October 2011

Innovations in Comfort, Efficiency, and Safety Solutions.

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Spintelligent Buildings
Entangling marketing and technology

Andy McMillanAndy McMillan
President and GM
Philips Teletrol
BACnet International
Contributing Editor  

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In the interest of full disclosure let me start by saying that my background includes formal education in both technical (BSEE) and marketing (MBA) disciplines.  Over the course of my career I’ve led both R&D teams and product marketing teams.  Even today I’m occasionally suspect in technical groups when I talk with too much marketing spin, and I’m occasionally suspect in marketing groups when I talk with too much technical authority.  So, I’m used to looking at things from both directions and getting pushback from both sides … which brings me to the term, “Intelligent Building.”  It seems to me that the term, as used by a lot of people in our industry, misses the mark both in terms of common sense definition as well as in terms of meaningful building objectives.  While the term “Intelligent Building” sounds like a technical assessment, it is frequently more about marketing spin than real intelligence.  So, in many cases it might be more appropriate to replace the term “Intelligent Building” with Spintelligent Building.

Spintelligent Buildings

On a technical level, the term “intelligent building” is generally used to designate buildings that have integrated building systems.  That is, buildings where the HVAC, Lighting, Access Control, Life Safety and other systems are networked together, presumably for some useful purpose.  A quick look into definitions and references for intelligent buildings yields plenty to choose from.  Many control systems suppliers weigh in with their views, a number of consulting and service suppliers do likewise.  Industry trade press (including automatedbuildings.com) articles about intelligent buildings abound.  Even YouTube has a few videos that attempt to define or characterize intelligent buildings.  Surprisingly, though, I did not find entries for “intelligent building” in Wikipedia or Webster’s … which at this point I count to their credit.

contemporary Most definitions and characterizations of intelligent buildings include a focus on device network connectivity with frequent references to BACnet and other communications protocols.  And, as readers of my past columns know, I am a strong advocate for standards-based open systems but they hardly constitute “intelligence”.  Surprisingly, some characterizations of intelligent buildings extend backward into the design process, referencing things like cross-functional teams and building information modeling.  And, while I am an advocate for these as well, it is self-evident that the end product of a project (e.g. a building) is independent of the design process used to develop it.  So, why do people characterize intelligent buildings around these attributes?  My guess would be that there are two reasons.  First, these things are technical enablers and surely conducive to implementing intelligent buildings and second, it’s good marketing for the products and services that embody them.  But, I believe it’s more useful to establish the “intelligence” level of a building by how it behaves rather than how it’s designed or how it’s implemented.

Intelligent Buildings

So, how might we better characterize intelligent buildings?  I think there are two attributes we ought to consider any time we use the word “intelligent.”  One is responsiveness to the environment and the other is learning from experience.  Certainly we can design a building with advanced controls so that it responds to changes in the environment.  The ability to learn new behaviors or adapt existing ones over time is perhaps at the edge of the envelope but let’s give ourselves the benefit of the doubt and say we can do that, too.  We are still left with the problem that while the building can exhibit these attributes, that does not mean that it will.  For example, the most sophisticated strategy for integration of mechanical equipment, shades, blinds and ventilation designed to optimize temperature control performance over a wide range environmental circumstances can be circumvented by a clever occupant manipulating the temperature sensor.  (Think ski season hand warmers and duct tape, for instance.)  Is such a building “intelligent?”  Perhaps not.  Perhaps it is only another flavor of Spintelligent.

Hybrid I recently bought a hybrid car that has a very interesting mpg dashboard component.  It provides an instantaneous mpg reading and a sliding bar chart of average mpg over the prior ten minutes.  In addition, at the end of every trip it shows the average mpg for the whole trip.  What I found interesting is how these work together to impact my behavior.  I now find myself watching the dashboard when I turn off the car at the end of a trip to see what is says about the trip mpg.  After watching it for few weeks it became obvious that 40 mpg is achievable on most trips so I started paying attention to the instantaneous and ten minute average mpg displays with the thought in mind that I want see the “end of trip” display exceed 40mpg. 

I’m sure my car is a product of a complex and carefully orchestrated design process.  I’m also sure it embodies some very sophisticated integration of sensors, mechanical equipment and controls designed to optimize its performance over a wide range of environmental conditions.   But that does not ensure the car is actually a 40mpg vehicle.  To achieve that goal the designers had to consider the driver and design in mechanisms that lead me to do “my part” in achieving the full potential of the car.  And, at least in my case, they did a good job.  Of course, not everyone is enamored of bar charts so the designers included several display options to suit different people.  For example, an alternate display provides a virtual “flowering bush” where the number of leaves and flowers corresponds to mpg.  Not my style, but surely a better tool to influence the behavior of some other people. 

It’s About the People

To get intelligent buildings we need to do the same thing that designers of my hybrid did.  We need to go beyond integrated systems and sophisticated controls.  We need to create mechanisms that creatively engage the occupants of a building in its efficient operation.  The use of efficiency display kiosks in buildings is a step in that direction.  But, if we really want buildings that behave intelligently, we will need more than that.  My mpg dashboard gives me continuous feedback on the impact of my driving style as well as a short-term impact display and periodic summary information.  They all work in concert to influence my behavior.  My guess is that we need similar tiered information displays and communications tools to influence the behavior of building occupants.   And we need to meet them where they are … recognizing that there is diversity in information assimilation and learning styles.   Until we bring occupants into the loop, creatively rather than coercively, we’re likely to get buildings that are more Spintelligent than intelligent.

As always, the views expressed in this column are mine and do not necessarily reflect the position of BACnet International, Philips Teletrol, ASHRAE, or any other organization.  If you want to send comments to me directly, feel free to email me at andysview@arborcoast.com.


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