March 2018

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Convergence of Trends

I want to talk about five trends that I think are likely to converge to impact the automated buildings industry in a significant way.
Alex Zimmerman

Alex Zimmerman
Applied Green Consulting

'You are going to have a job that doesn't exist today, using technology that hasn't been invented yet, to solve a problem that we don't know what it is yet.'
Mark Weinberger, chief executive of EY (formerly known as Ernst & Young)

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It is no surprise to anyone that the pace of change in the buildings industry is rapid, sometimes cataclysmic, in all three social, environmental and economic dimensions.

Among the many trends that will shape our future, I want to talk about five trends that I think are likely to converge to impact the automated buildings industry in a significant way. All of these trends will be somewhat familiar to readers of this site. Some are established and recognized and have wrought major change already but have not fully played out, while others are on the horizon, some nearer, some farther off. I believe that the convergence of these trends will disrupt the industry and that the only question is when.

1.    Green Buildings

Most of the first couple of decades of my career in the buildings industry was focused mainly on implementing the new direct digital controls as they became available, in the service of saving energy and of better control over building conditions. The second two decades were focused mainly on the nascent, then burgeoning, green buildings movement, first in helping to build capacity and lately with an increasing emphasis on implementation through commissioning.

An issue that has bothered me for a long time now is how the controls world seems to be a parallel but almost separate one from the green buildings world. They overlap some in their discourses but not as much as they should. The modern green buildings movement started off two to three decades ago as primarily an environmental one, an extension of the energy-saving focus that preceded it and broadened out to include other environmental impacts of buildings. Only in the last decade or so has the notion of broadening yet again to include social and public health impacts gained any traction. I would characterize the movement now as one that is trending towards becoming more holistic and also generally trending to more passive solutions to the environmental/social/health design challenges. In this context, mechanical systems and controls are often viewed by most architects, developers, and building owners as a necessary evil rather than a trusted and essential partner. This may be an exaggeration, but not much.

I can’t say that I’m as familiar with the current state of the leading edge of the automated controls world as I once was but from a cursory overview it does seem that much of the conversation is about how to add, overlay and/or integrate the data management and machine learning tools that are coming along onto the underlying hardware and systems, which are getting ever more widespread and capable. All very necessary, and probably inevitable, but it’s a very different language from the language of green buildings.

2.    Buildings Impact on Productivity

In the green buildings movement, it has long been almost an article of faith that green buildings provide better health and productivity outcomes than standard buildings that have just been built to code. This belief, though shared by many, has not been backed up with much credible, peer-reviewed, quantifiable evidence, until recently. Studies that have looked specifically at this question have been published in the last couple of years both in the USA and in Canada.


Ken Sinclair brought the first pair of studies to our attention with his editorial back in July 2017 by pointing to the American teams’ website and providing a link to one of the outputs from their work. If you’re like me, you don’t always have time to follow links in articles, so you may not have followed up on them. I think these findings are so significant that it is worth summarizing the highlights of them here.

The two studies, called the Cognitive Function Studies (COGFx), were undertaken by the T.H. Chan School of Public health at Harvard together with the SUNY Upstate Medical University and were published in 2015 and 2016. The studies looked at the impact of ventilation and other key building characteristics on cognitive function.

The first study focused primarily on ventilation because we spend 90% of our time indoors now, and 90% of the costs of operating a building go to building occupants salaries. I won’t go into the design of the studies except to say that it was a lab-based double-blind study that measured nine areas of cognitive function while changing three key variables, namely, chemical loading (TVOCs added), minimum ventilation (doubled, at 40 CFM/person) and levels of CO2 (independent of ventilation). This study found that, in all nine domains, the levels expected in green buildings outperform conventional buildings with, on average, a doubling of cognitive function for high performing indoor environments. One finding that seems especially significant to me was the independent deficit effects of CO2 and TVOCs on cognitive function across all nine domains, at levels typically found indoors.

So far so good, but a lab is not a real building, with all its complexity. The next study asked the question whether these results would hold up in the real world of actual buildings. They looked at five building pairs, one of each pair a high-performing non-certified building and the other a green-certified building, in five different climates in the USA. What they found was a 26% higher score on cognitive function (based on a well-known standard test) for the certified buildings. They were able to strategize better, better able to respond to crises, they were more focused and did better on tasks. Looking at some of the findings in more detail, they specifically found that the certified building occupants reported a 6.4% higher sleep quality score and, further, that sleep quality improvement scores of more than 25% were associated with 2.8% higher cognitive function scores the next day. Workers in green-certified buildings had 30% fewer reports of sick building symptoms, specifically related to temperature, air movement, air dryness and chemical, tobacco or other odours. Occupants also reported greater satisfaction with the amount of daylight and electric light. Finally, cognitive function scores were 5.4% higher when their spaces were within the thermal comfort zone vs. outside the zone.

