Minding intelligent buildings: Is your IT group ready?

The hi-tech buildings of the future are smarter — and cheaper — than you think.

Green sensibilities coupled with Internet protocol-based (IP) technology are creating surprising new forms of convergence. “Intelligent buildings” (not to be confused with “green buildings,” which are sometimes also dubbed the same way) are the latest benefactors.

For years, the technology to infuse buildings with intelligence has languished, waiting for a killer app to inspire uptake. Sci-fi features such as voice-activated door-opening didn't resonate with the masses; building automation (BA) systems to control lighting, temperature and access worked well enough as standalone systems hidden in the bowels of commercial towers.

But rising energy prices are now providing some hard-nosed stimulus to integrate these systems for greater efficiency — and IT departments are being called on to be an integral part of the cost cutting.

Standalone BA systems often work against each other, explains Ron Zimmer, president of the Continental Automated Buildings Association (CABA), an Ottawa-based industry group. Lighting systems, for example, are major energy hogs. About 70% of the energy they consume is produced as heat, not light — which is the last thing you want in summer, as air conditioning systems will kick in to cool the environment, thus wasting yet more energy. Connecting lighting and HVAC systems to an IT management system can cut energy costs by a third by harvesting lighting's heat in winter and reducing lighting in summer when more sunlight is available.

Integrating BA with IT systems that monitor and modulate environmental factors improves a building's operational efficiency and can have healthy effects on a business' bottom line. Of the total costs incurred during an average building's 50-year lifespan, about 50% are operating costs, says Zimmer. Fully integrated BA systems can cut those by half, thereby increasing the value of the building, says Claude Boudriau, global program manager at BA vendor Honeywell International's Montreal office. (Honeywell plans to show off its next-generation building design in new headquarters scheduled to be built in Toronto in 2008.) Research also suggests tenant retention rates are about 4% higher.

Looking toward MaRS

Many intelligent buildings go well beyond integration for energy management. In 2006, the Intelligent Community Forum, a New York-based global think tank, awarded its Intelligent Building of the Year award to Toronto's MaRS Discovery District for its inventive use of technology. The innovation centre integrates a complex array of systems — BA, security, telephony, audio-visual, broadcast, and digital signage — on top of one common IP data network. “All these disciplines have a control component, and we can get from anywhere to anywhere in our buildings with this infrastructure,” says Rob Smith, chief technology consultant at MaRS. IT staff can surf one network path to adjust anything — from the volume in audio-visual systems in meeting rooms to temperature controls on BA systems — without leaving the IT centre.

Integrating disparate system components at MaRS was a major project, as these were retrofitted in a heritage building with legacy BA systems. In doing so, MaRS created its own flexible, non-proprietary system, which released it from bondage to any one BA vendor. “It was like putting together parts from Ford and Chevy; BA systems don't necessarily talk to each other,” says Smith. This is a common problem with older buildings — most are locked into the vendors who provided their aging, proprietary BA systems. “This has real costs, as you have to forklift the entire system to make changes, and vendors gouge you.” But Zimmer says the industry is moving toward open IT standards that allow different vendors' systems to interoperate.

Centralized control offers other benefits. A tenant's environmental preferences and energy consumption can be programmed, tracked and charged right down to the cubicle level. Relying on internal IT staff instead of BA vendors for maintenance cuts about 15% in building operations costs, says Randal Froebelius, MaRS' property manager. And using MaRS' building intelligence for preventative maintenance cut the equivalent of two building operations staff. It also future-proofs building investments, as adding new features like smart card access later is cheaper and easier once a common infrastructure is in place. “If you can get to the point where everything's on one network, that's nirvana.”

Homing intelligence

Integrated systems are also starting to hit the condo market, says Ted Maulucci, CIO at Toronto-based developer Tridel Corp. Ubiquitous, reliable technology is attractive to tenants. “I've heard people say they moved out of their suites because their cell phones didn't work well,” says Maulucci. A new trend in the U.S. is to offer tenants digital lockers to store and back up their files on building networks and provide on-site tech support for home computers, be it for home offices or personal use. “So this creates an office environment at home.”

He says intelligent security systems with sensors and digital video are also a big draw and a strong selling point for condos. These systems react to motion or other factors, zoom in and issue alerts when there is a change in the environment. “IBM has a 1-million square foot manufacturing plant in Bromont, Quebec, managed by a single security person instead of three people,” he says. As this is also integrated with BA systems, controls for lighting or cooling are automatically adjusted when there are no people in sections of the facility.

While these are all tantalizing possibilities, Maulucci says builders are having major startup headaches. People who've never worked together before — IT staff with architects, electrical engineers and other construction staff — now have to be managed to incorporate integrated systems into building designs. “The tech guys love this stuff, but it's harder for the construction guys — education is a big challenge.”

But these teething pains are worth the effort, as Maulucci has his eye on another emerging trend that promises even bigger economies of scale: networking many intelligent buildings to central operating centres. This is a powerful feature for businesses that operate multiple sites: hotels, shopping malls, and so on. “Instead of buying energy management software for each site, you can buy it once, implement it at one spot, create a disaster recovery plan around it, and manage all your sites remotely with one set of IT staff,” he says, adding savings on labour and software costs are significant.

CABA's Zimmer says Cisco Systems is a leader in this space, with over 400 of its office buildings worldwide managed by a handful of operating centres covering security, energy management and other functions. “It's like creating a Kennedy Space Centre for global corporations.”