Designing buildings for the Internet of Things

The networking of things within a building must be anticipated by building engineers.


Learning Objective

  • Understand the basics of Internet of Things (IoT) and how its evolution will impact building systems. 
  • Anticipate IoT’s influence on building systems, infrastructure, and the evolution of design.

In the past few years, the term “Internet of Things” (IoT) has become the favored buzzword to describe the next stage of evolution of the information age. This is an abstract term, which makes the concept more difficult to understand. How does this abstract term affect building design? It would make more sense to use the term as a verb, such as “the internetting of things,” or simpler yet, “the networking of things.”

What we are really talking about with IoT is taking items or devices (things) and connecting them to a network where the items have access to information. The devices will use the information in differenent ways. The simple devices will interpret and display information. More sophisticated devices will receive information from their environment and communicate it back through the network. The most sophisiticated devices have integrated logic or intelligence to perform control functions and to interact with other devices. How can we anticipate the impact and trends of IoT so we can extrapolate its impact on infrastructure? Let’s start with an analysis of probably the first IoT device, the cellular phone, to see how it evolved.

The cell phone didn’t start as an IoT device, but because of its access to the cell phone wireless network, it was in the unique position to become an IoT device. From the early 1980s to the early ‘90s, cell phones only handled telephone calls. During this time, cell phones had access to the telephone network but not the internet.

In the early 90’s, we saw the birth of the web and smartphones. When phones could be used to access data from external data sources, they became an IoT device. As an infant IoT device, cell phones could be used for email and text messages. They eventually grew into web browsers. Currently, smartphones are only limited by the applications loaded on them. Communications and access to data were key to cell phones becoming smartphones. Today, cell phones have multiple wireless modes (cellular, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and others) that allow them to exchange data from the “cloud” and control other devices near and far.

The cell phone is just one example. Consider the following: We have cars that can communicate to a dealership when they need service or if they are in an accident, vending machines that tell the distributor when they are running low on product and allow payment via credit card or mobile phone wallet, and televisions and DVRs that automatically check for software updates from the manufacturer.

As architects and engineers, we need to anticipate IoT trends as we design facilities. IoT devices will continue to become more popular for personal use, business applications, and facility operations. There is an expectation that the facilities we design today will be able to support IoT devices without needing to be redesigned.

Figure 1: There are many different types of IoT devices depending on their function and how they interact with their environment. Some are designed to interact with people; many are designed to communicate with other devices or systems to automate our surroundins. All graphics courtesy: TEECOMDisparate lifespans

In considering a facility design that supports IoT, the challenge for the designer is anticipating the technology trends for key building components with different lifespans. Cell phones as IoT devices do not actually wear out in 18 months, but they are driven to obsolescence by the introduction of new technology and competitive market forces. A cell phone battery has an estimated life span of 2 years, but when faced with the choice of replacing the battery for 10% of the cost of a new phone, often the choice is to replace the phone to take advantage of the technology improvements. Of all IoT devices, cell phones probably have the shortest lifespan.

They also represent a new category of devices in the workplace, often referred to as “bring your own device” or BYOD. This could apply to personal laptops, tablets, or other electronic devices that are owned by a person but used in a facility to conduct business. Whereas a company may have a corporate policy to replace an employee laptop computer every 4 years, a person who brings their own laptop may decide to replace their laptop every 2 years. This implies two things: The IT network must be adaptable to newer technologies, and the IT department may not be in control of their technology rollout.

Internet vs. intranet, wired vs. wireless

As the term implies, IoT devices are connected to the internet. This is not always true. This is another reason why IoT devices should be considered the “networking of things.” Besides accessing data from across the internet, an IoT device may access data from a local network (intranet) or exchange data locally with a peer device. It depends on where the device is and where the data is located.

IoT devices can be wired or wireless. This all depends on the device and how the device is used. The trend is for an increase in devices to be wireless. Wireless allows for more flexibility for mobile devices; for stationary devices, it eliminates the cabling. The biggest drawback of wireless devices is the source of power. IoT devices are not inherently passive. They require power from a battery or an external source. There are new devices, however, that have integrated photovoltaic cells to allow for recharging from ambient light sources.

Wired IoT devices in need of a power source can use the same data cable that is used to transmit and receive data. No external power supply is necessary. This uses a Power over Ethernet protocol or some other Class 2 or Class 3 power source in the network room. Current technology allows for a device with a single cable to communicate with video, data, control signal, and power just shy of 100 W.

Related to IoT, another big user of wired devices is the wireless infrastructure. To make wireless devices work, they need to communicate with a cellular system or a Wi-Fi network. Within a facility, this will likely be through the building Wi-Fi network. Each wireless access point (essentially a radio) requires power and data. The more devices communicating in one area, the greater the number of wireless access points needed to maintain a quality of service. The trend in wireless is for a higher density of wireless access points with a higher bandwidth (more radio channels) and needing more power.

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