February 2020

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Born Connected? Dave Lapsley
Dave Lapsley,
Managing Director
Econowise Group of Companies

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Although Warren Johnson is published as being responsible for the concept of building automation back in 1883, if we explore its evolution a little deeper, the whole concept of our industry can be traced back to a Dutch Inventor named Cornelius Drebbel in the 1600s. Quite ironically, his quest was to optimise fuel consumption whilst providing a more stable environment for eggs in incubators during the hatching process. The irony here is that from one birth, there came another.

The onset of the building automation industry can be traced back to the invention of what now seems a very simple device and has subsequently evolved at a considerable rate.

Early centralised mechanical and pneumatic systems have given way to Direct Digital Control (DDC) with decentralised stations offering designers and engineers with the power and flexibility that we currently have at our disposal. 

The term smart building was first coined in 1981 by what can only be referred to as a very forward-thinking individual with considerable foresight.

Theoretically conceived in 1981 and subsequently realised in 1983, the City Place building in the USA will always be regarded as the first-ever smart or intelligent building.

Since this period in time, there have been many conversations hoping to define the functionality of smart buildings fully; such discussions have included many minds that are far greater than my own and therefore, should my opinion even be considered relevant?

Throughout my career, I have always considered myself to be relatively knowledgeable and in the very least capable of holding my own when it comes to my chosen subject matter.

One thing that I have always been sensible enough to do is listen to my peers and the individuals that I have either managed worked alongside, served or simply brushed past whilst completing my day to day tasks.

Having been exposed to this diverse array of people serving the built environment and listening to their own experiences has provided me with a plethora of information which I have always endeavoured to put to good use.

As an individual I have been ‘connected’ and ‘open’ for a very long time. Connected to others during my day to day work and above all open to understanding. It is perhaps this above all else that qualifies me to bring mine as well as my historical acquaintances ideas to the table.

Whilst this is typically not the type of connected and open that we are all striving to achieve it certainly has some relevance as much like the interactive approach of humans, what we are actually reaching for is to provide communities of buildings that are capable of listening, learning and subsequently thinking and acting for themselves.

In 1983 The City Place Building, which was undoubtedly a revolution at the time was considered intelligent due to the functionality of a centralised automation system which purely focused on the technological aspects of the buildings day to day operation.

Leaping forward 37 years to 2020 and although standards are not yet defined, I think that through our connectivity to others as well as opening our minds it would be fair to say that the image of a smart building is starting to come clearly into focus.

What then should a smart building look like in 2020 and beyond? A smart building is now becoming a very different proposition to anything that has gone before. Referencing the UK-based European Intelligent Building Group, they define an intelligent building as a building that creates the environment that maximizes the effectiveness of its occupants, while at the same time enabling the efficient management of resources with minimum life-time costs of hardware and facilities.

In order to achieve such environments building systems have to be interoperable and must provide a simple cost-effective means of establishing interconnectivity utilising standard off the shelf devices to provide information. This information or data as we like to call it will ultimately be analysed and actioned outside of the conventional building envelope by way of cloud-based services.

Data from a building's automation and energy management systems along with the occupant presence and requirements will become seen as a minimum requirement in creating sustainable, productive environments.

Disparate systems will be interconnected and amalgamated into a single network that will provide vital information. Gathering and interpreting this information from multiple systems simultaneously will then provide leveraged in enhancing the decision-making process which will profoundly influence our current understanding.

It makes complete sense that only by understanding all of the above can intelligent decisions be made in offering fully optimised environments and, at the same time minimising energy consumption.

As a simple example, is it smart for a building's automation system to reduce a temperature setpoint because it does not meet with convention when associated occupants are comfortable, even worse still the associated area has no occupants in attendance at the time?

We can again refer back to the human factor here, and as we grow and learn, we are able to consider the implications of our actions. As humans, we are capable of understanding our surroundings and computing the consequences of each action or a combination thereof that we take. This, alone enables us to make informed and smart decisions.

Buildings will ultimately have to be capable of this level of functionality to earn the title of being truly smart. Data from multiple buildings will be pooled and leveraged, systems will learn optimal conditions that promote green sustainable operation whilst considering occupant comfort and maximise system life-cycles.

contemporary Well, that’s it then, fundamental requirements in place. Decision made? Unfortunately, we are not quite there yet as, in reality another major factor stands in our way and has a truly extreme effect.

Undoubtedly most readers of this article will be focused on providing buildings with digitally connected environments. Specifications and plans will have been developed many months since and the canvas is already set for us to light up.

Modern large collaborative open plan workspaces present considerable challenges with respect to the control of environmental conditions and irrespective of system complexity there is always going to conflicting requirements.

Agile open plan working environments are currently very much in vogue and this does not look like changing any time soon, after all they do look great and the millennials love them. Vibrant colours splashed around in abundance, bean bags, Pool and Table Tennis tables, what’s not to like?

These types of work spaces offer considerable challenges in meeting collective comfort requirements and the old adage that ‘you can’t please all of the people all of the time’ is particularly apt in this case.

I am quite sure that 95% of us have experienced situations whereby adjacent workers are reporting conflicting conditions and have been unable to offer a lasting and effective solution. 

It is quite simple to control the environment inside a fridge freezer as all of the contents are happy to be either chilled or frozen at the same temperatures and are contained in two distinctly separate spaces. Would it be so simple if items to be chilled or frozen occupied the same space?

Comfy now owned by Siemens has an interesting take on this. Correct or otherwise they simply rule that the person with the most seniority as programmed on the system has the final say on respective comfort levels.

Whilst this is perhaps the correct approach in order to keep senior staff happy and content as is the correct approach with respect to promoting corporate awareness of sustainable practices and principles?

The real answer here is to engage with Architects and Interior Designers. We have to nurture the idea that smaller zoned areas are always going to be much easier to control and hence simplify the process of achieving uniform occupant comfort while promoting maximum possible efficiencies.

For the time being we must hold our stations and sit in our proverbial darkened rooms designing systems and writing code. We need to remain focused and understand that it is our hard work in providing integrated system that will harness data and raise awareness of actions and consequences.

Understanding the results of our decisions is generally the only way that we come to learn. Open technology, smart engagement and analytics systems that harness the power of standard smart devices coupled with cost effective IOT wireless solutions such as Bubll and Sentinll will provide the tools. These systems will open minds to not only to a deeper level of understanding for decision makers and building operators but also assist in educating occupants that their actions have direct consequences.

We as professionals in the building automation arena must not underestimate the pivotal role that we play in providing scalable cost-effective platforms. These systems will become vital tools in providing connected smart environments. Generating this data is of significant importance as it will unlock answers and educate consumers with respect to offering a sustainable future for generations to come.

It is our job or perhaps in many cases vocation to provide ‘connected’, ‘open’ systems that in turn will allow us to ‘connect’ with decision makers and ‘open’ their minds. Without the information that we will ultimately provide to educate, the future of our beautiful, precious yet vulnerable ecosystem will remain surrounded by doubt.    


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