Smart buildings get smarter

Thanks to integrated architectures, IT-driven building designs are minimizing energy consumption while optimizing operations.

Behind the glittering, sculpted glass skin of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission's new 13-story headquarters beats the heart of one of the most energy-efficient office buildings in the world.

IT makes it tick.

The office tower, a smart building that opened in June, features many state-of-the-art green technologies, including solar panels and wind turbines that supply up to 7% of its energy needs. "Our goal was to save rate payers money and to educate them about energy efficiency," says program manager Masoud Vafaei. A LEED Platinum candidate, the building uses 32% less energy than similar structures with conventional designs. Like many smart buildings, the SFPUC headquarters uses computer technology to manage and optimize the many systems that control every aspect of the building's operation. But much of the day-to-day efficiency gains are derived from a central database that pulls data from all of the building's management and control systems, and from the use of analytics to study that data to ensure that all systems work in concert to minimize energy consumption and optimize operations.

Such IT-driven designs can also be applied to existing buildings, generating energy savings of 5% to 10% simply by optimizing how existing systems run, experts say. "There's a huge opportunity for building owners to do the sorts of data mining that other industries have done for years," says Jim Sinopoli, managing principal at Smart Buildings LLC, a design, engineering and consulting firm. "Using analytics, you can predict when there's going to be a failure and when to do preventative maintenance."

Over the past several years, building management and control systems have been gradually converging with traditional IT infrastructures. Open standards now dominate at the hardware layer, where industry-standard communication protocols allow data collected by data points such as sensors and valves to flow over the corporate IP backbone to server-based building management systems that control everything from heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) to lighting, power, fire protection, security, elevators and building access.

"Sensors are becoming better, smaller and, most important, cheaper," says James Dagley, vice president of marketing at Johnson Controls, which sells an automation system used in the SFPUC building. For example, the vendor is testing a technology that uses Ethernet to power LED lights, each of which includes 12 different environmental sensors that measure things such as light, humidity, temperature and motion. "Each sensor costs about two cents," says Dagley. All of that data can be tied back to a Johnson Controls building automation system in the San Francisco office tower.

"From a hardware standpoint, the industry has fulfilled its goal of integrating," says Tom Hartman, principal at The Hartman Co., an engineering firm specializing in smart buildings. "But from a software standpoint, there hasn't been much progress."

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