Smart Buildings and Cities

by | Apr 4, 2012

Intelligent systems are revolutionizing the way buildings are operated, and an understanding of the latest wave of innovation provides a glimpse into ways that smart buildings can be a key component of smart cities.

Buildings with smart systems can identify, and often correct, potential issues without human involvement and in other cases can help on-site staff diagnose problems. With real-time monitoring and control over energy use, air quality and other building functions, systems are able to adjust for changes in weather, occupancy and equipment conditions, saving energy and extending equipment life as well as making engineers and facility staff more productive.

Some of this functionality has been available in building automation systems for years. Buildings with first-generation smart systems are able to save energy by monitoring and adjusting to weather conditions and changes in occupancy, but a few minor equipment problems and maintenance lapses can have a ripple effect that leads to greater and greater inefficiency over time. For example, when our energy services team retro-commissioned a seven-year-old office building with state-of-the-art automation, they found efficiency gains that saved tenants about 25 cents per square foot annually.

The new generation of automation recalibrates building systems on a continuous basis. Today, more meters and sensors on equipment provide a wider range of information, analyzed by more sophisticated software that uses algorithms to detect when a piece of equipment may not be working at peak performance.

Early detection of inefficiencies not only saves on energy but also can extend the life of equipment and make facilities staff more productive.  There are also benefits beyond cost savings: negative trends may be identified and fixed before tenants become aware of any discomfort, and early detection of potential equipment failure in a critical environment such as a data center or lab can help avoid major enterprise risks.

2011 saw significant steps forward in smart building technology, including portfolio-wide systems, integration of centralized and on-site facility staff, and to tie it all together, cloud-based computing. When we launched a portfolio monitoring and control system in November, we found that corporate executives were ready for a centralized solution.

Systems designed for managing large portfolios of owner-occupied properties may use cloud computing to analyze thousands of data points around the world in real-time, looking for trends and anomalies that may identify problems even before they occur. The system alerts command center staff when a potential problem is detected at a property anywhere in the world. If the system can diagnose and correct the problem remotely, there is no need to alert the on-site staff immediately. When the system identifies an anomaly and can diagnose the most likely cause, on-site repair people can show up prepared with the right tools and replacement parts, often saving a second trip.

Another innovation that enables new-generation systems to work in more situations is the development of cross-compatible technology. In the past, leading energy services providers were primarily makers of controls and other equipment, and one firm’s systems could not “talk” to other systems. Recently, independent companies have created systems that can translate information from different legacy systems into a common language. Thus, a company with dozens of buildings equipped with controls from numerous makers can now integrate data from all buildings into one seamless interface.

As a result, facility experts can remotely monitor systems across a worldwide portfolio, benchmark performance at similar properties across the portfolio to help guide capital planning, and determine when a maintenance or repair issue requires an immediate visit from facility managers who may be on-site or nearby. Cost savings and carbon reduction opportunities are greatly increased and results are more easily measured under these portfolio wide systems.

Despite these recent innovations, smart systems are still in their infancy. The real benefit comes when smart buildings, transportation modes and electrical grids are tied together using cloud technology in the intelligent cities of tomorrow. We can start to see where this convergence of technologies is taking us, and there are likely to be even more life-changing innovations that we can barely imagine today. Buildings, singly and in portfolios, will be a major component of worldwide efforts to create intelligent , more sustainable cities.

Craig Bloomfield is a vice president at Jones Lang LaSalle.

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