Synergistic Buildings And IoT

Facility managers will capture actionable data from myriad technologies when enabled by the IoT ecosystem layer.

By Michael C. Skurla
From the December 2018 Issue

The stalwart of buildings in the Americas has been that technology was the problem of the tenant. Facilities and those that built these structures were free from significant concern so long as power and utilities existed with the ability for third parties to come in and build out what they needed to perform their core business.

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Within mid-rise and high-rise structures Building Management Systems (BMS) existed as the logic of these building infrastructures. Opportunistically BMS systems grew beyond their HVAC rooting and expanded their sphere of influence. This expansion was an evolutionary, not revolutionary, process through the 1990s and 2000s. This sparked into a digital infrastructure, with the acceptance of BacNet; helping the switch from an analog age to a more digital future.

Building Management Systems, however, remained in the coveted realm of these larger building portfolios with a heavy focus in HVAC at their root. This stemmed from many facets included operational complexity, perceived ROI value, design complications, and the overall initial package costs. Smaller spaces or satellite locations were often left out of this BMS world because of these limiting factors.

Even the smallest commercial space has numerous sub-systems to keep it operating. Electric, water, wifi, business IT, and HVAC to just list the basics. Each of these sub-systems highly tuned to perform their function exceptionally well alone, but each historically made to run in autonomy. BMS systems always handled HVAC exceptionally well and completed their core task with the precision of a scientist, but when asked to do other jobs, played it more as a craft project. Connected systems often involved one of two approaches:

1. Allow another trade to take on an effort out of its core competency. Prime examples of this are in areas like lighting control. Though switching contactors on and off seems like a simple task, code compliance as well as advanced lighting designs, now extremely frequent, added much more to lighting solutions than contactors and switches. Lighting systems are exceptionally agile at this type of support, whereby BMS systems (and BacNet) are not. The path most frequently followed was to try and water down the functionality of lighting to meet the needs of the chosen core control solution. This often diluted the strengths of the sub-system and the flexibility of the subsystem in the name of integration. Security, irrigation, metering, and all other trades fell the same victim.

2. Fall back on the tried and tested methodologies of triggering things through old-school means on sub-systems like analog contacts or rudimentary communication means. Though this latter method is still standard, its riddled with complexity, expense, maintenance hassles, and inflexibility to change. Most importantly, it adds little insight or leverage to the greater building ecosystem. This was a one way fixed control lever, with no concept beyond simple control functionality.

Enter A Philosophical Change

Synergy is the creation of a whole that is greater than the sum of all its parts. LEED took this concept within the building space and proved out the economic and sustainable benefits of breaking down the walls between the trade silos through the integrated development process. Careful forethought into insulation and windows would impact HVAC size and lighting needs. Material choice and landscaping techniques would affect drainage and the water consumption for a property. The list could go on. This synergistic thought was built around new construction and renovation, and although metering is now part of the LEED requirements, continuous improvement from a synergistic approach was still left to a very manual sifting process.

Though we commonly still operate and design in a siloed approach, interestingly building sub-systems over the last 10 years have gotten exceptionally good at producing data. A common thread on this data has been “reporting,” and sub-systems have forged considerable effort into software packages to harness this data into diagnostics for building professionals to analyze for each siloed trade. As the average small building has 9-12 sub-systems within it, that’s 9-12 sources of data. Larger campuses and structures can exceed 28 sub-systems, all operating and reporting independently with perhaps small facets of intermixed control triggering through the aforementioned rudimentary means (analog triggers, etc.).

Hot Data, Cold Data

Reporting is only as useful as the interpreter of the data. Reporting on a single system may offer insight into a problem of a single system, but provides little ability to impact profound change outside of its scope. Its scope is too limited by its lack of understanding of its greater ramification on its adjacent sub-systems. An air conditioner will run day and night attempting to keep 74°F if it has no awareness that the backdoor in Arizona heat is wide open. This is the leverage synergy, and the entry of the concept of synergic design of systems provides. Synergistic design transitions siloed one-way levers of control and replaces them with instruments of configurable control capable of rapid change and greater understanding to the entire building ecosystem.

