Smart Buildings: 4 Steps to a Sustainable Foundation

July 20, 2018

Because of technology, there are many emerging and improved options for smart buildings.


Over the past several decades, we’ve seen sustainability become more important around the world. Looking for new ways to reduce the impact on the planet and protect natural resources has expanded from a niche topic into something top of mind for many, including building developers, owners and operators. As a result, net zero buildings have increased 700 percent over the last six years when New Buildings Institute began tracking projects.

Because of technology, there are many emerging and improved options for smart buildings. While their benefits are wide ranging – from operating cost efficiencies to an improved employee experience – smart building techniques also play an especially significant role in enhancing sustainability.

Related: How IoT Devices Enable Predictive Maintenance

However, given the rapid growth and evolving nature of this field, it’s important to understand how to use this technology most effectively to drive sustainable results and successful projects, and the Internet of Things (IoT) is critical to searching and understanding energy usage at a very granular level.

Here are four main steps to take:

1. Look at the Big Picture

When first considering a smart building project, it’s important to focus on the big picture. Sure, it’s easy to get distracted by the different systems and options available. However, by looking at a project from a 100,000-foot level, we’re able to better understand how to best achieve your sustainability and other goals for the building. This is also crucial in avoiding a fragmented solution full of missed opportunities.

Additionally, by looking at a building holistically, we’re able to better identify what systems have the potential to make the biggest impact.

On topic: Track Sustainable Development with Energy Master Plan

Big-ticket items may be the way to start as they offer the chance to get a solid initial level of value. For example, a lighting system could create up to 50 percent energy savings over florescent lighting solution, with room to potentially get more granular and save an additional 35 percent with advanced controls or using data from this once-siloed system.

As part of this planning stage, it’s also important to research and understand the possibilities of various smart buildings systems and how they interact.

Sustainability requires a deep level of system visibility to uncover potential opportunities. If a building boasts many features that promote sustainability but cannot collect data or locks up the data in a siloed system, the ability to make improvements, impact to cost savings or the environment is only a fraction of what it could be.

2. Create a Smart Building with the Right Team Members

To design successful smart buildings, the right team is crucial. Given the evolving nature of this field, the makeup of a team is evolving as well, with projects bringing in new coordinators and specialists who understand these intricate systems and how they interact to create a more sustainable product.

Key to creating a true sustainable building framework is an architect who’s both willing to offer clients evolving approaches and understands the new outcomes possible from changing architecture and technology. By beginning with sustainable goals in mind and looking at the bigger picture, they lay the groundwork to putting together this vision.

The team also needs a strong awareness of the many integrated systems, how they operate and how they work with each other.

A technical contractor who can oversee how each of these will layer in with each other, from initial design to installation to everyday functionality, is necessary for driving sustainable results at the end of a project. Technical contractors also play a key role in ensuring bids are correctly written as well as rating bids on how well they fit specific technical needs.

When people understand the benefits that these various components can deliver, they can better understand bids and the long-term cost efficiencies they can offer.

Beyond these two roles, there’s also been a growing interest in new types of consultants who specialize in smart buildings and work directly with architects, developers and customers.

Future architects are pursuing education and training that is less conventional as well. Real estate developers are opting to put their architects through a certified network engineering class instead of continuing to a master’s degree program because the skills that are needed today cross the boundaries of traditional systems and smart and connected IoT systems.

3. Embrace New Smart Building Technology and Practices

Having the right team in place is also vital to understanding emerging developments in technology.

A great example of how technologies are evolving to realize these benefits are the changes in cabling systems. Historically, the majority of lighting systems in a building were often very simplistic and didn’t have any advanced control.

Read also: 5 HVAC Industry Technologies Driving Efficiency

Systems were also interchangeable and could easily be value engineered if needed. But with lighting systems being one of the most pervasive things around a building, more people realizing that they can play a critical role in promoting sustainability.

Historically, fluorescent lights accounted for the majority of lighting systems, but this is now shifting to LED fixtures, prompting a shift from using alternating current (AC) to direct current (DC). This means more connections to the network are possible for powering and controlling building devices, such as phones and wireless access points – up to 80 percent of a building’s devices.

Because of this, lighting systems can provide the foundation for the network and serve as the platform for installing a host of sensors that provide granular insight into building information and usage.

In addition to functioning as the nervous system of a smart building, a significant benefit of powering LED lights over DC is reduced energy loss. If energy is being collected at a building though solar, wind or other methods, DC energy systems reduce energy loss by eliminating conversions from DC to AC and then back to DC. The elimination of this conversion alone can easily reduce energy loss 20 percent.

Additionally, standards-based Ethernet and power over ethernet (PoE) are normalizing the communication protocols and streamlining the ability for systems to work with each other. This brings an extra benefit of materials reduction by eliminating a separate power and control network, as both power and control can be delivered over the same cable in PoE solutions.

4. Unlock the Power of Data

When smart building systems are up and running, they can deliver priceless data that will help to gain a better understanding of how systems are operating over the life of installation. This can provide insight into how to manage these systems, as well as how they are being used.

In terms of a heating and cooling system, for example, we can understand how to create a better turn-up/turn-down schedule and save more energy over time, creating a more sustainable building, generating cost savings and extending the life of the systems.  

Trending: 5 Steps to Optimize Your Facility with Data Analytics

Case in point, connected light sensors are rather minimal in cost, but when used effectively, the data from these interior sensors allow customers to reduce energy associated with over-lighting interior spaces through high light levels or ambient light entering into the interior of the building.

Additionally, with real data on operating hours and conditions, maintenance schedules can be varied and, in many cases, the guesswork can be removed from many common gray areas surrounding device usage and efficiency.

Wouldn’t it be great to know that a 20-year air handler only operated 50 percent of the expected time since installed and is still operating at an efficient level?

By understanding how to better mine data and how it affects other systems and smart building features, systems and operators are truly working as a team to find new insights and opportunities for sustainability.

Smart buildings offer the building industry a unique chance to promote more sustainable practices that can have a major impact. With a little bit of preparation and ingenuity, the possibilities in this area are truly endless.

Todd Frederes is a Solutions Architect in Cisco’s Industry Products Group responsible to bring Cisco Validated Solutions to market.

Two hand-picked articles to read next:

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Buildings, create an account today!

Sponsored Recommendations

Building Better Schools

Download this digital resource to better understand the challenges and opportunities in designing and operating educational facilities for safety, sustainability, and performance...

Tips to Keep Facility Management on Track

How do you plan to fill the knowledge gap as seasoned facility managers retire or leave for new opportunities? Learn about the latest strategies including FM tech innovations ...

The Beauty & Benefits of Biophilic Design in the Built Environment

Biophilic design is a hot trend in design, but what is it and how can building professionals incorporate these strategies for the benefits of occupants? This eHandbook offers ...

The Benefits of Migrating from Analog to DMR Two-Way Radios

Are you still using analog two-way radios? Download this white paper and discover the simple and cost-effective migration path to digital DMR radios that deliver improved audio...