The end of year offers a recurring reminder to review achievements and prepare for advancements. Time has shown that integration, collaboration, and communication across multiple disciplines and sectors are critical to the success of smart buildings. Here, industry leaders across the AECO (architecture, engineering, construction, and ownership/operation) spectrum reveal their takeaways from 2022 and hopes for 2023.
Paul Doherty is a Memphis, Tenn.–based architect and the managing director of The Digit Group, a Singapore-registered smart city real estate development and investment company.
Beyond the digital world and digital assets, we are reopening our dormant projects and discovering how the world has changed. Finding and retaining skilled labor are unbelievable exercises; supply chains are all over the place. Many people are sourcing locally because relying on something delivered to a job site can be a nightmare.
This reminded me that the person who controls time—not the balance sheet—is the person who controls the project. The balance sheet is driven by the schedule. Because the metaverse warps time, I started thinking about modular construction with engineer David Pay. We created an assembly line in China that produces a 250-square-meter home in under seven minutes. It would be difficult to replicate in the U.S. because of the approximately 3,800 different building departments, plan examiners, and authorities having jurisdiction.
However, things change if you open a panelization business that makes products, not projects. These panels of light-gauge steel and lightweight concrete snap together and flat-pack ship anywhere. They can be configured into a home, school, or hospital and don’t look like you’re inside a storage container. We plan to open a factory in middle Tennessee to meet the demands of high-growth areas, such as Nashville.
Third, we are revisiting how the physical world meets the digital world. We’re rethinking the specification book, usually done in Microsoft Word and saved to PDF. When you layer in 3D geometry mapping, your specs become a geopositioned way of saying, “This is a VAV box in the plenum at this height.”
Now the spec can be seen accurately in different states: design, construction, contract delivery, facility management, and operations. It can also be put into the American Institute of Architects’ smart contracts, which uses a blockchain methodology to authenticate the data. Once a contract stops, the smart contract keeps on going. We now can manage the life cycle of every building material on Earth.
Looking ahead. We have to create tools to draw out performance information, which will change how we lower our carbon emissions. We can say to companies that we have immutable data that shows that you have carbon-emitting products that are not meeting expectations, which will affect your ESG goals.
We need to extend contracts beyond the physical delivery to include who maintains that digital asset now that it’s live. Is it a digital asset manager on behalf of owners or a homeowner’s association? As a company, we’re going to take on the expense ourselves and report how we’re doing, what worked, what didn’t.
We can create digital real estate with value. A smart contract can say this mechanical system from x manufacturer costs this much a month to operate in the summer, this in the winter. We have churn rates with tenants—a transactional ebb and flow that ties back to the digital asset.
If I can wrap all those building systems with a securitized fungible token, I’ve created something of value; the digital model is representing the factual, transactional happenings in real time. I can then fractionalize that securitized asset so that the average person can buy a share of real estate, bringing in new players to REITs and the finance world. That is the next big leap for the industry.
Based in Boulder, Colo., Jay Wratten is vice president of property and buildings at WSP.
Secondly, our industry’s focus on the transition to a zero-carbon future is driving a lot of the discussion now. A couple years ago, the low-hanging fruit was facility optimization. Now, many clients have made strong commitments to be good corporate citizens. Smart building technology is well suited to minimize consumption and make buildings more responsive to the actual needs of the users.
We’re trying to create this feedback loop between the building and the people who are using it. Getting to a net-zero future has made that a clear, big-picture goal.
Looking forward. We’re still in the information-gathering stage of smart buildings as a as a whole market. We see a couple of lighthouse projects that are sensored, connected, and integrated, but the financial viability of those projects is in question.
As we move forward, we need to scale this. We need to transition from data gathering to the information-creation space. Right now, a lot of smart buildings is a master systems integration play. Then the question becomes, “Great, I have all the data. So what?”
As an industry, we need to answer that question in a meaningful fashion. For WSP, that means data science, new business models, and different kinds of partnerships, particularly with solutions providers. I’d love to see a button on a smart building platform for a client to get “Recommendations by WSP” or “Insights by WSP,” which would provide guidance using data science or trained machine-learning algorithms.
The big theme going forward is scale. There have been too many lighthouse projects and too few real shifts in the way we approach buildings. Because I work across disciplines, I have a feedback loop on what business as usual looks like; 99% of the time, it looks the same. I see little incentive to change even though control systems vendors are pushing for change.
