peer-reviewed.Learning objectives

  • Understand what an intelligent, or smart, building is.
  • Learn how the intelligent building platform can be specified so the owner can use it regularly as a tool.
  • Understand how to apply the intelligent building concept.

There is a lot of buzz around intelligent buildings these days, but what exactly is an intelligent building? There are many interpretations and definitions.

An intelligent building is defined as a set of dynamically connected smart systems that are made interoperable through accumulating, sharing, analyzing, and acting upon the collective smart building data. When designed properly and effectively, the intelligent building platform will result in a more efficient, secure, and productive asset that has the capacity to continuously improve over its lifetime.

Smart buildings integrate the design of the infrastructure, building and facility systems, communications, business systems, and technology solutions that contribute to sustainability. Courtesy: CFE MediaThe intelligent building platform becomes a powerful tool, enabling optimal building performance across all metrics-life safety, security, energy efficiency, productivity, operational efficiency, utility consumption, sustainability, and conservation measures and employee and public engagement. The intelligent building design creates a common software platform that aggregates, normalizes, and coordinates the data from and between the disparate smart systems. This platform enables transparent access to real-time building performance data while allowing intuitive visualization of the metrics important to each class of stakeholder through dashboards. The capabilities of the platform are further expanded through the implementation of fault detection, diagnostics, analytics, and advanced reporting applications.

Often, a collection of independent smart systems has been considered "intelligent." For example, a typical building design may incorporate efficient mechanical equipment with advanced control sequences or a smart lighting system will use LED fixtures, energy-efficient ballasts, and daylight harvesting strategies. While smart systems are an excellent step and important components of a smart building, until they are enabled to share their critical data to effectively impact other systems, they act as islands of information within the facility, limiting the opportunity to positively impact the overall enterprise. However, when enabled to share their specialized data, through an open-source data platform, these smart building systems become collectively intelligent and their effectiveness increases exponentially.

An intelligent building should be fit for purpose and fit for the future. It must meet the requirements and needs of the enterprise’s potentially vast group of stakeholders, addressing the goals and initiatives set forth in the customer’s charter and vision. Simultaneously, the intelligent building needs to be fit for future use, with the flexibility and scalability incorporated into the design to easily and seamlessly expand with, and adapt to, tomorrow’s technologies.

Seven steps to an intelligent building

Because a truly intelligent building necessitates a number of components working in concert, Environmental Systems Design has created a list of seven keys to intelligent building design and implementation. From the predesign phase to the evolving role of the facility manger in tomorrow’s intelligent building, these seven design keys will help any stakeholder plan for and execute the fit for purpose, fit for future principal throughout their intelligent building network.

1. Plan ahead. The intelligent building concept is best planned for in the early stages of design-the earlier, the better. Both timing and an informed, motivated end user are critical to the execution of an intelligent building. Once the infrastructure has been defined, it is typically difficult and costly to makes the necessary changes to achieve the maximum benefits. Knowing the consumption of each piece of field equipment to the most granular level possible is beneficial. An intelligent building will have metering points on all pieces of equipment including, but not limited to, electrical switchgear and distribution, primary water distribution, HVAC systems, vertical transport, and irrigation systems. When the base building systems aren’t designed for intelligence from day one, although not impossible, it is more challenging and costly to redesign and redistribute the mechanical, electrical, plumbing (MEP), fire protection, and information technology infrastructure to properly support and contribute to the intelligent building platform.

Figure 3: Each of the stakeholders in an integrated building will require a different dashboard of intelligent building information. This sample building automation system (BAS) screen shot could belong to the operational/functional stakeholders of a buil2. Identify and understand the wide-ranging stakeholder requirements. Each class of stakeholder will have different requirements in the intelligent building. The desired outcomes will vary depending on the individual, unique expectations, and experiences. Gathering these individual stakeholders to discuss their distinct and specific needs, including coming to consensus and compromising where necessary, will be critical to successful design. Intelligent buildings will need to take the following stakeholders into consideration:

