The rise of the digital building

The concept of digital buildings combines architecture, engineering, and technology for increased building optimization.

By James C. Waddell, RCDD, MAI; CannonDesign, Chicago August 10, 2017

Designing for autonomous process automation requires a shift in consulting-specifying methods and practices. Engineering now includes a broader set of integrated systems requiring a well-defined and well-communicated bridge between a client’s expected outcome and the construction process. A unique and evolved collaboration between design inputs and construction deliverables has changed the game.

A digital building includes a set of solutions that creates a synergy between comfort, safety, energy efficiency, and security. It’s a blend of architecture, engineering, and technology that turns buildings into something more—uniquely different from the smart buildings of our past. Digital building is a smart building evolved—one that uses cognitive computing to drive autonomous optimization.

Digital buildings fundamentally transform a space into an app-driven utility. Although designers are always focused on creating spaces that optimize the human condition, advance wellness, and increase the ability to collaborate and share, digital buildings turn spaces into "digital assistants." A digital building relies heavily on Internet of Things (IoT) devices to deliver this level of automation.

IoT refers to the ever-growing network of physical objects that feature an IP address for network connectivity. These devices use embedded software, sensors, and controls to interact with the external environment.

Today’s building systems (HVAC, lighting, security, computing, telephony, etc.) are also benefiting immensely from loT. All systems currently use some form of information technology (IT) networking for communication, monitoring, management, and control. Although powering each device or system typically requires an electrical connection and a data connection at each device, the digital building converges these requirements into a single secure, open standards-based framework designed to deliver power and data through a single data cable.

Providing power over data cable is a tested and proven way to energize IoT devices. Power over Ethernet (PoE) technology is an approved way to safely transfer electrical power, along with data, to remote devices over standard networking cables in an Ethernet network. The result is that almost all office phones and security cameras specified today are PoE-enabled. Devices and controls systems that are commonly specified have options to use PoE technology. Examples include HVAC controllers, digital signage, audio/video equipment, TV monitors, and access-control devices.

It used to be that consulting-specifying engineers designed in a way that made it easier for people to understand technology. Digital buildings now allow consulting-specifying engineers to design systems in a way that makes it easier for technology to understand people. Advances in IoT devices are helping facility managers capture data on occupant health, for example. Combining building management system-captured environmental data (temperature and air quality) with movement data from location sensors allows the systems to understand and predict optimal ventilation, temperature, and light levels for a specific day or night. Data about the movement of individuals through open spaces can help tenants boost the productivity of workers by better designing tasks and breaks to facilitate collaboration and even socialization between employees.

Designers now have the option within traditional building systems to use the cost savings and enhanced value of a converged system. Leveraging PoE technology to create a holistic infrastructure that can power and provide IT networking for various building technology systems is at the core design principles of digital buildings. As building systems become more network-enabled, so too will the infrastructure that drives them.

New and innovative business models within the design community have already begun to shift the balance of power in the marketplace. As a result, classic competitive situations will give way to more complex engagements where companies are interconnected in ecosystems. It also means that partnerships between traditional Architecture, Engineering firms and large IT vendors will play a much more significant role.

James Waddell is a member of CannonDesign‘s technology-consulting practice leadership team, focused on leveraging the integration of converged technology systems to enrich and enhance the built environment.