Maybe 2023 will be the rise of the OT (operational technology) network. We tell clients that even if they don’t want to invest in a platform or adopt a wait-and-see model for their new building, they should put in a good OT network and run everything over it. Don’t let their contractors do what they would have done in the past.
I’m not convinced that the design of a digital workflow necessarily benefits from being part of a capital project. Owners should think about data and digital earlier. Digital transformation is a business play that extends on both ends of a capital project.
Firms need a plan for how we will help our clients solve that problem. And architects and engineers will need different skills: financial acumen, business-model creation, change management, environmental psychology, and UX design. We can build the smartest building in the world, but if it’s terrible to interface with, no one is going to use it.
At its heart, a smart building is about a virtuous cycle of data: More data builds better programs that attract more users that generate more data.
AE firms can help our clients through a long-term engagement around the data that facilities create and the decisions that data enables them to make. That’s the big-picture play for smart buildings. It’s not about selling tech or networks.
That’s why I like net-zero—it requires a long view. It’s about how you run a building over time. WSP will be making a play to shift our business model and to upskill and diversify our teams to help our clients with these problems. I encourage other AEC firms to think laterally as well.
Construction Services, IoT Integration
Erin McDannald is CEO of Environments, a Lighting Environments company and an IoT integration firm based in Baltimore.
BACnet is not rich in data: It’s turn light on, turn light off. With an API, you can turn on a light at a certain time or light level. More information can be fed in through API. When we moved into a new space, we specified drivers with firmware that wasn’t compatible with our lighting controls system. We had to go in and rewrite the firmware. Once we were able to establish a connection with the drivers, I realized we could talk to anything with an IP address.
I wanted to do so under one interface; my director of technology said, “That’s stack software.” So we hired programmers and started creating stack software, which is great for facilities managers, but not yet useful to end users. That’s where our user interface came in with the metaverse. That was the genesis of our Elevated Environments app.
Cameras and thermostats are simple to integrate in a stack. Lighting is difficult but doing so puts us next to the end user where, as a rep, we would never have had that opportunity. Now we can scale with them and their businesses, which gives us an advantage in the marketplace too.
We didn’t plan to become a tech provider. We were hoping to ride the coattails of other people’s software, but once we got in, we realized there were too many proprietary systems that wouldn’t allow us to scale or give us the analytics we wanted. If you’re a Fortune 500 company, you can capture the return on your investment because of your scale. If you have under 50,000 square feet, getting your ROI becomes harder unless you have data at that end-user level. Open APIs and stack software will allow the scaling and layering of your analytics.
Looking forward. I’m excited about the advancement of the digital twin. It can have an impact on every section of your business’s P&L sheet, from marketing to operations, human resources, and customer service.
Unity created a digital twin for the Vancouver airport that was directing traffic, storing operations and maintenance manuals, and controlling building systems. Now their retailers and air traffic control want to be a part of it. If you think about real estate, the more people you have in your space, the more money you can make. Thinking about marketing and operations, I see the digital twin as key to doubling your optimization. It’s helpful in a post-pandemic world when your occupancy in the physical world is 50%.
Prepping companies with a digital twin is a great way to set people up for e-commerce platforms in the future. For business owners, it’s a great marketing tool and the ROI can be almost immediate. We have been able to sell lights digitally in a way that other reps have not. For example, we created a virtual park setting integrated with a manufacturer’s lights; you can drop in an avatar and walk through it. We also see new opportunities for collaboration, education, and communing through digital twins.
Construction Services, Master Systems Integration
Based in Charlotte, N.C., Gina Elliott is chief services officer at Buildings IOT, a solutions provider for smart buildings.
It will go away for one building—but you have to repeat that process for all the others. Many prop-tech and IoT companies did not realize that, and the result is a lot of heartburn for companies like mine. They set the expectation that integration is easy to do, and that’s just not the case. We’re not there yet. Knowledge of how HVAC systems communicate and run is incredibly important. You can’t just throw code at it and expect it to work.
The other challenge is APIs. Everyone talks about APIs but then the API becomes another thing to manage. And they’re not the same for all companies. If one changes or refreshes, it has an impact on system integration. We need a better way of managing devices connected via API. If I have 100 devices with different APIs, that’s 100 APIs I have to manage.