  • Financial stakeholders will desire information on how the intelligent building systems are impacting the company’s financial metrics/bottom line.
  • Operational/functional stakeholders keep the building functioning on a day-to-day basis and are concerned with occupant satisfaction, ease of operation, access to critical systems information, and productivity of the maintenance staff. They will want access to the total building’s systems so they can address issues in real time.
  • Resource reduction, or sustainability, stakeholders are concerned with energy and water efficiency, utility optimization, and how to reduce emissions and save resources.
  • Productivity stakeholders are concerned with the productivity of those in the building. They will look for building comfort and will want access to information about the effectiveness of the building’s spaces and how integration can improve productivity.
  • Security/life safety stakeholders will want the intelligent building to help disseminate messages during an emergency, including pre-action and warnings. Additionally, they will be interested in how the building’s intelligence can be leveraged to maintain proper access control and improve emergency communications.
  • Amenities/public communications stakeholders will want to include performance data from throughout the intelligent building in lobby displays to promote the building’s sustainability initiatives and help aid in wayfinding and destination control.
  • Prestige/recognition will be a motivation for multiple stakeholders who want to create a high-profile image for the building, company, and/or community, showcasing the company’s commitment and dedication to all occupants, visitors, and investors.

All parties are interested in obtaining granularity in their specific areas so they can analyze the data gathered and optimize building systems according to best practices. Defining metrics helps apply the intelligent data gathered to minimize energy and operational expenditure.

Figure 2: The intelligent building platform layout reveals the inner workings of the intelligent building system and how each component is connected. Sharing information on the intelligent building network, these systems components meet the analytics, rep3. Specify individual systems and components to be compatible with the integrated platform. Each discipline will have its own "smart" equipment, but if this equipment isn’t specified to make data available at a higher level, it will not be able to integrate with others and, ultimately, onto the intelligent building platform. Just being smart does not automatically make a piece of equipment part of the intelligent building platform.

Instead, components need to be defined to ensure they are as consistent as possible-in other words, speaking the same language. These days, regardless of manufacturer, each of the building’s MEP and controls systems- the building automation system (BAS), electrical gear, chillers, boilers, domestic hot water heaters, elevator systems, lighting controls, fire alarm, access control, and security systems-can be provided with an industry-standard open communications protocol, which often can be disparate from one another.

It is common for equipment specifications to list multiple acceptable protocols. While this practice presumably protects the client’s interests by keeping options open and not limiting competition, it also increases the potential for incompatibility between systems. Just specifying the protocol (i.e., BACnet, Modbus, LonWorks, etc.) does not guarantee compatibility or the quality of the data communicated. For example, the BACnet protocol defines multiple versions-BACnet/IP, BACnet over Ethernet, Point-to-Point (RS-232), MS/TP (RS-485), and even BACnet over ARCNET-all of which have different means of transmitting data and are supported by different wiring methods. Similarly, other protocols have multiple versions as well. When this is the case it can be difficult, if not impossible, to go back and change the protocol physically. Facilitating communication between systems with disparate protocols after they’ve been specified for a facility will often require costly changes, including rewiring.

Imagine that an engineer working in an intelligent building gets a cold call from a tenant. If the engineer had access to interactive data from all the HVAC systems, he could trace the issue back to its origin, instead of just cranking up the setpoint to temporarily alleviate the occupant’s discomfort, while possibly creating issues in other areas of the building. Now, take this scenario one step further. Imagine if the building engineer could be warned ahead of time, before the actual issue or failure came into play. The same can be said for the building’s water temperature, airflow, and other systems that affect occupant comfort. When a building’s systems can recognize and anticipate its failings and alert the facilities department, crises can be averted and occupant satisfaction maintained. A truly intelligent building can proactively anticipate issues and automatically make adjustments to avoid failures that otherwise would adversely affect the building’s business, process, and occupants.

4. Fault detection diagnostics are a must. Faults are often defined as being a binary state, that is, a failure to start or a boiler that isn’t turning off. But faults are more than that. They can also be improper and inefficient operation. A common example is the simultaneous heating and cooling of a building. Everything started in the building and the space is comfortable, but both the chiller and the boiler are running at the same time. When this scenario exists in the intelligent building, the data can be pulled out from each piece of equipment to determine where the failure is. Is the boiler facing a problem? Does the chiller have a diagnostic problem that no one has noticed, like high oil temperature?

The idea of fault detection and diagnostics, or FDD (for which there are several software providers), is to identify the root cause of an issue before it becomes a larger facility problem. An intelligent building’s FDD should alert the building engineer before something fails and reveal why it has failed. Is it the result of an electrical shortage? Why did the fan shut down? Was it the fire alarm? Did something close off the duct and then a pressure situation was created?

Rules can be written in the intelligent building controls sequence to catch a fault before it becomes a failure, and a facility can have a disaster recovery plan to bypass disaster. For example, what if a chiller goes down in a hospital, or the generators don’t start and the uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems don’t discharge appropriately in a mission critical facility? Integrating FDD into an intelligent building will help address issues proactively instead of reactively.

