Buildings Become Information Systems

The transparent enterprise is characterized by increased data integration possibilities across formerly stovepiped databases. Now, even the buildings that house our transparent enterprises are becoming transparent themselves. In response to the demands of energy efficiency, security, lower operating

costs and the need to increase space-planning flexibility, the physical structures in which we work are on their way to becoming more closely integrated with our information infrastructure.

Consider these new requirements in the design of building systems and some of the issues they raise:

  • Secure access control: Linking the provisioning of RFID-type security systems to human resources systems will ensure that the right employees get through the right doors. This will require organizations to make sure appropriate privacy policies and practices are in place.
  • Energy efficiency: Electric power demand-monitoring systems promise cheaper power and higher levels of availability from the public power grid. Enterprise users must be ready to have their power utilization monitored and possibly even controlled down to the individual device level for this to work.
  • Security: Video monitoring of premises for both external and internal security purposes is increasingly common. We can hope that this improves the physical security of our buildings, but whether it does or not, it certainly makes the environment more transparent -- or intrusive, depending on which side of the camera one sits.
  • Building signage: Even building signs (e.g., lobby directories, special-purpose meeting-instruction signs and emergency exits) are being integrated in the interoperable building of the future. On arrival in an unfamiliar building, it will be nice to have signs that are dynamically configured to point us in the right direction. I'm not sure how I'll feel, however, when information screens in every elevator lobby of a high-rise inform me -- and every other occupant -- that my car has been towed out of the parking lot because I'm two months late on my parking fees.

In support of these goals, building systems, once the domain of HVAC engineers and security services, are becoming just one more information system. As with our other information systems, the first design requirement is that it be built on open standards for interoperability. The International Standards Organization has even released a standard (ISO 16484-5:2003) that "defines data communication services and protocols for computer equipment used for monitoring and control of heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration, and other building systems." The aim of the standard is to facilitate "the application and use of digital control technology in buildings."

As buildings become more automated, formerly disparate components (HVAC, LANs, security systems and even signage) will become interoperable with one another and with other information systems traditionally considered beyond the boundaries of the building systems themselves .

New "interoperable" building systems represent a dramatic change in design and function from even the most complex systems of the past. The critical change is that today's "smart" buildings have APIs that allow the buildings' physical systems to be linked, as any other piece of software, to other parts of an enterprise information system. The interface between building systems and the rest of the enterprise information infrastructure will now be defined by a series of SOAP message formats and the exchange of XML-formatted data.

In my own workplace -- the new Frank Gehry-designed Stata Center, home of the MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory -- some of the world's leading computer scientists are trying to sort out technical and policy designs to make our new, whiz-bang security system function in a more privacy-friendly and transparent way. Addressing these issues when new systems are being considered, or even when buildings are designed, may save a lot of trouble. We can learn to live with transparency if we give it some advance thought and take the time to discuss what to expect with the people who are about to participate in this new technology. I'll have more to say about developments in the building where I work in another column.

The transparent building raises the design stakes for efforts to ensure the integrity, reliability and accuracy of enterprise information systems. Today, system faults may result in a sales order being lost or an employee's paycheck being delayed. Tomorrow, with more transparent and dynamic links between building systems and current information systems, the results could be an employee locked out of the office, power shutting down in a building at the wrong time or embarrassing information being flashed across the building's public information displays.

Daniel J. Weitzner is technology and society domain lead at the World Wide Web Consortium and principal research scientist at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. The opinions expressed are his alone. You can reach him at


Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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