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We’re going to rebuild the entire world in the next 40 years. Wait, say that again? As the urban population around the globe continues to grow in the coming decades, the world’s building stock will double in area by 2060. As Bill Gates highlighted in a Gates Notes blog post last fall, it’s the equivalent of “adding another New York City every month for the next 40 years.”
Stop and let that really sink in for a moment.
What is clear is that we need to make sure the structures we build tomorrow are significantly better than what exists today. Given the pace of change in our industry, we must take bold steps today if we want our buildings to remain relevant when they open in a few years — much less a few decades from now. Whether it’s building new factories, offices or schools, the goal should always be the same: making our built environment more efficient.
The most common approach to achieving this goal is, of course, to create “smart” buildings. A building or space can be smart in many different ways; technology is just one piece of the puzzle. But the smartest buildings are usually extremely efficient. How, then, should building owners and operators strive to make their buildings even smarter to achieve the greatest efficiency?
Before I speak to the “how,” let’s first address the “why” because it may not be for precisely the reasons one might think.
To create smart buildings capable of delivering tangible results, construction managers are typically tasked with connecting various discrete systems, from HVAC and security to communications and business management systems. The various systems, technologies and subcontractors involved leave the door wide open for the possibility — even a strong likelihood — of systems and infrastructure duplication.
The current model for smart buildings is to throw as much money as possible — sometimes in the hundreds of millions of dollars — at making the building smart. And maybe, with a little luck, it will work.
But in addition to being incredibly expensive, this approach also locks the owners, operators and tenants into myriad proprietary systems. Moving away from these systems in the future will require a fair amount of work and, likely, introduce additional costs and headaches.
The reason smart buildings are so disconnected today is the teams responsible for designing, constructing and commissioning those buildings are disconnected. What’s missing is a comprehensive integration of building systems and technology using a nonproprietary and open architecture.
So, let’s take a step back and consider project delivery methodologies and the role they can play in solving this issue.
The innovation behind the design-build approach was that it was better and more efficient at bringing teams together than design-bid-build. The next iteration beyond design-build was IPD or integrated project delivery.
The American Institute of Architects defines IPD as a “project delivery approach that integrates people, systems, business structures and practices into a process that collaboratively harnesses the talents and insights of all participants to optimize project results, increase value to the owner, reduce waste and maximize efficiency through all phases of design, fabrication and construction.”
This aforementioned disconnect occurring in smart buildings today would not exist if you had every new building coming out of the ground using IPD.
This is a fantastic idea in theory, but extremely difficult to execute in practice. IPD is generally most successful with complex or institutional projects such as healthcare, manufacturing and high education facilities rather than office buildings. What if we instead direct that collective brain trust towards an integrated set of outcomes? And what if we instead designate a single team to have responsibility for the integration of disparate smart building systems to ensure they co-exist peacefully?
This team would act as the owners’ representatives focused on systems integration while searching for win-win solutions highlighting the best our design and construction peers have to offer. Instead of being concerned with the delivery or functionality of any single system, the team would work to ensure the integration of systems such as building automation, life safety, telecommunications, security, energy and environmental control, HVAC, elevators, lighting, access control, VOIP, data network, etc.
By integrating across multiple layers, including cabling, pathways, network architecture, naming standards and so on, the result would be connected — not simply “smart” — buildings. What’s more, integrating these foundational elements will create fertile soil for individual systems or smart components to live in. This is a whole new approach to selecting and implementing technical systems for buildings.
For this approach to succeed, all vendors and contractors would need to stop providing standalone servers or workstations. Instead, they would install their applications on a virtual application server using virtual machines. The result is an integrated backbone where all the systems communicate and coordinate effectively.
In practice, this would mean that you could set your thermostat to turn on and start warming or cooling your office to the pre-set occupied temperature when you pull into the parking garage. Since your thermostat already communicates with the parking garage system, you would only need to hire a developer to write some code to make this possible as opposed to running additional cabling and creating new connections.
This approach takes advantage of intelligent automation, modern communications and other technology solutions to operate, monitor and maintain a building in the most efficient and cost-effective manner. What you end up with here is an alternative pathway to delivering smart buildings that ensures your facility works as a cohesive operational system.
Fundamentally, technology is just the beginning when it comes to constructing smart buildings. Even the most vital smart building technology needs to work in concert with intelligent, informed people to add up to the smartest ultimate outcome. The genuine intelligent buildings of our future will be those that successfully integrate technology and people.
In the end, innovative features combined with human input will help us understand our buildings, and how they can best serve tenants and occupants, like never before. When technology provides the right information to the right people at the right time, it’s possible to achieve truly remarkable levels of efficiency.