Figure 1: This diagram illustrates the process of defining and designing the building systems and components that deliver on the stakeholders’ vision of a truly intelligent building. It is a visual representation of the process to define the client’s init5. Make the most of dashboards, visualization, and utilization. After each of the stakeholder requirements have been integrated into the building’s design and analytical functions are set accordingly at the intelligent building platform, the next step is to build individual dashboards for each of the stakeholders so their datasets can actually be used. Because of their varying requirements, they will each likely need a different visualization.

For example, the day-to-day building operator will need the most inclusive dashboard that features an overall picture of the facility as well as certain granular-level statistics specific to each facility, while the financial stakeholder will want to know how the day-to-day numbers play out in the overall budget. Defining each of these dashboard requirements goes back to understanding each individual stakeholder. Which items do they need to see? What are their goals and what are they trying to accomplish? Consider which components of the systems need to interact and communicate to get the data each desire. The specifying engineer’s challenge will be to determine what data needs to be included on each dashboard and how to get the right information to the appropriate people (see Figure 1).

Figure 4: This building automation system (BAS) dashboard shows a building’s Energy Tracker, which reveals how much lighting, mechanical, electrical, plumbing (MEP), fire protection, and renewable energy the facility is using, with a “whole building” dial6. Don’t forget network security. Security will be a key issue when integrating information from each stakeholder. How will they know their individual data is secure? In addition, an intelligent building system will typically be incorporated into the corporate IT backbone. Again, because security is a key stakeholder the integration process (see No. 2), it must be addressed from day one of design.

Beyond those of varying stakeholders, each facility will have its own unique security issues. For example, a hospital might worry about Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) privacy rules as they relate to the integration of its electronic medical records, whereas a research facility might be concerned about the security of its findings and a corporation might worry about the privacy of its sensitive financial information.

Ideally, the specifying engineer should sit down with the facility’s IT personnel to discuss their physical and logical security standards to determine how to incorporate the integrated intelligent building platform into the overall IT infrastructure. It is important to anticipate and address potential security breaches specific to each facility to ensure that the network is hardened to the client’s standards.

Follow these best practices when designing network security for intelligent buildings:

  • Use standards-based technology for data encryption, authorization, and authentication
  • Consider data within security infrastructure as sensitive enterprise data
  • Document physical security configuration
  • Develop and follow consistent, planned maintenance procedures
  • Develop and maintain a reliable vendor supply chain
  • Eliminate vendor general administration passwords
  • Follow vendors’ best practices and use deployment recommendations.

Generally speaking, a variety of options exist to optimize network security. From fully integrating the intelligent building network on the company’s enterprise, to partitioning the intelligent building network-with some on the company’s enterprise and the rest on its own stand-alone network-to control the level of security, to specifying totally separate networks, all can be viable options when looking to manage security. Ideally, a discussion upfront on how the network design will match a building’s operations and network standards, including how the intelligent building network and subcomponents fit into the building’s enterprise network security standards, will help integrate the intelligent building network into the building’s existing network.

7. The future: What’s next? Tomorrow’s intelligent buildings will take today’s technology to the next level, including the application of advanced algorithms, analysis, and FDD, as well as an evolution of the role of facilities personnel in the intelligent building.

The facility manager’s role will morph into maximizing the emerging intelligent building asset-the building data. Incorporating this role is already becoming a necessity and can be performed either in-house or via the services of a qualified third-party intelligent building consultant. If performed in-house, it may take some time to teach the necessary skill set to the property managers and building engineers. Training is available from the qualified intelligent building consultant who will guide the facility staff in the most effective use of their unique systems and building data. This will be aided by the proliferation of more user-friendly features and dashboards.

As capabilities grow, it is expected that the intelligent building platform will be implemented across the client’s new and existing buildings, extending the benefits throughout the portfolio.

The intelligent facility of tomorrow will be strikingly different from that of today’s high-performance building. While both feature smart MEP systems and the latest equipment optimization, the intelligent building will stand out behind the scenes for its ability to collect data from each disparate system and consolidate it into dashboards for individual stakeholders and-most importantly-for its ability to use the collected data to impact the building positively and enable continuous improvements.


Steve Brown is a senior associate and controls team lead at ESD and is a certified automation professional (CAP). With more than 25 years of experience in the design, implementation, and commissioning of numerous types of control system, his application experience and deep product knowledge help clients in the development of building systems that deliver maximum results through the integrated application of available and emerging technologies.