Sensory Buildings (Smarter than Your Honor Student)

By Tom Leonidas, P.E., and John Bartelink of Wood Harbinger

This article adapted from a presentation given at the WSSHE’s Semiannual Symposium, April 2014, in Chelan, WA.

Imagine that your building can tell you how it’s feeling. That it can automatically figure out how to decrease its energy use, based on the real-time use of spaces. That a fan belt with a friction sensor can tell when the belt is worn or slipping. That a light fixture with an embedded sensor can tell when its lamp is about ready to burn out, and that sensor seamlessly integrates with an intelligent facility management database, which can then order a new lamp, know when it’s delivered, assign priority, and schedule maintenance personnel to come in and replace it, all without you having to think about a thing.

The Vision of a Sensory Building

It may sound far-fetched, but the reality of a sensory building is possible with the kind of sensor technology that exists or is in development today, with real prospects for commercial deployment. Sensor technology, combined with a robust building model database and analytic software, will allow buildings to collect and synthesize information about their state and environment similar to the ways that humans experience the world. Our senses generate a real-time awareness of ourselves and our surroundings, and our brains collect and make something useful of this constant input. A sensory building can mimic that biology.

Real-Time Awareness

Today, we rely on historical data to project the future needs of a building, whether estimating energy usage or scheduling maintenance based on the historical lifetime of parts. Through a pervasive, wireless network of sensors built right into the equipment and infrastructure, sensory buildings provide real-time awareness. This awareness arises from the inputs of the real-time sensors, the people that maintain and utilize the space, the building model, and other sources; the automatic collection of information is the key to this vision. Real-time data provides the foundation for predictive modeling and simulation at all system and operational levels. From this consciousness, we can derive business intelligence—integrating people, processes, and knowledge to enable collective awareness, which can result in better decision making, automated actionable results and continuous optimization of resources. This is the future, but it’s closer than you might think.

Changing Your Paradigm

To fully realize the potential of sensor technology use in buildings, we must shift the way we think of our buildings. They are no longer static entities in which we live and work, but rather become active and intelligent presences that communicate in real-time with their owners and occupants.

1. Sensor - BIM - etc copy

We must change the way we view our building from the ground up

The sensory building really starts at a basic level, by including business process and information architecture early during the building design phase. Framing the building around your process creates a symbiotic relationship between the real-time sensors and the infrastructure that supports them.

Sensors deployed throughout the building will generate huge quantities of real-time data, which will need to be collected, centralized, and stored by a robust database, tracked over time and analyzed for relevant usage. This is the kind of information that can reinvent the built environment, how people interact with it, and how devices and infrastructure interact with each other. The synthesized data can then realize a continuous optimization of building systems management and enhance process workflows for efficiency, cost effectiveness, accuracy, and longevity.

Sensor Technology Research and Development

Advances in sensor technology are driving this shift to a more fluid understanding of the spaces around us, and this innovation fuels the dropping price point that will enable widespread sensor usage.

Throughout the world, exciting and progressive research is exposing new methods of sensor usage for a variety of different systems:

AIR: A research consortium at the University Saarland received a 3-year, €3.4 million (about $4.63 million) grant from the European Union for their work on “SENSindoor”—an intelligent ventilation system supported by a nanotechnology micro-sensor based monitoring system that detects the concentration of airborne contaminants and maintains high quality indoor air. The gas sensors are integrated with the ventilation system, which is also fed data about room usage, and can provide the specific intensity and duration of fresh air supply required to mitigate the contaminants. The result of this automatic and customized ventilation is energy savings up to 50%, according to researchers.

WATER: The University of Washington’s Electrical Engineering department has major R&D velocity in developing small and low cost sensor technology for medical and energy-related use. In a project code-named “Snoopy,” they have developed a water flow sensor that does not require any power source. Water flowing through a pipe activates a piston, and the back-burst energy from the piston action generates a wireless signal to monitor the rate of water flow. This type of information can be used to optimize energy management.

2. snoopy

UW’s Snoopy monitors water flow via wireless signal from piston back burst energy

ENERGY: We have seen a lot of energy-related product development, particularly in regards to controls and automation, but the R&D focus is now in gathering intelligent data. International semiconductor company NXP is further developing wireless IP-based sensor intelligence in a “smart chip” format. Similarly, Intel currently has a product available commercially that both measures and controls lighting energy.

3. nxp chip

NXP’s smart chip, embedded in a light fixture. Image source:

TEMPERATURE/ASSETS/PEOPLE: RFID is the technology for these applications. This is a mature industry where the investment is now in finding expanded uses for RFID technology, and embedding it in devices. The advantage of RFID is its relatively low cost.

4. rfid temp sensor

RFID chip used to monitor temperature of a motor. Image source:

R&D Driving Forces

There is a two-fold driving force—one behind sensor technology R&D and another behind its deployment. Nanotechnology makes it possible to create sensor technologies at the molecular level, and is lowering the cost. The Internet of Things (IoT) concept connects identifiable objects and collects data to create “smart buildings” and “smart cities”. Much of the R&D and investment we see is geared towards the energy market because of the perception of high investment return. And it’s likely not misplaced.

These elements make it easy to deploy sensor technology, and energy efficiency is the heart of the movement to do it. Energy consumption and costs are predicted to rise; in the Pacific Northwest alone, U.S. Energy Information Agency data shows that our rates could rise an average of 2-3% per year. Private sensor companies see big market potential in providing more real-time, granular data to inform energy optimization in existing commercial and institutional buildings.