Data from building sub-systems historically has been what IT coins “Cold Data.” This is raw data in mass from systems in immense quantity. Various sub-system software packages, generally proprietary and geared towards a specific trade, take this subset of data, examine it, and generate reports for these individual systems and even institute alerts in software to show faults. Next to no data was compared to other systems, or outside data sources to make informed decisions synergistically.

Business analytics (BI for short) has been an exceptionally hot topic with-in business and IT circles and have recently entered the building space with force. Data itself is highly contextual to the individual reading it and their role and intent. The same occupancy data within an area can be used to not only optimize if AC should be running to a facility manager, but a real- estate manager could use that data for space utilization in a multistory office building. In a restaurant application, knowing that same occupancy information could impact exhaust fan usage for a store manager, while at the same time trend data for an HR manager to understand staffing needs at specific times of days. Reinterpreting the same mass cold data into contexts of individual roles for people to take action on. This is the conversion process to “Hot Data.”

Interestingly there is a cultural drive to Hot Data. Smartphones started this and offered us a consolidated personal ecosystem of data at our fingertips. The holders of these phones had access to custom tailor data from all sources, but also often unwittingly became part of the data stream themselves, becoming effectively mobile sensors helping us. Over the last two years, we have seen the exponential growth of technology in homes to work with our digital and cellular lives. No longer is it just high-tech individuals putting in home automation products, but innovations like Google’s NEST, and Amazon Alexa (through the Ring acquisition), have given people insight into their homes and methods to better interact with their environments. This hasn’t been through getting reports, but a simplification of operation and meaningful interaction and automation presented on an individual level to increase efficiency, personalize their environment and increase productivity. A side effect of this has been the native incorporation of integration into people’s lives. The thermostat is no longer something we touch or program, but it knows when we are home (or coming home), learns what we prefer, and shares this information with other devices for our benefit and simplicity.

This personalized experience is now rooted in expectations of where we as individuals work, commute, and travel. To make this possible in commercial spaces, we as design professionals can no longer rely on just triggering things. We need to communicate with our surroundings bi-directionally to foster this productivity and in tandem increase efficiency. By enabling this form of communication and data collection we shift the model from integration; so common in BMS, to integrated intelligence; the root of IoT ecosystems and the key to synergy.

The Components Of IoT Ecosystem

Building management systems still play an essential role in data collection and HVAC control, just as a security system and lighting system do the same. The key differentiator is that none reign queen of the castle as the master rationalizer. An additional IoT ecosystem layer is added atop, allowing specialties of systems to thrive while synergy is made possible through the data from everyone. The DCSAA model is a prime enterprise example of such a building system in practice (see Figure 1 below).

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(Courtesy of Michael Skurla)

The collection of data enables BI platforms well beyond the needs of just facility managers and individual trades. An IoT ecosystem allows not only communication with building technologies but utilizes resources beyond internal building sub-systems to make more intelligent business decisions about the present and future. Examples are as simple as weather information to predict HVAC needs; Google maps for traffic information, external business databases, twitter feeds; the sky is the limit. The core here is that information that can be referenced and related to is more than just reports about equipment being out of tolerance. A facility manager can see real-time the whole operation of the building and all its subsystems in one place, but at the same time the system can share and harness information from trades we considered foreign to make better choices about operations.

Interestingly sub-systems that seemed to be unique for a specific purpose outside of facility scope now become relevant. Take indoor positioning technologies which are becoming popular in retail and commercial office through techniques such as WiFi, Bluetooth (BLE), and lighting infrastructure (VLC). Technologies such as this offer a wealth of navigation services to shoppers and tenants through indoor wayfinding, room reservations, promotional services, and personal control, but at the same time offer data back through IoT ecosystems that can impact building operations as well as marketing, store management, and sales. This allows these additional stakeholders access just as quickly as a facility manager to data dashboards of “Hot Data” tailored to their needs that can impact operations of the business occupying the building.