The studies, together with their background, study design and information on the researchers can be found on the website

The other study that Ken reported on was done by Canada’s National Research Council for CABA. It started from the opposite end, that is, it is a sort of meta-study that reviewed and synthesised a large body of already published work. It uses a multi-metric approach to quantifying the impact on productivity from “better buildings.” Some of the metrics in the NRC-CABA study are the same as the COGFx studies (e.g., absenteeism, sick building symptoms) but others are not. In general, this study supports and reinforces the findings of the COGFx studies.

The COGFx study researchers have set up another website that translates the results of their studies into tools for action. The website is It includes summaries of some of the background research and a framework which they are calling the 9 Foundations For health, which are the 9 fundamental building factors that influence health, well-being, and productivity.

Given how much time most of us in the developed world spend indoors, I believe these are critically important findings. The difference in building design and mechanical and electrical systems between the certified buildings and the non-certified buildings in the COGFx studies that produced these results are not difficult to achieve and are much more within our control than other larger environmental factors which are not.

3.    Wearables

Consider how many of us wear fitness trackers or smart watches. What if the wealth of data available from such devices (or other similar devices not yet invented) was made available to the building HVAC and automation system either directly or through the IoT. Then there would be an opportunity to gather much more granular information about not only the state of the local environment, but also how the individual is reacting to it, in real time, and change the operation of the mechanical and controls systems to optimize the various dimensions of productivity. BSRIA published a study in September 2017 that examines this very question in much more detail. I urge you to download and read the study.

4.    AI – Artificial Intelligence

Another disrupter, Artificial Intelligence, is in place in some industries now, in a rudimentary way. It has not made many inroads into the automated buildings industry, but that is only a matter of time. If you want to get a taste of how CEOs of major businesses think about AI and how big and important it will be to them, just google “CEOs discuss AI,” and you will turn up nearly 6 million results. So it’s clearly coming to the buildings and automation industry. How will AI impact how building control systems are designed, set up and operated? Will AI design the system for a new building in response to the BIM files? Will AI set up the BAS databases and write the sequence of operations? Will AI operate the building once it is built and commissioned?

5.    Digital Assistants

We are all aware of home assistants like Google Home or Amazon Alexa, and most likely we think of them as gadgets confined to the residential market that stream music or switch things on and off, using voice commands. While they do indeed do that, they are actually systems that fundamentally offer a different approach to the question of how people interact with their physical surroundings. Consider some of the devices and services that work with Google Home now:

It doesn’t require much of a leap of imagination to realize that the underlying functionality of these systems could be expanded to commercial buildings to include all this current technology, plus security and environmental monitoring – all centered around the individual and all voice activated.


What are the implications of the convergence of these trends?

Imagine a future scenario that looks something like this:

You are getting ready to jump on your bicycle to ride into the new building where you work on a typical workday. You feel great even before you get on the bike as you had a really good sleep. You have noticed that your sleep has been much better since your organization moved into the new building a few months ago. As you arrive at the bicycle storage room and head towards the fitness room to change, the building’s AI unlocked the door for you, alerted to your presence by sensing your smart watch and connecting to it. You also know that the building’s AI will have turned on the outside air to your workstation before you get there.

The building itself is a wonder, a certified Living Building that generates all its own power collects, stores and treats all the water it uses and has no toxic materials in its construction. As you head up the stairs to your third-floor workstation, you appreciate the view of the native plant garden through the windows flanking the main stairwell, and the way the light from the miniature stream flowing down the meandering watercourse built into the banister. The water humidifies the air, provides pleasant sound masking and is a visual delight. The stairwell is such a pleasant place to be that hardly anyone uses the elevator and in fact, the stairwell frequently becomes an impromptu meeting place. It is only one of a number of biophilic design elements designed into the building.

While you are climbing the stairs the building AI, nick-named “Alfred,” after Batman’s indispensable valet, says hello to you through your earbud. Alfred brings you up to date on your progress towards your fitness goals, including your ride this morning, which it has just uploaded and integrated. You are little behind because you had been travelling the week before and had found it difficult get in workouts. Alfred then reminds you of your schedule for the day and asks you what environment emulator setting you would like for the day, noting that the forecast is for sunshine. You tell Alfred that “Mountain Lodge Springtime” is what you want. This will set the average temperature a little cooler than usual, but it will be varied at random intervals during the day, along with the velocity of the ventilation. The electric lighting will start off a little warm and subdued but will brighten and get bluer as the day progresses and will switch off altogether when the sunlight comes around to your side of the building. Of course, the lights and ventilation will also switch off when you are away at the meetings that are planned.