Sensors, BIG Data, Building Information Models, and Facility Management

When faced with a tough problem, do you throw yourself headfirst over the cliff without much background information about what lies ahead? Do you tentatively approach the problem, hoping to catch a glimpse forward and thinking that the more involved you are the more the problem will reveal an answer before getting into the thick of things?

With a sensory building’s mega-base of real-time and historical data, we have the ability to approach the challenges building owners and facilities management teams face in entirely new ways. We can analyze the mass of multiple points of data and find deeper meaning and valuable new insight from seemingly disparate data types. This information can help us create work plans that minimize risk and disruption by factoring multiple points of reference that are rooted in reality, which ultimately leads to cost effectiveness.

Building Information Model (BIM) as Database

A 2004 publication by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) estimates that the capital facilities industry suffers $15.8 billion in annual losses due to interoperability problems, the brunt of which is borne by owners and operators during ongoing operation and maintenance. Many times, they are inadvertently recreating data already provided to them by the architect and/or construction company in the form of building information modeling (BIM), which is fast becoming the new standard for design and construction documentation. Through its function as a robust database, BIM offers a viable opportunity to retain valuable information provided during the design and construction process for integration into other building management applications which would minimize loss of data mentioned in the study.

BIM generates an interactive, three dimensional layout that can contain details and data not possible in the static 2D drawings of traditional design and construction documents. It spans the life of the project with the ability to dynamically collect and store data over time, from project concept on through to operation and maintenance. It is a malleable database of design intent, constructed conditions, systems and components documentation, and maintenance reference. Real-time sensor data can be collected and integrated into the BIM model for future reference and analysis.

Many organizations do not consider maintaining the BIM database post-occupancy, focusing only on the three dimensional aspect of BIM and concerns over the complexity of the design software element. While these are valid concerns, BIM has more to offer in a facilities management context, and the management and maintenance of the data need not be handled in house to be effective. When positioned correctly, a BIM model can be a centralization database that comes already packed with valuable information.

Why BIM?

The A/E/C industry worldwide is embracing BIM and the immersive evolution it brings to the way design, construction, and facility management is accomplished. BIM is increasingly becoming standard in new design and construction projects, and many companies now design exclusively in BIM and export drawings in AutoCAD or PDF for partners and clients who request it. Today, it is possible to create a model for an existing building at reasonable expenditure and model hosting and maintenance can be outsourced, so it is not necessary to have a dedicated BIM specialist on staff as part of your facility maintenance personnel.

BIM is inherently capable of a representing the building as a whole and aids in comparative analysis and the visualization of human interaction with built environments. But its 3D capability is not the primary asset for the facility management application. It can also contain myriad details about every space, every system, and every component part, in one, consolidated location, serving as the database into which the sensors feed their data. BIM has real potential for deeper facilities management integration and interoperability, particularly within a sensory building.

Sensors and Process Management

Imagine you’ve deployed sensors throughout your building and they’re feeding copious amounts of data into your BIM model. How do you make sense of it, and what do you do with it?

This is where a Big Data analytic software application comes in. A program like Tableau can integrate with the BIM model and other databases in the organization, be configured to the needs and preferences of the building’s usage and occupants, and then can be used as a tool to synthesize real meaning from the data, like the example we gave in the introduction of the automatic parts ordering and maintenance scheduling for a light fixture with a near-dead lamp.

10. process management

This process flow shows how sensor data moves through a BIM model and analytic software facilities management system.

Dashboards can be configured to show real-time information from sensors, cross-referenced with manufacturer data about the device or fixture. This could be a dashboard studying all fixtures or devices of specific types across a facility, or across multiple campuses. In one place and with limited labor, facilities management based in real-time business intelligence becomes a highly effective and deployable strategy.

11. Ballast Driver Performance

12. Ballast Driver Performance

Dashboards like these can display the meaningfully synthesized data from your sensor network and BIM database.

 Prepare for the Future

The possibility of deploying real time sensors at an economical cost within a facility to get real-time data that can be used for predictive modeling is a reality. At present, it may not yet be clear what it means to your specific application, or how you will use it, but the benefits and return on investment will certainly be achievable. Some examples of ROI include dynamic energy management through knowledge of real-time space usage; inventory optimization and better utilization of valuable storage space as a result of just-in-time ordering; less frequent surprise maintenance needs, increased team effectiveness, and reduced disruption from optimized scheduling; goal alignment, accountability, and ultimately improved patient outcomes.

Now is the time to position yourself to take advantage of what the future holds, and we leave you with some thought challenges by which you can prepare.

Start thinking of your building as a database: Once you do, you can think about what kind of data might be useful to you that you don’t collect now, or would like to collect.

Keep an eye on the evolution of sensor technology: Start asking equipment vendors whether they do or are planning to use embedded smart sensors in their product lines and what the sensors will do.

Have an Information Architecture Crafted: By analyzing and visualizing the flow of your information, you can optimize it for efficiency and user experience.

Embrace the Power of BIM: BIM has evolved into a very useful tool for facilities management, and as we have shown, can be the centralization database solution for your building. The tools in existence today have made it possible to implement BIM for facilities management in a scalable manner, starting with high value targets and building from there. Start thinking about how BIM may play a role in your future.

Choose Platforms and Tools that Work Together: The greater the interoperability of your systems, the more efficient and cost effective your facilities management.

Realize the Power of Energy: Investment in energy management and energy efficiency solutions are driving sensor technology deployment, and the real-time data that they can collect will drive the ability to achieve greater savings.

Experiment: Do you already have a building management system that gives you reports? Challenge the status quo by taking a look at using the BIM database and a Big Data analysis system to find deeper meaning in your data. The risk is very minimal and the reward could change your future for the better.

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