The Arrival of “Smart” Buildings
A lot of noise is made about intelligent buildings; they give the impression that they are found everywhere. But a closer look at the data suggests that most buildings are anything but smart.
A core aspect of any ‘smart’ building is energy efficiency but building energy consumption has risen by several measuring indexes over the past several years, even in the most energy-efficiency conscious localities. Technology does not seem to have any fault in this. Most commercial buildings could cut energy use by at least 30% on average by implementing basic energy efficiency measures.
The UN, noting that almost 40% of today’s global greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings is trying to tackle this issue by creating an international framework that will make buildings more sustainable, energy efficient, and healthier to work in.
Ineffective controls and mismatches between design assumptions and building occupant behaviors negatively affect standards. Also pertinent is the issue of performance drift, in which building systems which were designed to be efficient deteriorate in performance rapidly. To address this issue, the metrics used to measure energy design for buildings should be re-evaluated.
The nation of Singapore is an excellent model for energy efficiency. For years, it has been rolling out an energy policy that strives to meet carefully constructed performance targets, and it is seeing significant results. For example, a standard for cooling systems based on efficiency metrics instead of gross energy consumption puts the responsibility on the designers; even if building operators overcool, a cooling system can still meet an efficiency-based performance standard. If the building doesn’t, then the problem is the system, and if it does meet a standard, but too much energy is still used, then the problem is clearly operational.
In the issue of performance drift, monitoring and support is needed to make advanced high-performance systems function optimally over time. Singapore addresses this by including measurement and verification features in the system’s design and construction. From this shift in metrics, cooling systems in buildings are depicting an average efficiency improvement of almost 50%.
Now Singapore is moving on to incorporating these energy use indices for a wide variety of buildings, with a straightforward way to track energy performance. When all relevant guidelines are in place, the source of performance problems will be clear- the system or its operation- and the route to having a truly smart building will be clear.
Ways to Inspire Action
Accountability can be encouraged by establishing a metric for building efficiency which can be applied to all types of facilities; this will make for easy bench-marking publicly categorizing facilities (hospitals, parks, office buildings, data centers etc.) and give designers and operators a drive to keep them always on high performance.
Better performance can be achieved by syncing energy modeling to energy action. Architects possess tools nowadays which can let them model energy usage in a multitude of scenarios to see where the greatest potential for savings are. Similarly, dashboards are available to building operators to enable them visualize energy use and gauge the effects of different actions. These operators might hesitate to act even when they have the tools available because doing so seems complex and disruptive. So, then, these visualizations need to be incorporated into automated optimization software that can handle energy efficiency decisions.
Visualization and action are mutually beneficial. Unless dashboards are employed to drive action, they will always be one-dimensional. On the other hand, if all that is done is just acting, when things go off track, the value of any remedial action is not something that can be accurately assessed.
Designing for Tomorrow’s Needs, Not Yesterday’s
Re-imagining building infrastructure with the focus on sustainable use is a key requirement of real building efficiency. Designs and configurations based on the habits of decades past, when applied to building components that use the most energy (lighting and HVAC systems), will balloon energy costs and ensure that even new systems employing the latest technology will use more energy than necessary.
HVAC systems account for nearly 50% of the typical energy use of a commercial building. The biggest challenge with their use is that they are more highly engineered and complex than they need to be. They are also sized up to meet maximum energy needs, and not designed for efficiency. In terms of retrofit markets, the best thing to do to salvage the situation is to improve poorly designed systems, and this could be a worthwhile venture in terms of driving up efficiency, as the Singapore experiment examined earlier has demonstrated.
The following questions are the pertinent ones to ask, when new buildings are designed- What would the perfect HVAC system look like? What would the perfect lighting system look like? How do you get all the systems in the building to connect holistically to eliminate waste? Answering all these questions will provide a technical answer to the problem of performance drift, and usher in the era of truly “smart” buildings.