With the increasing interest in smart buildings and smart technology from the AECO community, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) held its first Smart Building Summit, attracting more than 300 participants from 34 states and 10 countries. The virtual event, held May 11–12, featured speakers across the building ecosystem who covered topics such as resilient design, distributed energy resources, system integration, workforce development, machine learning, and electrification. Melanie Colburn, director of market transformation and development at USGBC and director of local community at USGBC Northern California, oversaw the event with USGBC’s Smart Building working group, which includes chair Brandon Tinianov, head of strategy at Mynt Systems, and vice chair Mia Brøndum, sales director at WindowMaster. Smart Buildings Technology was an outreach partner for the summit.
USGBC is probably best known for its LEED green building rating system, which launched to the public in 2000. The certification program has expanded to multiple project types and scales, including LEED for Building Design and Construction, generally for new construction; LEED for Operations and Maintenance, for existing projects; LEED for Neighborhood Development, for multibuilding development projects; and LEED for Cities. In convening the Smart Building Summit, Colburn told SBT that she hopes to strengthen the connection between green buildings and smart buildings, both of which aim to provide optimized, efficient, and high-performing environments for owners and occupants.
The summit’s solidly packed two days comprised keynotes, presentations, and panels, interactive breakout sessions. Highlights from the program follow.
Case Study: Carrier Center for Intelligent Buildings
Kicking off the summit’s first day, Mead Rusert, president of Automated Logic, a Carrier company, observed that intelligent building technologies can enhance energy performance, resilience, and the occupant experience while ensuring ongoing progress toward project goals. On this latter point, he said, “As an industry, we tend to fall down a little bit. We tend to spend a lot of time designing and making the building, and then turn our shoulder when it’s time to move on.”
He then presented the Carrier Center for Intelligent Buildings, the company’s 224,000-square-foot world headquarters, in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. Completed in 2018, the LEED version 4 Platinum– and WELL Platinum–certified project is an evolving “proving ground for what’s possible,” Rusert says. It gives occupants visibility to building systems that are typically invisible, such as HVAC controls and indoor air quality. “We had to carefully think through integrating the operating systems so they actually did things that we cared about,” Rusert says, “and not just sharing data like a data platform.”
Panel: The challenge of smart building integration
This panel covered a common obstacle faced by system integrators and building owners: making smart technologies and systems communicate on a unified platform that will work in the near- and long-term. Moderated by Switch Automation chief product owner Peter Rake, panelists Piers MacNaughton, vice president of health strategy at View; Louis Osuna, director of technology integration at Glumac; and Eric Sande, vice president of sales at Intertie, discussed the difficulties of achieving owner and energy goals when building systems are utilizing varying combinations of proprietary, legacy, and emerging communications protocols, such as BACnet, Modbus, and MQTT, and different metadata schema, such as Brick and Project Haystack.
Moreover, the data collected by an integration platform, or middleware, needs to be more than information, MacNaughton said: “You have to be able to convert information into intelligence to be actionable.” Attaching context, such as location, to the data helps, which supports the increasing attention in digital twins.
Osuna expressed his hope that the building certification process, which comprises a mixture of requirements and methodologies depending on the certification program, will eventually be streamlined. “I believe standardization will be part of local building codes the same way there are codes for electrical and other architectural features,” he said. “We cannot continue to build buildings the way we have doing it for the last 50 years. We need the different platforms and entities to push for a healthier industry environment in advocating this and enforcing this.”
Panel: Smart building operators: the workforce of the future
“The reality is that a skilled workforce is probably the single, biggest constraint in terms of our ability to meet our climate goals,” said TSK Energy Solutions managing partner Gregory King in this panel, which covered the need for personnel trained in operating and monitoring smart buildings. From a LinkedIn search, King said the Association of Control Professionals found 25,000 job openings for building automation systems (BAS) technicians, which he estimated offer salaries between $60,000 and $110,000.
Moderator Anthony Bernheim, healthy and resilient buildings program manager, at San Francisco International Airport; Melanie Danuser, training and education director at Northwest Energy Efficiency Council and Smart Buildings Center (SBC) ; and Strategic Energy Innovations (SEI) director Jake Pollack joined King to discuss how recruiting and training a smart-technologies workforce can help achieve climate goals across industries and elevate individuals in underserved communities. Pollack and King noted that many high school or college career counselors may not be familiar with this relatively nascent occupation.
For more news, projects, and profiles in the smart buildings ecosystem, subscribe to the SBT newsletter and follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.
The panelists referenced several programs that seek to train individuals in smart building operations without requiring a four-year college degree, including Boston’s Youth Green Jobs Corps, SEI’s Climate Corps and Energize Colleges, and SBC’s Building Operator Certification program. To reach more underserved and diverse communities, King emphasized increasing awareness of careers in smart buildings, offering self-paced certification programs in lieu of requiring a two- or four-year degree, bringing a mobile BAS training laboratory to communities, and offering wraparound, support services to students during training.
