A comprehensive look at the intelligent building

Technology is changing what’s possible for buildings. With the advent of smart building technology, heating, cooling, electrical, lighting, fire/life safety, and other systems need monitoring and intercommunication for optimized efficiency and operation.


This article is peer-reviewed.Learning objectives:

  • Distinguish the differences between smart buildings and their counterparts.
  • Demonstrate the benefits of system integration as they relate to smart buildings.
  • Apply smart building techniques in various commercial buildings in a general building example.

Figure 1: Motorola Mobility LLC’s new Chicago headquarters project required aligning the interests of a variety of stakeholders including the landlord of the 1930 wholesale furniture landmark building (comprising more than 4 million sq ft of showroom spacMost infrastructure systems deployed in today's buildings are inherently "smart," with self-contained logical control that includes embedded performance optimization and self-diagnostic algorithmic features. While it is understood that intercommunication of these systems provides tremendous opportunity in optimizing building operation efficiency, it is necessary for the engineer to think beyond the building automation system (BAS) as the link to systems interoperability. With sophistication comes the need for a BAS and building controls that allow for nearly seamless operation of this interrelated equipment. Smart buildings and smart cities integrate the design of the infrastructure, building and facility systems, communications, business systems, and technology solutions that contribute to sustainability and operational efficiency.

Today's truly intelligent buildings interoperate on a common converged network where data is shared through an open-source platform. Middleware collects, analyzes, and communicates in a two-way fashion with the smart systems to best optimize the building response and enhance the occupant experience. To do this effectively and efficiently, the engineer must bring together and align more stakeholders than in the past.

The BAS, with control over the building's HVAC systems, has long been viewed as the core smart system in a commercial building. However, modern construction contains many more inherently smart devices and subsystems. Electromechanical timers for irrigation and lighting control have given way to microprocessors with real-time clocks and the ability to network together. Racks of clicking elevator-control relays have been replaced by robust and reliable programmable logic controllers. Multiple networks crisscross the building, each one connecting its specific group of devices, such as surveillance cameras, card readers, or fire alarm initiating and notification devices. Audio/video systems have grown from stand-alone racks of analog-source electronics to buildingwide distribution of digital content. Ever more stringent building energy codes essentially mandate that networked microprocessor lighting control systems be installed instead of an array of interconnected sensors and power packs.

Smart features—such as microprocessor control, the ability to network together, and some form of user interface and configuration software—can now be found in irrigation systems, plumbing equipment, all sorts of submeters (including electricity, natural gas, domestic water, and hydronic energy), and even fire extinguishers and exit signs. The next generation of smart devices, coming to market under the Internet of Things (IoT) banner, promises the next stage in the evolution of building performance monitoring with wireless communication, low-power or completely battery-free operation, low cost, small form factor, and a wide range of esoteric applications.

These IoT devices frequently report to the vendor's cloud-based application for processing, analysis, reporting, and user interface. Google's $3.2 billion purchase of Nest is a clear indication of the bullish outlook tech firms have for future investment in building technology and the convergence of building systems and the information technology (IT) department.

Benefits of integration

Smart devices and IoT technologies are the conduits to capture better and more relevant building data; however, if that data remains solely contained within the boundary of the original smart building system—BAS, lighting control system, electrical power monitoring system, vertical transport system, etc.—the power of the collected data cannot be fully realized. These independent "silos" of smart devices are, at best, inefficient to install, manage, and maintain. Each is typically sold and installed by a separate contractor, each is operated or monitored by a unique software system, and the massive collection of disparate specialty devices makes it all but impossible for the average facility operator to become adequately trained to maintain most of it properly.

However, if these specialty devices become enabled to share their data through an open-source data platform, smart building systems become collectively intelligent and their effectiveness increases exponentially. When elevators, HVAC systems, lighting controls, and other systems are integrated with intelligent building platforms, they move beyond the collection of data to allowing communication across the systems to foster efficiency. Strong building data is the foundation of the intelligent building platform, which turns the collected data into building intelligence that can be applied to foster smarter use of the built environment.

Two generic examples take advantage of common scheduling and occupancy/vacancy programming across these systems, as well as provide occupants with more control over their space.

  • Example No. 1: HVAC zones within the building can be reset to a "standby" condition during normal working hours either by time schedule or when unoccupied as sensed by a zone occupancy/vacancy sensor. During this "standby" mode, the associated HVAC equipment serving the respective zone will revert to an intermediate, relaxed temperature setpoint and the lighting can be reduced or turned off completely—all reducing energy consumption.
  • Example No. 2: During off-hours, should an occupant (or occupants) enter the space, the elevator controls can signal the respective zone for which the occupant is destined and the associated HVAC and lighting controls—just in that zone—can be automatically activated to temporary occupancy. Once the occupant is in the zone, the occupancy/vacancy controls will adjust the HVAC and lighting controls as the occupant moves through or changes zones.

The real power of each smart device gets unlocked when incorporated into an intelligent building software platform. The traditional approach to integrating systems has been to expand the HVAC-centric BAS, but there are practical limits to what a building management system can achieve. Due to the wide variety of devices and applications for integration in a modern building, it is becoming more common to forgo the traditional approach and to, instead, provide a dedicated intelligent building platform separate from the building management system. In this approach, the intelligent building platform acts as a master to the various specialty devices and subsystems.

The traditional building management system (i.e., temperature control system) remains an integral part of the mechanical systems. The building management system is specified within the mechanical division of project specifications (MasterSpec Division 23) and is typically provided by a subcontractor to the mechanical contractor.

In similar ways, lighting controls are specified within the electrical division and provided by the electrical subcontractor, and plumbing controls are specified within the plumbing division and provided by the plumbing contractor, etc. The intelligent building platform is elevated into a dedicated specification division known as MasterSpec Division 25 and is provided by a specialist system integrator or integrated automation contractor.

Key features of an intelligent building software platform are:

  • Multiple protocol capability to allow flexibility in procurement of the various subsystems and devices
  • A common object/data model to encourage the normalization of the assortment of protocols and subsystems into a consistent framework
  • Open-source software to enable software development to extend the core features 
  • Open distribution to ensure that the owner/end user will have maximum future flexibility when expanding or maintaining the system
  • A suite of software features that match up with owner requirements, which could include advanced visualization/user interface, dashboards targeting managers and occupants, fault detection and diagnostics, energy analytics, advanced reporting capabilities, and performance optimization capabilities.

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