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Building, Heal Thyself:
Welcome to the Era of Truly Smart Buildings

Smart building features once seemed like nice-to-haves, but they’re rapidly becoming need-to-haves. Facilities that are at a competitive disadvantage are not going to catch up by making operators smarter. The operators are already smart, and they don’t have time to deal with dumb buildings.

What does it mean to have a truly smart building?

Here’s a scenario: Environmental parameters at your high-tech manufacturing facility are excruciatingly precise — any variation can mean millions in lost product. You’re suffering through a scorching heatwave and an unanticipated equipment failure is about to compromise your chiller plant.

No sweat — even though the facilities operator is unavailable, deep in a planning meeting with the COO.

Detecting the impending failure well in advance, the building has notified a service technician and ordered the appropriate part. It’s waiting when the technician arrives. Meanwhile, the building’s optimized systems have anticipated the heatwave, and continuously and automatically maintain perfect temperature and humidity, while using only as much energy as needed. Manufacturing proceeds without a blip, and the facilities operator’s meeting is uninterrupted.

This snapshot of an autonomic building — self-configuring, self-optimizing, self-healing — is finally on the horizon after nearly two decades of anticipation. We’re at an inflection point in the smart building journey, transitioning from simply providing operators with more building intelligence to making the building itself intelligent.

From smart operators to smart buildings

Efforts to make buildings smarter began with the building automation system (BAS). That certainly made buildings easier to run, but it still relied on operators knowing the right timing, sequencing and set points to get the best results. So the innovations that came next aimed to give facility managers more information so that they could make better decisions: networked-connected dashboards gave operations teams insight into energy usage, then cloud-connected fault detection and diagnostic (FDD) systems analyzed sensor data to catch equipment problems. There’s a limit to what smart operator technologies can accomplish, however.

We may be maxed out with creating smarter operators, but buildings still can become much smarter. And the trends driving these technologies are only accelerating: Energy management is getting closer to the core of the business as public markets focus on companies’ environmental, social and governance performance. Policy makers at local, state and federal levels are ratcheting up mandates related to climate change and resiliency. Facilities managers are forced to be doing more with less — an operations team oversees several buildings, not just one, and their maintenance budgets are frozen in time.

The next step — technologies that make the building itself smarter — is bringing us much closer to truly smart buildings. Already, much of this technology is in place and making a real difference: on-site optimization software paired with cloud-based analytics enables real-time, dynamic commissioning of heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) resources to maximize energy and water efficiency and minimize costs. The most advanced solutions are using machine learning algorithms and the power of the cloud for advanced control and predictive maintenance, so whether operators are performing maintenance on a regular schedule or fixing things that break, they can address problems when they need to be addressed or prevent them altogether. Smart building control also makes the operations team smarter, in a sense: Because they know exactly what is happening in their facility, they don’t have to sweat the small stuff, and they can focus on higher-value and strategic activities.

These technologies are the first step over the threshold into autonomic buildings. Modeled on the human nervous system, autonomic buildings self-commission their systems (this is several leaps past the older concept of automated commissioning, which refers to setting up new buildings with plug-and-play technology). They respond dynamically to changes in internal and external conditions; continually optimize operations; and anticipate, fix or compensate for equipment problems.

The destination comes into focus

All commercial buildings can be smart — not just office towers; but manufacturing plants, campuses, hospitals and the rest — and with these smarts, owners and operators see enhanced facility performance, unexpected energy and cost savings, and more profitable use of staff time.

Consider a hospital: No one needs to think about surgery schedules and the ramifications for environmental systems, because a smart hospital can respond to users and uses. For example, it would cool down Dr. Jones’ operating room to the temperature she needs for her cardiac surgery, based on the procedures scheduled.

This not only better fits the building to the people using it, it also produces savings that might not have seemed possible. Optimization software for HVAC systems already can maximize energy and water efficiency and minimize costs, cutting 30 to 50 percent off of energy bills, without operator intervention or monitoring.

Connecting a building to the cloud can make it even smarter. For example, access to data on how chiller plant equipment performs in a variety of operating conditions enables dynamic sequencing — the optimization software learns how the facility’s chillers, pumps and towers perform in a variety of operating conditions; and determines the most efficient equipment to run in any given situation, based on weather forecasts. Another example is predictive free cooling, which draws on weather forecast data to determine when free cooling will make sense and can automatically switch the HVAC system into that mode.

Smart building technologies like these are essential for making the “do more with less” philosophy viable and sustainable. A university facilities manager who has to find a way to support 2,000 more students without adding staff or new equipment needs smart buildings that can run automatically at the optimal level — and tell technicians what needs to be fixed when, without the need for equipment check walk-throughs.

The next step: Building, heal thyself

A truly smart building will actually seem like it’s thinking. It won’t tell operators how they can best manage the building; it will do that itself and act in anticipation of future events and conditions.

How far away is this destination? Not very. Many of the key technologies are already in place. Today’s diagnostics tell building operators not just what broke last night, but also what is going to break — and how much they’ll save by fixing it now instead of next week. Applied to the full range of building equipment, these diagnostics cut back or even eliminate systems downtime and enable operators to prioritize repairs by their impact on cost and efficiency. Self-healing is the next step: The building realizes that, say, a pump is starting to fail, so it creates a work order telling a technician what needs to be fixed and orders the necessary parts. Or if there’s a failure, backup systems kick in automatically.

Smart building features once seemed like nice-to-haves, but they’re rapidly becoming need-to-haves. And the forces pushing us toward smart buildings — volatile energy costs, pressure to reduce carbon footprints and water use, reduced budgets — are not going away. Facilities that are at a competitive disadvantage are not going to solve these problems by making operators smarter. The operators are already smart, and they don’t have time to deal with dumb buildings.