SEI has leveraged local and regional resources, Pollack said, to ensure its training programs have ties to local partners to offer students internships.
The panel said that USGBC, trade unions, and AEC firms could also offer mentorships and professional development opportunities to high school and college students to increase the talent pipeline. Pollack added that sharing salary data commensurate with certifications and experience would be helpful.
Keynote: Federal initiatives and progress
Mary Ann Piette, senior scientist and director of the building technology and urban systems division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), closed the summit’s first day with an overview of federal research initiatives and pilot projects related to smart building operations, controls, and performance. “The U.S. is trying to become net-zero by 2050, and we have a long way to go,” she said. Buildings waste 30% of their energy, she noted, but data science, smart energy analytics, and integrated controls can make a difference. Her staff is involved with developing an open building control system descriptive language, model predictive controls through digital twins, and grid interactive efficient buildings.
During the audience Q&A, Piette was asked for her one wish for smart building infrastructure. “The most important thing is that we … share data,” she replied. “When you invest in a building, we want to share what works, how much did it cost, what worked well and what didn’t work well? … We need a lot of feedback loops: When we design a building, did it work the way we thought that it did?”
Day two: A rousing wake-up call
The second day of Smart Building Summit began with a conversation that USGBC’s Tinianov would later say “set the bar high” for being the most provocative discussion. DOE’s director of the loan programs office Jigar Shah spoke frankly about the slow pace of smart technologies adoption by the building industry with Peter Templeton, president and CEO of USGBC, Green Business Certification, Inc., and Arc Skoru. While the industry could claim a decade ago that it wanted more R&D on methods to decarbonize buildings, Shah said, “there’s a recognition today that the technologies exist to meet the entirety of the president’s goals [for cutting the country’s carbon emissions by half] by 2030. So what we really have is an implementation challenge.”
The DOE can offer loans to those who want to invest in emerging technologies, such as virtual power plants and microgrids, Shah said. “We’re playing a go-first role in all of those areas, and we’re proud to do it. Along the way, we’re training friends in the commercial banking sector to help them be less afraid in joining us.”
On local compliance mechanisms, such as cities requiring buildings of a certain size to report energy usage, Shah said, “Leaders view this as an opportunity, and laggards view this as a compliance cost. … We need to figure out how to help the leaders,” who want everyone to meet the same energy goals in order to create a level playing field. The real estate industry is the largest contributor to mayoral races, he added: “If you’re a leader, you push for these things.”
Shah also expressed his hope that the electric utility industry will start viewing owners able to generate their own power as partners that can help load-level the grid more efficiently than the utilities managing it themselves. “We’re starting to see leaders demand more from their elected officials, utilities, and technology providers” whose BAS didn’t deliver the efficiencies advertised when, for example, the pandemic resulted in high building vacancies, Shah said.
In turn, the building industry needs smart technology companies and providers to be profitable so they can stay in business and provide their solutions for the long term. “There’s a greater recognition by all the building owners that if they don’t participate now (in retrofitting or upgrading their buildings), then they’re bad guys,” Shah said. “You cannot say with a straight face that [with the costs of electricity and fuel soaring, and with support systems] thrown out of whack [due to global conflicts, that] you still won’t lift a finger to do something. … Their country needs them now, and they’re not rising to the occasion.”
For more news, projects, and profiles in the smart buildings ecosystem, subscribe to the SBT newsletter and follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.
Shah asked Templeton and the USGBC to help convene building owners to have these conversations with DOE and other leaders as a communal group, rather than in standalone, one-off conversations. “We all just need to wake up to what’s happening today,” Shah said. “[B]uildings are one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Buildings are going to be where leadership is most needed and most expected to be able to meet the president’s goal by 2030.”
Shah cited research that attaining LEED Platinum certification used to cost owners about a 3% premium on first cost. With advancements in technology, that premium has dropped to 0.5%—which the owners should make back through the improved building performance. He urged Templeton to raise the bar for LEED Platinum certification to meet the pace of technology. “No one should be LEED Platinum unless they’re at net zero—full stop,” he said. “All that technology exists today, and if people aren’t putting them in their buildings, they should not be LEED Platinum.”
Templeton observed the timeliness of the conversation, as USGBC has embarked on envisioning the future of LEED (a June 9 report has been released since this summit). “This is the time for us to be taking on the bold challenges that we have to put in front of the entire industry of what it really requires to be a leader in green building in 2022, in 2025, and in 2030,” Templeton said.
