If phones can be “smart,” why not buildings? With the ever-expanding array of consumer technology available today, it should come as no surprise that residential buildings are incorporating more and more cutting-edge technology into their communications, security, and operating systems than ever before, and unifying building operating systems so they can be monitored and run from a central location by a building staff member, or by residents themselves with smartphones and iPads. Many of these innovative systems are being installed from square one in new construction, but also in the form of upgrades and retrofits in older buildings. Let’s take a look at the state of the industry.
“Intelligent buildings is more or less a focus on building automation systems, and communications and information technology systems,” says James Carlini, founder of Carlini & Associates, a Chicago-based consulting firm specializing in intelligent buildings and intelligent infrastructure. “It started in the mid ‘80s and what it’s evolved into now is tying an element of green or environmental into intelligent buildings as well. Intelligent buildings are focused on adding technology to a building. In other words going beyond traditional amenities and adding intelligent amenities like high-speed communication systems, high speed computer systems and state-of-the-art security systems.”
Generally speaking, commercial buildings are more likely to be ahead of the curve with respect to systems integration, while residential buildings tend to be behind the curve. This is changing, however, as more and more boards are finding wisdom in investing in the new technology. At first blush, it would seem that the needs of both kinds of buildings are the same, but residential buildings have different needs.
“A lot of Chicago area residential buildings are looking into something called Triple Play,” says Carlini. “They would provide a service where you get one systems integrator to provide you with high-speed internet, voice communications and your television server, your cable TV. So you get one bill for all those services. It’s way beyond what you’d get from a typical phone company connection. You wouldn’t need that service in an office building. What’s happening is that the three most important things in real estate have become location, location, connectivity, because more people are running businesses out of their homes.”
“Intelligent buildings typically tie together multiple, disparate systems,” says Rawlson King, communications director of the Continental Automated Buildings Association, a 20-year-old international industry association, composed of about 350 corporate members. CABA is dedicated to the advancement of intelligent home and intelligent building technologies. “In fact, it can be argued,” says King, “that intelligent buildings transcend integration to achieve interaction so that previously independent systems work collectively to optimize building performance, including monitoring comfort levels, security systems, energy systems and operations.”
Integration and interaction are what drive intelligent buildings. But what does that mean, and how does it work?
Managing Building Operations
“Building automation systems and building energy management systems”—BAS and BEMS, respectively—“are designed to provide centralized oversight and remote control over heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, lighting and other building systems,” King explains. “In simple terms, a BAS is a programmed, computerized network of electronic devices that are employed for control and monitoring of systems. It primarily aims at optimizing the performance, start-up and maintenance of systems and greatly reduces the interaction of mechanical subsystems in a building. BEMS basically performs the same functions as a BAS but varies more in capability and functionality.”
These systems carry out a host of functions, King says, including optimization of stop-and-start systems, maintenance scheduling, alarm generation, and constant monitoring of the whole integrated system.
“BAS and BEMS vary in capability and functionality, but typically consist of sensors, controllers, actuators and software,” he says. “Depending on whether a human-in-loop factor is involved, decisions are taken manually or by utilizing embedded intelligence such as decision-making algorithms.”
Technology, as the futurist Ray Kurzweil points out in his books, is progressing exponentially. Intelligent buildings are no exception. What began with modest advances is now capable of astonishing feats.
“The origin of system integration or interfacing started with fire systems triggering reactions from other related building systems; HVAC, access control, elevators, etc.,” explains Jim Sinopoli, managing principal of Smart Buildings LLC, which maintains offices in Florida, Texas and North Carolina. “Today system integration includes all of the control systems in a building, but also encompasses facility management systems, business systems, and eventually, utility grids.”
“Traditionally, building systems had been characterized by highly proprietary offerings with limited ability to inter-operate,” King says. “As an example, in the 1950s, control over a commercial building's lighting systems and heating and air conditioning would have been separate functions, probably maintained by separate personnel. With the advent of computer systems being integrated into buildings in the late 1980s and early 1990s, such building systems could be centrally controlled”—that is, integrated.
Once that was achieved, the technology flourished. “With the advent of open networking and the Internet, now systems can be controlled remotely, and building operations across a whole building portfolio can be centralized in one regional control center,” King says.
Of course, just because something is possible doesn’t mean everyone is doing it; contrary to popular belief, not everyone tweets or is on Facebook. “Buildings that are not smart or intelligent buildings are going to be the ones to lose tenants,” says Carlini. “If you have a tenant who is looking for that as an amenity and the building doesn’t have some of this stuff, they are going to go to the next building and you know what? The next building is going to offer it. If a building does not have broadband connectivity going to it—residential or commercial—it’s going to be passed over by a lot of tenants. Especially young and upwardly mobile professionals. You are going to attract a better grade of tenants if you have these amenities.”
Of particular interest to residential buildings, with their multiple entries (front door, laundry, common rooms, roof, etc.), is what experts call “key security.” The challenge of keeping emergency copies of owners’ apartment keys in a totally secure environment (so as to prevent employee theft or other unauthorized access) while at the same time providing quick emergency access 24/7. Twenty-five years ago, there was no system at all for this, and now there are two: Keytrack and KeyLink. These are highly sophisticated lockbox biometrically-operated systems, uniquely used by residential high-rise buildings, auto-dealerships, and the U.S. military in Iraq.
“Everybody wants to live in a secure building, young women and seniors,” adds Carlini. “IPTV cameras—Internet Protocol television is very popular now in smart buildings. Once you put that into a building, it can switch to a channel on your TV and you can see who is at the door. This is a huge issue for security.”
As Sinopoli points out, “the idea of integration automation is driven by the owner”—that is, the board and the residents. If there is no push to update the systems—or, in new construction, implement them correctly—the technology is useless.
What About Cost?
The systems do cost money, but they are not prohibitively expensive. “We put in WiFi in one of our party rooms that’s a lot higher speed than you can get on an individual basis,” says Carlini. “The price of that is $100 a month. So that’s $1,200 a year split up by the amount of residents you have in the building so the price is minimal. It doesn’t have to be a huge amount of money to do technology upgrades.”
“If current trends continue, by 2025, buildings worldwide will be the largest consumers of global energy, using as much power as the transportation and industrial sectors combined,” says King. “Recent studies have found that improving energy efficiency in buildings is the least costly way to reduce a large quantity of carbon emissions. By changing energy management practices and instituting technologies that enhance energy efficiency, building owners and managers can reduce energy consumption by up to 35 percent.”
Is a 35 percent reduction in energy costs worth the $4,000-a-year bill? Perhaps. This is the wave of the future. More and more buildings will be upgrading and using more advanced technologies.
“In an era of volatile energy prices and increasing concern over climate change, the need for the innovative application of technology has become highly acute,” says King. “Buildings with integrated intelligent building technologies can save thousands of dollars in energy by delivering heating, cooling and lighting more efficiently. Intelligent buildings are increasingly using solar walls to capture energy from the sun, ventilation systems to recapture and reuse heat, insulation strategies that enable better climate control, high-efficiency lighting systems that enhance illumination with less electricity and automatic systems that control building services based on activity.”
Greg Olear is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Chicagoland Cooperator. Staff Writer Christy Smith-Sloman contributed to this article.