Smarter buildings for smarter cities

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"Buildings are talking to us, and if we can just learn to listen to them holistically, we can learn to heal them of their wild energy and water-wasting ways," says David Bartlett, VP of smarter buildings at IBM.

Bartlett, who is known as the 'building whisperer' in industry circles, has developed a 'physiology of buildings' concept to help illustrate the way buildings work and how they should be managed, to maximise sustainability and efficiency.

"We look at buildings holistically, as a system of systems. I look at the air system and the respiratory system of a building," says Bartlett, explaining that by extension, sensors and monitoring systems are the equivalent of the nervous system.

"In today's world, the systems that run in a building are running separately. If you look at construction practices, from architecture, to design to construction to operations, they're all done in silos," says Bartlett.

"This lack of holistic management of a building leads to a lot of the inefficiencies we see; in the life cycle from the way it's built and repurposed and retrofitted, to the way it's operated."

Bartlett was recently invited to speak at the University of Cape Town about smarter building principles. He says: "Look at the types of degrees and courses that can be enriched by this type of broader thinking - some universities refer to it as T-shaped programmes.

"In the past, you would just get an engineering degree or a math degree or architecture. Whereas with T-shaped programmes, in addition to that silo of knowledge, you're also bringing in the other disciplines in order to be able to do things in a more sustainable manner."

Enormous potential

According to the Smart 2020 study by The Climate Group, the ICT sector can save 15% of global emissions in 2020, mainly through enabling energy efficiency in sectors like transport, energy, industry and buildings.

IBM says analytics can provide valuable insight for buildings, for example:

* Flagging outlying behaviour such as the concurrent use of heating and air-conditioning, or the use of heat when the external temperature is over a pre-set threshold;
* Pinpointing potential mechanical malfunctions causing inefficiencies in equipment, such as an air-handling unit working overtime, which - on examination - reveals a defective fan that needs to be replaced; and
* Providing metrics of a site's overall energy use to test and benchmark the efficiency of energy-saving techniques.

IDC Energy Insights estimates that the global smart building market was $3.1 billion for 2010, and is expected to grow to $10.2 billion by 2015.

The report also forecasts 50 billion machine-to-machine connections by 2020 - generating information that will "make climate change visible" by helping to monitor impacts and emissions. "It will help us optimise systems in all sectors for energy and resource efficiency," says the report.

"The Smart 2020 study stepped back and said if we could just effectively apply existing communication and IT technology to the building space, there could be an opportunity to realise as much as a $341 billion difference by the year 2020. That speaks to the enormous potential of technology in this space, as well as the business opportunity - which is why we got into this space," says Bartlett.

"One of the best ways to build a smarter city is one smarter building at a time. Buildings consume, on a global level, 42% of the world's electricity. It's projected to go over 50% by the year 2025. In our large cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Johannesburg, they are already using the majority of the electricity.

"In New York, they are responsible for over 70% of the carbon footprint. So, if you couple that with the fact that, according to numerous studies, buildings waste as much as 40% of the energy going into them, and as much as 50% of the water, this is a great opportunity that we should focus on."

Tipping point

Bartlett continues: "We've reached what has been referred to as a tipping point. It's really a profound moment in history and our ability to do something with this - with buildings and our environment. We desperately need it."

Bartlett explains that through the proliferation of instrumentation in the built environment, buildings are now emitting huge amounts of data - from the lighting systems to the security systems and the energy management systems.

"There's a lot of instrumentation that is enabling this tipping point. The ability to connect it all so you can holistically understand how everything is working together is again at the tipping point, because of wireless technology, so we can do it at a great price point," says Bartlett.

"Then, of course, there's science of analytics, which is really taking all that data, because data itself is kind of meaningless until you make sense of it. So you now have the ability to prioritise that data, sort it, filter it and to enrich it with other data you're getting so you can really understand the big picture and to be able to ask 'what if?' questions."

I'm excited about us leveraging technology that is largely to blame for the problems of the last 15 or so years, and using it in a very positive way.

By pulling in all data feeds from a building, Bartlett says it allows building managers to gather historical data and to better understand patterns of usage.

"The next step is to start to run analytics on it, and from the analytics, be able to optimise not just in energy, but also maintenance and even use of space. If you don't have good visibility of your buildings, and access to that data on a real-time basis, then how do you make decisions?"

Strategic view

According to Bartlett, the cost of managing and operating a building is, for most companies, second only to payroll.

"Having good visibility on the space requirements and just being on top of your space, and the maintenance part is equally important to ensure a building is reliable and healthy. All aspects are connected, you can't do those things separately.

"You can stack up all the buildings and say which ones are meeting the criteria, which ones are underachieving or overachieving. With that strategic view, you can choose to focus on the worst performing buildings, or areas - whether it's maintenance or energy or so on."

Would you leave your car running at night with the lights and air-conditioning on? So why do we do that with buildings?

Bartlett says over the last 50 years, buildings have been over-lit by between three and five times what the task requires: "As I walk through cities and look at buildings at night and admire the skyline, I also look and see how many of those lights come from empty offices. Are the lights being on part of a strategy to make the building look nice at night? Or is it just a case of carelessly leaving them on? Would you leave your car running at night with the lights and air-conditioning on? So why do we do that with buildings? What is the task going on in a building and the systems that are running and are they oriented to that task? As light comes in the window, are the lights dimmed?"

Living lab

In Boston, Bartlett says IBM is helping to fund the research that will go into creating a 'green-sticker' programme for buildings.

"It's like the concept of miles-per-gallon for cars. It's a normalised view of energy use for buildings, so you can compare usage, and building owners and residents can have some idea whether the energy they're using is average, way above or way below.

It's really a profound moment in history and our ability to do something with this - with buildings and our environment. We desperately need it.

"Just as when you buy a car, if you are looking for super energy-efficiency you'll use the MPG rating to do that. We all know some of the smallest sports cars can use the most fuel - the same goes for buildings, so this programme just helps increase visibility," says Bartlett. The same project also includes the longest contiguous carbon monitoring for buildings, in an effort to understand carbon emissions not just from buildings, but also from surrounding traffic.

"We're looking at transportation flows around the buildings as part of a broader 'sustainable neighbourhood living lab'," says Bartlett, adding that the intention is to focus on the most important quality of life issues, and implement solutions that will service as a 'lighthouse' for other cities.

Personal mission

For Bartlett, his work for smarter buildings isn't a job, but a mission: "I don't know if it's because of my undergraduate work in ecology or because I've had my first and second grandchild now, which makes me think about what type of world we're leaving them.

"I'm excited about us leveraging technology that is largely to blame for the problems of the last 15 or so years, and using it in a very positive way to really conserve the precious resources we have.

"Part of the answer is to find more energy and more energy sources, but we have this opportunity to use what we have far more efficiently - we also have an opportunity to do a much better job of sharing resources. When 40%-50% of energy is wasted by buildings, this is a huge opportunity.

"Do you really want to build a new power plant, with all that environmental impact, or do you want to learn to better share what you have?" asks Bartlett.

"We've just grown up in a world where technology has made everything readily available so we don't think about the implications. Let's learn to share it, but in a way that doesn't affect our lifestyles. Let's not decrease our productivity, let's improve it. But do it in a way that's more energy-efficient and more sustainable for the planet - it's possible.

"Part of it is education, part of it is awareness, but part of it is just visibility, and the fact that technology can help us do that is wonderful and makes me very optimistic about where we can go."

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13 Aug
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