Panel: Optimizing smart buildings and the grid
Continuing the conversation on incorporating smart buildings as clean-energy contributors to the electric grid, this panel comprised experts researching, investing, and working firsthand in the decarbonizing power generation and transmission: Marin Clean Energy director Alice Havenar-Daughton; Mynt Systems chief development officer Rob Hymes; Smarter Grid Solutions senior business development engineer Tim McDuffie; California Institute for Energy and Environment director of electric grid research Alexandra “Sascha” von Meier; and moderator Hugh Lindsay, strategy director and global segment architect of real estate at Schneider Electric. Together, the panel commiserated on the challenges of implementing DERs, such as saturating the existing grid infrastructure with renewable energy sources, ensuring a consistent power supply in the evenings and the winter, and developing interoperable communication systems that can collect data to monitor grid and subgrid transactions, outages, and supply and demand.
Hymes noted the importance of educating owners on the cost-effectiveness of clean-energy infrastructure. “If we all want to run profitable businesses and have a strong, vibrant economy, regional and nationally,” he said, “it’s going to depend on a more resilient grid, a more interactive grid, where there is transparency and security.”Trust is a known issue in the electric power industry, both on the owner and utility sides, von Meier said. She reminded the audience why a national grid was originally conceived and implemented. “Electrifying farms was not done because it was cost effective,” she said. “We reached out because we had an ethical and ideological conviction that the right thing to do was to have everyone have equal access. … The key philosophical challenge as we move forward with smart grids … is how do we recapture that sense of common mission?” The financials have to work out, she acknowledged, but “we all have a common interest in having a clean, decarbonized grid and one that works—and that when it doesn’t work, it fails gracefully, and we can recover effectively.”
Panel: Post-occupancy applications of AI and machine learning in buildings
Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) frequently come up in the smart building space, but how will these technologies prove useful? In this panel, moderator Chris Pyke, senior vice president for product at Arc Skoru, discussed the potential of AI and ML with Jessica Granderson, mechanical staff scientist and engineer and deputy for research at the building technology and urban systems division at LBNL; Sonu Panda, CEO at Prescriptive Data; and Adhishesh Sood, global healthy buildings strategic partnerships leader at Honeywell Building Technologies and WELL air adviser at the International WELL Building Institute.
In response to Sood noting that “our data about buildings is a mess,” Pyke asked if AI can “turn that mess into something operable?” Granderson agreed that building data is disorganized and added that “our controls fall out of tune all the time.” She spotlighted three opportunities for leveraging AI and ML. The first was to help in “diagnosing root cause” of complex building issues, such as erroneous control settings that lead to simultaneous heating and cooling. A second area “is thinking about new paradigms and drivers for control optimization that take into account tradeoffs” across multiple energy systems, including storage, photovoltaics, and electric vehicles. Third, Granderson said, AI and ML could help in asset characterization at scale, using “novel data sources,” such as satellite and thermal imagery, “to auto-create 3D building representations” and detect thermal anomalies or information that cannot be found in time-series measured data.
Panda expressed his excitement for applying AI and ML to find “correlations between data streams that might neither have ever been correlated—or thought of as being correlated.”
As in previous sessions, data transparency and trustworthiness came up. Pyke asked what role the federal government could have in furthering AI and ML in the building and clean energy sectors. Granderson said that the “drive and push for open … and accessible data” was critical in order to “continuously innovate and to do so in a transparent manner.”
In the panel’s breakout session, which I co-hosted with Switch Automation chief of people, culture, and impact Patti Mason, I asked if the collaborative spirit Sascha von Meier had referenced in the preceding panel was applicable to developing AI and ML technologies for building applications. Panda enthusiastically noted that tech startups in the building sector are competing against tech giants, such as Google and Meta. “We’re not going to get far … if we’re looking to beat each other up along the way,” he said. He believes that capitalism can coexist with information sharing, which he hopes to enable via an algorithm marketplace that Prescriptive Data’s Nantum OS product plans to launch this year.
Mason brought the conversation to full circle by noting how, three decades ago, USGBC had convened business leaders—and competitors—to envision a program to encourage the design and construction of environments that were sustainable, economically viable, and socially beneficial for everyone.
Keynote: Rewiring America
Saul Griffith, an inventor, serial entrepreneur, author, and MacArthur Fellowship recipient, closed the USGBC Smart Building Summit with a visual, data-packed presentation, “Rewiring America.” Incremental improvements in efficiencies alone, he argued, will not be able to keep us within the 1.5 degree C budget in temperature increase before the Earth experiences severe climate change effects. “Electrification is the efficiency we always needed” to achieve zero emissions, he said.
Because much of today’s emissions come from the demand side, such as residential and commercial building systems, Griffith said electrification can occur as a step function, conducted over time. As machines reach the end of their operating life, owners can replace them with systems that can run on clean energy, such as electric heat pumps, batteries, and vehicles.