April 2011

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
(Click Message to Learn More)

Beyond the Engineer – Engaging the Masses
Take building automation out of the boiler room and into reception
Aaron Cottrell

Aaron Cottrell



I begin, with a confession. I am not a building automation professional or a controls expert, in fact, ten years ago I was still in high school. I have written this article on the basis of my experience interacting with the building automation industry (in the UK) over the last two years, as an outsider. As such, forgive my irreverence for the status quo.

New Products
[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Site Search
[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Past Issues
[an error occurred while processing this directive]
[an error occurred while processing this directive]

Last month’s articles looked at ‘making the invisible visible’, this article will pick up on that theme, paying particular attention to energy use and generation within buildings.


People are at the centre of consumption, particularly energy usage. No matter how smart the technology or infrastructure in a building, it’s the behaviour of the people that occupy a space that will ultimately determine how efficiently it is used [Something Jim Sinopoli talked about in his article last month]. Post Occupancy Evaluations often show a large disparity between predicted and actual figures. It’s great having a suite of building automation and management tools but, who uses them and how often are they used? It is certainly the case that some systems need to be centrally controlled by a qualified professional but, when it comes to energy, what visibility do building occupants and visitors have?

Consider the typical stakeholders here. The CEO and CFO pay the bills and propel the organisation forward. The CFO is driven by the bottom line and is concerned with how it’s affected by rising energy costs. The CEO keeps an eye on the finances but also wants the company to be seen as green and sustainable. Both the CFO and CEO rely on the Energy Manager to keep them in the loop with energy costs, usage and prospective/installed efficiency measures.

The Energy Manager is continually reporting to the CFO and CEO on energy usage and costs whilst trying to increase efficiency and reduce consumption. Management of the organisation’s buildings requires the use of a number of building automation tools and management systems. Only the Energy Manager knows how to access these systems and has to disseminate information to others regarding energy usage.

In a typical SME/University/School, a building will have one person (it may not be their only role) in charge of energy or facilities management.  Typically this role is isolated from the rest of a building or organisation - No one else really has much visibility (or understanding) of the energy usage or reduction measures being put in place. Part of an Energy Manager’s role is to influence, educate and leverage everyone else in the building to move towards the shared goal of energy reduction – the building develops a shared environmental conscience, rather than being a one person endeavour.


‘Developing a shared environmental conscience’ – sounds very blue-sky.  How do you go about that? As a start, you need to engage people and make them think. Not just the engineers, everybody. Last month, Rick Huijbregts highlighted how “everything is getting connected”, meaning, we’ll have more device data available than ever before but, what are we going to do with it? Put simply, it needs to tell a story. Not a dull, uninteresting one, full of facts, figures and graphs but, an engaging one that reels everybody in with something they can relate to and leaves them eager to find out more.

Despite not providing all the functionality automation professionals need, energy dashboards and easy to use web management tools allow for occupants and staff to have some visibility of energy consumption and/or generation (if they have renewables on site). If delivered in an engaging way, these channels start to provide visibility and education to everyone in the building.

There have been a number of articles written [West Coast Green 2009: Can Energy Dashboards Change Behavior, Permanently?] and research undertaken in the area of energy visibility with displays and also the element of competition in reducing energy consumption and educating occupants. What’s the bottom line? They work. As savings may not be as tangible or guaranteed as they would be if installing a more efficient boiler or control, these systems should be regarded as tools that can help as part of sustainability initiatives to reduce consumption and educate building audiences.

Embedding this information in the fabric of a building environment is key. If a dashboard is provided on a large screen in a reception area, sharing that space with other relevant building information, it becomes a passive education tool as well as a behaviour prompt. Building occupants and visitors have a greater visibility, awareness and understanding of what’s going on around them.

At OuterArc, our approach has been to create engaging energy dashboards as tools in public spaces (e.g. reception areas) to help reduce energy consumption by increasing visibility of usage and also to promote and educate the energy generated by PV panels and wind turbines. Our latest product is Telewatts [See telewatts.com for a demo].

Through product development with our clients we’ve tried to satisfy the need for simple design and contextualised information that occupants and visitors can relate to. Just displaying information is not enough, it needs to be displayed in an accessible way. Coming from a web, design and marketing background, we augment energy information by focusing on presentation and engagement. Not everyone’s an engineer. Kilowatt-hours and kilograms of CO2 mean little without context or a relevant comparison.

What Will Help?

[an error occurred while processing this directive] Innovative platforms and engagement tools in the building space require data. The building automation industry does a great job of creating controls and systems to collect data and monitor buildings but, speaking from experience, it can be difficult to access this building data. Whether this is intentional or unintentional, it stifles innovation.

There are some systems that, for security reasons, should not share their data. However, data related to energy should not fall into this category. Web methodologies need to be adopted where building automation systems and controls should have built in API’s, to allow third parties to build on these platforms.  Engineers and energy managers can still use the existing systems they need to but designers and application developers can also access the data to provide higher-level engagement tools. Cynics will say such dashboards and tools are ostentatious and useless but most will concede applications and products of this nature do have a place but are simply out of the remit and capability of the building automation industry itself.

Ultimately, if you encourage innovation and make it easy for people to extend your platform in powerful ways (in this case by making data accessible), you become the go to guys. Everyone wants to use your platform, not only for the core features but also because of the abundance of high quality plug-ins or applications they can use with it. Two examples of platforms that have huge appeal because of this are the Apple iPhone, with it’s App Store and the Wordpress Blogging Platform, with its huge array of plug-ins and themes.

In the building automation world, Tridium have made a great start with their Niagara automation framework, which utilises the oBIX protocol [Automated Buildings Article – oBIX is alive and kicking] and web services. This permits a secure interface with a vast array of building controls and energy data over the web and poll regularly for the latest information. You can then easily plug this information into your own applications (something that Tridium encourage). I know this because I’ve done it with our KyotoTV product. It’s not perfect, there’s not much in the way of documentation or examples of how to use Niagara and oBIX [Here is one useful guide: oBIX Guide from Niagara Central] but, after wrestling to get data out of other automation systems, I found this approach to be a breath of fresh air.

The Future?

Whether the driver is legislation, cost, ethics or branding we need to engage and educate people, passively and directly, in the built environment around them to reduce consumption and use buildings more efficiently.

The building automation industry needs to provide open, well-documented, extensible platforms to allow application developers to innovate and deliver engaging solutions in this space. It will then be up to those developers to present information from these automation systems in simple, relevant and above all, remarkable ways that make people stop and think. That’s when the real engagement with people will begin.


[an error occurred while processing this directive]
[Click Banner To Learn More]

[Home Page]  [The Automator]  [About]  [Subscribe ]  [Contact Us]


Want Ads

Our Sponsors