Communicating in that way is great, but on day two, if something breaks, who fixes it? Who gets notified, and who is accounting for that time? Due diligence on technology is important. When taking on a new or retrofit project, owners need representation that can understand what they want to do, what is feasible, and if they should tackle it in a phased approach. The outcomes will be much better.
Looking forward. We’re going to see more technology around device management within the OT space. Updates for your laptop or phone are typically pushed to you; you usually don’t even know those updates are there. The OT world is different. Typically, someone has to go on site and update one device at a time. It’s a big problem from a time perspective and a huge problem for cybersecurity.
I hope the RFP (request for proposal) process for renovations changes. In the past, if you wanted to retrofit a building, you would gather up your documentation, which typically was not accurate or up to date, give it to a consultant to write an RFP that was more of a wish list, put that out to bid, receive high bids, and then never get anything you needed or wanted. Because owners and developers now have access to data and because the landscape of the building industry has changed due in part to COVID and remote working, buildings will be transformed in a phased, programmatic approach that is based on data. Advantages include cost, convenience, and giving tenants and owners what they need.
I think that ESG will become a compliance mandate, similar to OSHA or SOX (Sarbanes-Oxley Act), that will drive how we manage, operate, and design buildings.
I expect to see existing technologies in industrial applications, such as automation, used in new ways for commercial buildings. For example, industrial is using vibration sensors on motors in their transition to predictive maintenance, versus scheduled or preventative maintenance. We’re going to see more buildings adopting predictive maintenance as well. What you get is a better run, easier managed, and more cost-effective building.
We’re going to see more interconnectivity between disparate systems. We talk often of interoperability; interconnectivity is more about sensors, meters, and work-order systems communicating with this or that. Over the next five years, I expect to see more IP-based equipment in our industry. Eventually communication protocols like BACnet, Modbus, and LonWorks will give way to more IP-based communication protocols.
We also have a lot more need for subject matter experts in the operational design of the buildings. Often in design, by the time you get to operations, it’s almost too late. You have to work with what you have. Building owners, in new construction especially, will start demanding for operations to be considered at the beginning.
Owner and Operator
Kenny Seeton is central plant manager and energy manager at California State University, Dominguez Hills.
Building automation systems promise you great things, but it's not good enough. If you don't have a strong stomach for [monitoring and refining it], things will be overridden right away. The first time your building service engineer gets a hot call and finds a zone that says it's unoccupied when they know 20 people are in the space, they’re going to push the override button and walk away. And you're going to do that again and again, and nobody's coming back to fix it.
Somebody needs to design a system that, once it makes that secure handshake, stops looking at 14 things and only looks occupancy. Systems are trying to communicate a dozen things to the BAS when all we care about is whether a space is occupied or unoccupied.
Once occupancy works right, we can get back to other things. If you have an auditorium that holds 100 people, then people-counting might matter because I can vary my [airflow]. But that scenario is an outlier. First, is there a person in there? If I have one person or 20 people in there, I'm turning on the air-conditioning.
Looking forward. Sensors that can monitor CO2 and humidity have come a long way, but I still only have a thermostat in one out of five offices because putting averaging thermostats is expensive. I've been asking for a smart, wired light switch that can also tell temperature. Retrofits have wired wall switches installed already. We need an easier way to integrate technology instead of wiring in new thermostats and hoping that the VMAs or VAVs have an extra input point. Older buildings don’t have that luxury—but they all will have to upgrade their lighting.
Heat pump technology is starting to grow. We’re in the design phase for 21 heat pumps, 70 tons each, to do the entire campus loop. Many people have problems at that large of a scale, so we’re being careful on piping size, flow, and commissioning. I visited different heat pump companies; they're getting bigger and smarter with the technology. I’m hoping to get rid of 75% of my remaining gas-powered systems.
I’m trying to get rid of the last 25% with solar thermal, which is big in Europe. Also, microgrids are taking off. We recently put solar on five rooftops. People asked, “Why did you do that instead of carports?” We can’t use carports because the campus master plan says we’re going to build something everywhere—and we can’t take the property for 20 years.
But it was all part of my plan because if I install a 250-kilowatt battery at the building level with the solar, I can take that building off the grid. That's going to become more important as the climate changes and we get more power shutdowns. We need to become resilient.
We’re also in a California Energy Commission EPIC grant with somebody developing a hydrogen generator—a mobile one with a trailer and batteries. The generator can run a building and charge the batteries, and then you swap out the tanks. That’s going to become fun around December.
This series of interviews has been edited and condensed for clarity.