November 2006

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Michael BrambleyEMAIL INTERVIEW  Michael Brambley & Ken Sinclair

Michael Brambley is a Staff Scientist in Energy Technology Development at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). He is one of the panel members for a forum on Sky High: Rising Energy Costs and the Growing Demand for High-Performance Buildings that will be held by the MIT Enterprise Forum on Wednesday, November 8, at the Hyatt Regency Bellevue Hotel.

For information on this event see


Smart, High-Performance Buildings

When I use the term smart buildings, I define it as building systems that collect data, process it in the traditional sense of performing numerical analyses, then interpreting the results of those analyses to reach conclusions about the status of the building or the system, and finally automatically implementing appropriate actions in response.

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Sinclair:  How does your work at PNNL relate to high-performance buildings?

Brambley:  My work focuses primarily on making buildings and their systems smarter and more energy efficient.

Sinclair:  What do you mean by making buildings smarter?

Brambley:  The term intelligent or smart buildings came into use around 1980. There have been innumerable discussions about exactly what the term means. Some definitions seek a strict interpretation of intelligence; others assign the label to buildings with only enhanced sensing or communications, some even using it to describe buildings that are designed well or that employ good operation practices. When I use the term smart buildings, I define it as building systems that collect data, process it in the traditional sense of performing numerical analyses, then interpreting the results of those analyses to reach conclusions about the status of the building or the system, and finally automatically implementing appropriate actions in response. Smart buildings defined this way perform these functions autonomously, by themselves, without human intervention. I stretch the definition a bit by also including systems that provide the conclusions of the data analysis and interpretation to the people that operate or manage buildings. In this case, corrective actions and adjustments would ordinarily be initiated by the human operators rather than autonomously by the system, but these systems possess enough of the characteristics of my smart building that I also use the term in reference to them. So to me, making buildings smarter means developing and implementing these kinds of technologies for buildings.

Key to these smart systems is the capability to collect data from a building and to reach qualitative conclusions about the state of the building. They provide actionable information, not just more numbers from other numbers, like traditional engineering analysis tools.

Smart building technologies will lower building energy use, lead to better comfort and healthier conditions for occupants, reduce the overall cost of building operation, and reduce the emission of harmful environmental pollutants, including CO2, which contributes to global warming.

Sinclair:  Can you give us a specific example of a smart building technology that you are working on?

Brambley:  Sure. For about a decade my colleagues at PNNL and I have been developing automated diagnostic tools for heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems. One tool determines whether the system bringing outdoor air into a building is operating properly or has developed faults. Possible faults include things like stuck dampers, failed sensors, operation during unscheduled times when the building is unoccupied and many others. This tool takes measured data (numbers) from sensors at strategic points in the system, calculates intermediate numbers, but then uses the calculated numbers to determine the current condition of the system, whether it has any faults, and if so, what faults are present. It then reports the qualitative information on the state of the system to human operators via a graphical user interface. In addition, it provides information such as energy and cost impacts of the fault, so that facility staff can decide whether each fault warrants repair.

We also have worked on methods for these systems to automatically correct certain classes of faults, such as incorrect schedules, bad temperature set points, and poorly tuned or even incorrectly written control algorithms.

Sinclair:  How will these sorts of tools be applied?

Brambley:  These capabilities will be used to supplement building control systems or even be an integral part of them. Initially, these technologies may be offered as stand alone tools or software. Over time, they will become embedded in control systems so ultimately all buildings will benefit.

Sinclair:  Why is this important?

Brambley:  Experts who inspect buildings invariably report that they find problems with the condition of building systems and controls in nearly every commercial building. Even the best buildings have some operation problems. Many building operators won’t want to hear this, but in most buildings, problems of this sort are rampant. Those problems increase energy use by an estimated average of 10 to 20 percent. The best buildings may only experience a couple percent increase in energy use, and the buildings in the worst condition are much worse than the average.

[an error occurred while processing this directive] Sinclair:  Why is this important to businesses?

Brambley:  Finding and fixing these problems increase efficiency and, therefore, reduce expenditures for energy. Even though the salaries of the people working in buildings generally far exceed the cost of building operation, studies have shown that poor indoor conditions resulting from problems such as inadequate ventilation affect occupant comfort, productivity, and health. Even a small increase in productivity or a decrease in sick time will return the cost of eliminating the problems many times over. Furthermore, in low-margin businesses, like most retail sales, the savings on energy costs from improving the operation and maintenance of building systems may make the difference between a handsome profit and none.

For those in the commercial property business, high-performance buildings can bring lower operating costs, higher rental rates for the higher quality space, and increased asset value.

“Smart” building technologies will enable these sorts of increases in building performance with smaller building staffs and lower costs in the long term, because of more effective use of staff time. These technologies promise to convert building operation and maintenance from highly reactive and unplanned to proactive with highly targeted actions based on information about the actual status of the building systems. In the long run, many problems will be self-corrected by the systems themselves.

Sinclair:  What are the challenges this faces in becoming a mainstream technology?

Brambley:  One of the biggest problems is getting the cost of these technologies low enough to penetrate the market significantly. This requires innovative developments in their design but also requires high-volume production, so we’re stuck with a “chicken or the egg” problem. One innovative way of addressing this is by delivering services as an application service provider (ASP), using the world wide web. We’ve been working with one company to delivery some of these capabilities using this delivery model.

Sinclair:  What other high-performance building research is being done at PNNL?

Brambley:  PNNL ( performs a broad spectrum of research on the energy efficiency of buildings. Areas of focus include building energy codes and standards, building equipment and appliance standards, improving the energy efficiency of federal facilities, organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs), micro-technologies for increasing energy efficiency, transforming markets for energy efficiency technologies, developing technologies for better managing the electric power grid that also support successful interactions by buildings with the grid under emerging time-dependent electric rates, and developing and deploying advanced sensors and controls for buildings.

Sinclair:  Where can people hear more about the building technologies you're working on at PNNL?

Brambley:  You can learn more on the web about research at PNNL in general at and about some of our work on smart building systems at

Hear more about these technologies and other issues and opportunities surrounding high-performance buildings from Mike and the other panel members by joining us at the MIT Enterprise Forum on November 8 ( 


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