A prime impact of an IoT ecosystem layer goes back to our core tenet that all of the subsystems within buildings are manufactured with scientific promise within their intended scope. Millions are spent by manufacturers on ‘logic recipes’ and are very refined to make them work optimally within their silo. This model leaves that alone, letting the sub-systems do what’s best, but also allowing adaptable logic without massive customization efforts. What if we could lower the shades instead of run the AC and get a similar impact? What if we knew if it was going to be sunny today and could recognize the thermal effect and adjust without intervention by a person?

From this perspective, a synergistic system can anticipate and make intelligent choices on what will occur and adapt from a holistic view. All based on data you already have and all enabled by the IoT ecosystem layer.

The Impact In Practice

This new connected world enabled by IoT has jolted the building industry into I.T. connectivity standards, which for some can be highly uncomfortable, as it requires a solid foundational understanding of technologies that may be foreign to those who have worked in silos for years. However, for those who have embraced this change or are welcome to it, it has made accessing actionable information that is historically difficult to obtain, vastly easier.

Though most of this was possible in the past, it was rarely implemented. It required costly integration and custom programming relegated to software professionals. This is what has indeed changed recently. The software has become approachable to facility managers and institutions willing to take that step and think differently.

  • Frameworks like Niagara and DSA offer the data layer that enables an approach such as this to harvest the cold data from many sources and saves it in I.T. based resources such as Microsoft Azure, Google GCP, or Amazon AWS. for harvesting by analytics engines.
  • Highly refined logic via plugin micro-service analytics is a growing field from startups and established data companies alike to aid in the processing of this gathered data into multi-stakeholder hot data. Analytics is no longer just coming from one system but using the IoT Ecosystem frameworks coupled with multiple micro-service providers (often cloud-based) to convert Cold data to create relevant hot data for different groups in the context of their job. These don’t require coding, but are ala-cart packages to meet various needs on demand and are often web-based. BuildingOS is a prime example.
  • Reports are a thing of the past. We have moved past reporting, and into the era of live and interactive data and control. Tables of information are a thing of the past. Products such as DGlux5, and QA Graphics for Niagara, to name just a few, offer Ecosystems of visual interaction that bring hot data to the forefront. Tools such as this bring actionable information real-time to any tablets, phones, or computers from anywhere. Additionally, these are not one size fits all solutions, pre-programmed to a single trades purpose, but purpose-built UI tooling for buildings that can now adapt on the fly to changing needs in facilities, not using coding, but in drag and drop environments to allow changes on demand without massive expense.

Note, I haven’t talked about hardware here. In most cases, as we discussed, the equipment is already in place to offer the cold data to make all this possible. It’s the IoT Ecosystems job to get it to a common location to allow analytics to impact it. A side advantage to this model as well is that we no longer are looking at a ‘Building’ management. By the nature of the architecture, we are now talking about something that can span multiple buildings, campuses, continents, or the global with ease. Offering a vastly different perspective on efficiency as well as business performance alike.

The Leap Forward

The next practical leap in efficiency is not the future chiller advancement or lightbulb that shaves off a few watts. It’s the technological reality of unification of the data available in a building and making it relate to the commercial business.

The technology exists to implement this now, in fact, it’s being deployed in projects large and small across the world. Manufacturers from many industries and software organizations are investing heavily in this market transformation that is occurring thanks to the IoT revolution. The larger question remains with the design community on how to specify and implement a solution such as this en-Masse as the end user expectations continue to snowball.

A facility manager’s role is changing, and growing through this transition. The days of building segregation from IT are rapidly closing, but those that have the cross-discipline insight and desire to enter into this new partnership will be sought out. This will stretch the boundaries of creativity well beyond traditional industry comfort zones. We should embrace this change. It isn’t here to cut us out but to finally allow buildings to play a more significant role the businesses that occupy them.

building management systemsWith a B.S. in Computer Science and a strong background in electrical design and M2M/IoT communications technologies, Skurla has spent over 23 years in commercial building automation, with a heavy emphasis on networked solutions and analytics. He has had roles in system design, product development, programming, strategic marketing, and sales. He has led the design/development of several network, dimming, power management, and power control products globally. Currently, Skurla is the VP of Solution Architecture for Acuity Brands Lighting.

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