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Over the last few years of attending conferences, touring facilities, and hearing Owners, Engineers and Architects discuss what they believe to be intelligent buildings, I have compiled my own list of what it takes to be an intelligent building. Frankly very few of the buildings discussed or visited to date approach these simple and intuitive criteria. This is a reality that needs to be changed if we are to capture the many benefits of intelligent buildings. So let’s cut to the quick and review the truly critical elements of an intelligent building. I place them in three categories. Here are the first two:
Occupants: This is what buildings are really all about. An intelligent building is one that provides easy access, keeps people comfortable, environmentally satisfied, secure, and provides services to keep the occupants productive for their purpose in the building.
Structure and Systems: An intelligent building is one that at the very least minimizes environmental disruption, degradation or depletion associated with the building while ensuring a long term useful functional capacity for the building.
There are climates and uses that enable a very simple structure to provide these needs – covering occupants from sun and rain and allowing daylight and breezes to pass through. Such a building may be very satisfying for its occupants and fully meet the requirements of items 1 and 2 above, but it would not be intelligent because it lacks the 3rd item which is:
Advanced Technologies: An intelligent building is one that because of its climate and/or use is challenged to meet items 1 and 2 above, and succeeds in meeting those challenges through the use of appropriate advanced technologies.
There is certainly nothing wrong with a building that can meet the challenges of items 1 and 2 without the application of special technology systems. Quite the contrary, such a building design and construction is preferred, and our industry should bend over backwards to promote such buildings when possible. But such buildings (or portions of buildings) that do not require the application of advanced technologies do not fit the intelligent building category.
So this sounds simple enough. But if it is, why do so many buildings that attempt some level of internal intelligence ultimately fail to stand out? From my observations, the primary reason is that most design teams, manufacturers, contractors and operators rely on the technologies they have rather than what are required. This is the fatal error that has hindered the growth of intelligent buildings. Intelligent buildings are a market transforming portion of our industry. But to be market transforming requires the incorporation of truly new concepts and technologies, not just an enhanced and more integrated version of the old ones. Otherwise we end up with more or less conventional buildings, which is what many intelligent buildings to date really are. Some architects have been able to incorporate bold new approaches to siting, daylighting and other features that do positively impact both the inside and outside environments. But the engineering community largely applies concepts, systems and strategies already widely in use, tweaking them slightly for some unique qualities, but not enough to really distinguish them from their conventional foundations.
So let’s consider what it really takes to make an intelligent building from the perspective of systems engineering. The focus really needs to be on the occupants – Item 1 above - since occupants are the ultimate purpose of any commercial building and by far dominate its value equation. Here is my list of the important technology issues that should be employed to start the discussion in the development of an intelligent building:
Comfort and air quality: We need to understand that any modern building requiring heating and/or cooling demands at a minimum for temperature and air quality control to be provided to every occupied space of the building and employed so that good thermal and visual comfort and air quality is provided to every occupant whenever and wherever they are in the building. The current rules of thumb that allows as many as 20% dissatisfied occupants and a only a single temperature sensor for 3 to 5 offices need to be discarded and replaced with much more aggressive approaches that meet the comfort and IAQ expectations for each and every one of the building’s occupants.
Occupant Based HVAC: As a corollary to improved comfort and IAQ, for all occupants, the old approach to comfort wherein the entire building is uniformly conditioned and ventilated at preset time periods while the actual number and location of occupants is largely ignored must be replaced in intelligent buildings with concepts that focus comfort and IAQ resources on the actual occupants when and where they are present in the building at all times.
Individual Occupant Control and Feedback: To succeed in the goal of occupant comfort and connectivity, Intelligent building occupants must have some simple capacity to automatically adjust their individual thermal and visual conditions, and occupants need to have some automated means of querying the system for information about environmental issues and a method of providing feedback on the building’s capacity to meet all their needs and expectations.
Automatic system optimization and performance verification: More advanced network based controls must provide effective comfort and IAQ and also operate equipment optimally as complete systems rather than individual components, and control must be provided to effectively monitor actual system performance and automatically make corrections when system performance goals are not achieved. In light of our much needed focus on energy efficiency, such capabilities are an absolute requirement for membership in the intelligent building club.
Connection to outside sources and services: Most designers understand the need to ensure buildings incorporate infrastructure and connectivity so that occupants can easily connect to the local and wide area networks of their choice within and beyond the building. But the building systems need to be unified and participate in these connections as well. Services such as automatic demand response, off-site monitoring/fault detection and remote maintenance capabilities must be well developed in building network configurations, and be connection ready using standard features.
Whenever I sit down and review my list with those of my colleagues, it becomes quite clear to us that these intelligent building requirements translate to improved network services. But while a well integrated network is already a strong focus of intelligent buildings, too often there is not an adequate corresponding focus on what additional services need to be provided on this upgraded network. As a result, design teams commonly accept schemes that do a good job of integrating together control concepts that provide only limited comfort and conventional system performance, lack fault detection capabilities, have limited access by occupants, and lack connectivity of critical building systems into standard communication platforms for access by others involved in building support services. These buildings end up in the eyes of the owner, occupants, and O&M staff as performing pretty much the same as the old building they left. To get our industry to meet its commitment to owners, occupants and the rapidly evolving energy and environmental performance expectations of our society, we need the connectivity we incorporate into intelligent buildings to add valuable function.
So the next discussion you have with colleagues about a potential intelligent building, remember that a really smart building uses advanced technologies to dramatically improve the comfort, environment, and performance of its occupants while minimizing the external environmental impact of its structure and systems. If we get that right, we find the rest of the pieces fit very well into a developing picture of what is really required to design and construct a truly intelligent building!
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