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How intelligent infrastructure can shape connected buildings

As smart buildings scale up, how do we plan them more effectively and how can they be better connected to the smart city? Bruce Milne, Lenovo Alliance, Pivot3, takes a look.


Smart buildings are on the rise. What was once a $6 billion (£4.67 billion) marketplace in 2016 is now projected to grow into a $25 billion (£19.45 billion) marketplace by 2021 – a growth rate of up to 35 per cent. As smart buildings gain market share, economies of scale will force the underlying technology to change.


The continuing economic boom is fuelling a demand for high-end office, living and commercial spaces around the world. To stand out, building owners must offer a reputation for excellence – at a price that’s right for occupants. This means plumbing that never leaks, air-conditioning that is always cool, reliable heating and efficient lighting systems – in general, a clean, well-lit place, free from petty crime and vandalism. These may seem like basic services, but it takes a small army of service personnel to maintain them.


Scaling up


By the same token, building systems are becoming too complicated for mere human management. Buildings built since the 2000s are 2,700 square feet larger on average than buildings built between 1980 and 1999. This means that there are larger HVAC systems to manage, more pipes to monitor and maintain, and more elevators to run. It’s expensive to find personnel that are fluent in managing these complex systems, and it’s also expensive to maintain them.


Smart buildings solve these problems by making it easy to cement a reputation for excellence while lowering the cost barrier to offering it. This technology also makes it possible to automate complicated infrastructure in larger buildings, obviating the necessity of hiring dedicated personnel to run them. All of this is only possible, however, if smart buildings are connected to intelligent infrastructure.


Intelligent infrastructure


Intelligent infrastructure is essential for supporting the growth of smart buildings.


At the moment, many smart buildings aren’t planned. Instead, they are built piecemeal, evolving over time into a smarter environment. Management may decide one day to install a smart lighting system, which requires a server on one floor. Next year’s smart HVAC system may take up an entirely different server closet on an entirely different floor. These areas – already dusty and hot – become very difficult to maintain. And all of this is underpinned by the stark reality that servers and systems will fail often.


At the moment, many smart buildings aren’t planned. Instead, they are built piecemeal, evolving over time into a smarter environment.


Even if these systems are connected to a cloud rather than an in-building ad-hoc data centre, building owners and operators will still encounter problems. If the building isn’t being served by enough bandwidth, then remote administrators won’t be able to get real-time information about building systems, which could cause problems – from minor (leaks) to the major (fires).


Lastly, if building owners hire more administrators to find and fix the problems with their smart buildings, they face the issue we’ve already mentioned – personnel are expensive to hire, train and retain.


By committing to build a smart building, building owners may also be committing to build and staff the equivalent of a NOC (network operations centre). Is that a commitment they’d want to honour?


Probably not. So, what should they do instead?


Smart planning


The simple answer is that building owners need to start creating smart buildings in a planned, deliberate manner. Make space for servers and treat them properly. Invest in bandwidth. Create standardisation. Create automation routines.


Building owners need to start creating smart buildings in a planned, deliberate manner.


Instead of hiring 10 administrators to babysit 10 different systems in 10 different buildings, building owners should aim to design a system that lets a single non-technical hire administrate 10 buildings from a single pane of glass.


This is an expensive step, however. Creating systems that are easy to use on the front-end may require extensive and complicated investments on the back-end. Unless building owners plan carefully, the cost of implementing this hypothetical system will wipe out the benefits in terms of price per square foot.


Placing smart buildings in a smart city context


A smart building is a highly instrumented building. It may contain image-recognition sensors that monitor the licence plates of cars entering and exiting the parking garage, air-quality sensors connected to the HVAC system, and smart meters that control and monitor the amount of power that a building uses from moment to moment.


This data is valuable to building owners and managers, but it’s also valuable to municipalities.


This brings forward the possibility of public-private partnerships. Many cities would be happy to subsidise the implementation of smart buildings – as long as they have access to the data they produce. For example:

  • Police departments may agree to subsidise the implementation of smart surveillance systems in a single building. In exchange, they may ask for access to surveillance data that will let them extend better protection to an entire neighbourhood.
  • Cities may subsidise deployment of smart meters in an effort to curb citywide electricity usage.
  • Environmental organisations may agree to sponsor deployment of air quality sensors in commercial or residential buildings in exchange for data that will help them to monitor air quality over an entire region.

In the future (and in the present, to a limited extent), these public-private consortia will integrate smart buildings into the ecosystem of a smart city. If a building manager finds themselves in a city without a great deal of smart infrastructure investment, however, prospects may look slim.


How to move forward?


For the moment, building owners and managers may need to accept that the best way to create a smart building in an affordable manner is to prioritise in one of two directions: safety, or automation.


Why these two? It’s not that these elements are incompatible, but they will vary your strategy and approach.


For example, an office building might have more automation needs than safety needs. Most tenants leave at night, and the building is built in compliance with local safety codes, so extra safety investment in the form of smart technology may be unnecessary. Instead, building managers can focus on automation – using their technology resources in a way that lets them save money and use those savings to reduce cost per square foot and attract additional tenants.


On the other hand, a high-end residential building will have residents that prioritise safety measures, or an office building in a dense urban area will have comprehensive video surveillance – regardless of how much this safety adds to their costs. In this case, you’d prioritise your investment in smart infrastructure to support facial recognition, networked fire alarms and more.


Eventually, public-private consortia will begin to subsidise more and more of the cost of building smart buildings, making it much easier to add security to automation or automation to security.


Until then, choosing the right infrastructure for a smart building will make that future come about faster.


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