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The Rise of Smart Buildings

Building-automation systems used to function in separate technology silos. Now vendors are rapidly adopting IP, Web services and other technologies that are beginning to converge with traditional IT infrastructures.

March 14, 2005 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - At Panasonic Corporation of North America's headquarters, a project is under way to replace wall-mounted thermostats with individual, virtual thermostats controlled by PCs. Real estate management firm Kenmark Group in San Francisco created an operations center to save energy by centrally monitoring and controlling the multiple office buildings it manages. The system includes a common Web portal and uses XML and an IP backbone network to "talk" to components within individual buildings.


Toronto Pearson International Airport is tying a flight information database to heating, lighting and air conditioning systems at each gate in order to restrict energy use to those periods when gate areas are occupied.


As building automation systems (BAS) that control heat, air conditioning, lighting and other building systems get smarter, they're converging with traditional IT infrastructures. Emerging standards are enabling data sharing between building systems as well as with other business applications, improving efficiency and real-time control over building operating costs. Information security concerns, immature standards, the reluctance of vendors to give up proprietary technologies and ignorance among IT professionals of the convergence trend are all slowing the pace of this transformation, but it's gathering momentum.


Facilities managers are driving the change by demanding more-open systems. They're pushing BAS vendors to transform today's closed technologies into Web-enabled applications running over industry-standard IP networks. And the management of BAS is likely to increasingly fall to IT.


"IT folks are entering an era where virtually everything is converging in their direction, and it broadens their horizons tremendously," says Rick LeBlanc, president of HVAC products at Siemens Building Technologies in Buffalo Grove, Ill. IT won't operate BASs, but it will serve the facilities staff as a customer in much the same way it does accounting and other departments today, he says.


Many large companies already have centralized BASs that monitor and control the environment throughout large buildings and across campuses. These systems have begun to migrate to more open IT infrastructures in much the same way that telephone systems and IT networks have converged.


"Right now, there is a clamor to integrate control systems into IT networks," says Tom Hartman, principal at The Hartman Co., a consultancy in Georgetown, Texas. But the trend is likely to go well beyond that. Today's BASs typically include a network of sensors and other devices connected to controllers on each floor, a master controller for a building or campus, a Web server front end for monitoring building systems, and a back-end database for storing historical data (see diagram, page 28). But as intelligence continues to move into actuators, chillers, security cameras, sensors and other elements of building systems, these devices will increasingly communicate as peers via Web services, allowing BASs to be more flexible and integrate better with other systems.



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