Product, Service & Design Innovation
Smart, ‘Living’ Buildings Can Sense, Think and Act to Improve Sustainability

Our buildings have long been unresponsive, mute structures for housing, work and play. But the ongoing Fourth Industrial Revolution’s technological advances — high-speed connectivity, AI, the ability to acquire and analyze vast data streams — have enabled buildings to actively participate in their operations and use resources more efficiently.

Because buildings account for nearly nearly 50 percent of annual global CO2 emissions and 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the US alone, modern solutions to reduce energy use are of paramount importance. Many corporate buildings have been in use for years; and now is the time for applying 4IR solutions to create “living buildings” that can sense, think and act — highly energy-efficient environments that can evolve with future technology.

Defining a living building

A living building can “sense,” through comprehensive data collection and analysis, the myriad activities happening within its spaces. It can “think” by comparing real-time conditions to historical data and predictive modeling, which then gives the built environment the ability to “act” on the information. A living building streamlines operations and helps the occupants feel more comfortable and in control of their environment.

A building that can take direction from its occupants through an interface is nothing new. A thermostat or a light switch both respond to direct input from a human, but this doesn’t cross the threshold to qualify as thinking. Even a thermostat that has been programmed to activate if a temperature climbs to a certain level can ‘sense’ its environment, but it won’t be able to make seasonal adjustments without additional input from people.

To have the ability to recognize changes in the interior and exterior environment and take action requires a combination of software and hardware working together. If the software is the brain, the many sensors and mechanisms that interact with the physical world make up the body.

Moving from static to reactive

Light switches are just one common interface for human occupants to adjust the look and ambience of a built environment. As we move towards living spaces, lighting takes on an even more important role, thanks to its great potential to impact energy use. Spaces with lighting that also connect to various sensors and with wireless connectivity can vastly improve the overall performance of a building. Multifunctional wireless sensors that automatically adjust the lighting based on conditions can have been shown to save up to 35 percent of energy costs in commercial and residential buildings.

If the lighting system is also integrated into the building’s window coverings, energy efficiency continues to increase. Buildings that take advantage of natural light, dim overhead lights and open window shades during the day can result in annual lighting energy savings up to 30 percent when compared to no daylight dimming and manually controlled blinds.

Human connections to built environments

Occupant comfort can also be taken into account for even greater energy savings when a connected environment automates activities to adjust HVAC systems. On sunny days, window coverings that automatically slide into place reduce the load on cooling systems. At times of the year when air conditioning is required, about 76 percent of sunlight that falls on standard double-pane windows becomes heat within a building. Window coverings can play a major role in reducing energy loss by helping to maintain a comfortable temperature.

To manage operations for maximum efficiency and create deeper/personal connections with human users, living buildings should feature easy-to-use dashboards that track energy usage in real-time. Whether the interface is through a mobile screen, a touchscreen or a kiosk — physical structures that can engage with people can save energy and enhance comfort. These points of interaction can even serve as a representative for commercial spaces. The user interface can provide helpful, location-aware information and access, in a voice that highlights a company’s brand and commitment to sustainability. Open-source solutions versus closed, proprietary systems offer building owners and operators broader choices in service providers and installation contractors. Open sourcing also enables further evolution — as building needs change, other open digital services can be added.

An aggregated annual energy savings of 29 percent is estimated in the commercial sector alone with implementation software, sensors and controls that understand occupant schedules and comfort requirements, as well as detect and diagnose equipment operation/installation problems. And some estimate that the adoption of next-generation sensor and control technologies could generate $18 billion in annual energy savings by 2030.

If more living built spaces are brought to life, even existing buildings can start contributing to reducing our collective carbon footprint.

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