You have been sitting for over an hour, absorbed in a task when Alfred will gently break in to remind you that you have been sitting still for too long and that you should really get up and move a little or take a break. You realize that this is a good idea and ask Alfred to vocally administer a survey that you know you have to complete, as you go for a short walk. The survey is about how well the building is working for you and what your perceptions are of your comfort and productivity.

Your organization, together with the building owner, will use the survey information to refine the building operation and also to provide data for upcoming renovations of other locations for your organization. The improvements that have become apparent, even in the short time the organization has been here, have boosted morale enormously, which was a positive unintended consequence. That alone would have been worth it, but when the improvements are monetized, it more than justifies the rent premium that the building commands. In fact, the building has provided such a positive energy boost to the organization that you privately think of it as a secret weapon that you have, compared to your competitors.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]Sound far-fetched? Perhaps a little fanciful, but I believe something like this will become possible sooner than we think.

The IEQ variables that were examined in the GOGFX studies can be monitored and controlled in real time. That’s where this industry comes in. With these findings in hand, we should be able to identify the appropriate sensors, install them in the right locations and develop data gathering, analysis and presentation methods that give management a real-time report on how worker productivity is being affected or enhanced by the performance of the building. Adding in average costs to pay workers would turn this into dollars that should easily make the business case for any given organization.

That’s the business case with the hardware and systems that we have now. Think about how the other disruptive technologies that are on the near horizon could integrate this approach and totally change how building systems are designed and interact with their occupants. The integration of wearables with building controls makes it personal. The expansion and integration of digital assistants with building controls allow for voice recognition. The development of AI that makes all the underlying technology, systems integration, data analytics and reporting virtually invisible to the occupants of the building and to the organization that employs them.

Of course, building design, HVAC design, controls design, data gathering, analytics, system integration will all have to change, and the hardware has to become a little more capable in order to realize all these benefits.

There is also the issue of privacy of all that personal data that is being collected. As an industry, we are not used to grappling with this question as the level of information we typically have collected so far has not required us to.

The magnitude of the potential benefits, though, means that someone will implement these kinds of productivity-enhancing strategies and systems.

Whoever does so stands a good chance to become a significant disrupter to the industry. The question is, will it be someone from the buildings industry or will it be someone like Google or Amazon?

What do we do about it today? I guess this is a plea for two things.

The first is something that we all pay lip service to but don’t execute very well – integrated design. The key to integrated design, as architect Bill Reed has said, is “everybody, every issue, early on.” Up till now, most of the integrated design that has been done has not included everybody nor has it been every issue. It generally has been focused on the building program and environmental issues. We need to re-centre the focus of building design, construction and operation on the people working in the building, their health and productivity, then widen the circle to include environmental, social and community goals. As always, it needs to be done within the financial constraints of the project. If we do this, we can get away from the silo mindset of characterizing whether we are building a LEED, Net Zero, Living Building, Automated Building, Intelligent Building or whether it incorporates IoT, Data-driven Analytics, Machine Learning or AI. These are all just tools, a means to an end, enablers of infrastructure that should allow people and their organizations to thrive and fulfill their missions.

The second thing is really an enabler of the first. We all really need to get more active in understanding the other worlds that will impact this one. That means green buildings; it means the IT and analytics world, it means AI. We need to begin to learn some of the language, the issues, the concerns and where they are headed. Attend the next USGBC Greenbuild annual conference in Chicago in November. Attend the Predictive Analytics World conference in June in Las Vegas. Attend the InternetofThings World Forum 2018 in London in May. Or search for local equivalents to any or all of these – there’s a lot happening all over the world.

We all need to get outside our comfort zone in order to survive and thrive in the world that is speeding towards us. We all need to understand better where we fit and how we can contribute to the great changes that must happen for us all.

About the Author
Alex is the owner of a consulting practice focussed on operationalizing sustainability in the buildings industry, at both the project and organizational level. This includes organizational sustainability strategic planning advice, training and commissioning authority services. He is interested in green building technologies and approaches, and also in helping teams and organizations with the mindset, tools and organizational frameworks needed to successfully apply them. Alex believes that some of the most important work in any project is the prior set-up work that goes on in the implementing organization.


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