August 2018

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When Will Smart Buildings Make Hearts Sing?

The world is awaiting the Smart Building that can make an emotional connection to those living and working inside.
Therese SullivanTherese Sullivan,
BuildingContext Ltd

Managing Editor,
Haystack Connections Magazine

Contributing Editor

“It is in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough—it's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”  Steve Jobs, Oct 7, 2011

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The world is awaiting the Smart Building that can make an emotional connection to those living and working inside, akin to how the iPhone made the emotional connection to cell phone users worldwide. The heart-singing phenomenon that Steve Jobs talks about in the quote above is the connection that RIM’s Blackberry couldn’t achieve—as close as it came to delivering all the right services in one device.

I don’t know why it is taking us so long to get to a heart-strumming Smart Building? Jobs even gave us the street address; it will be at the crossroads of the Humanities and Technology. Pondering this again, I do have a partial answer: the building professionals that study and design for human factors are found in Architecture & Engineering firms, and they have been stuck on one side of a very broken feedback loop.

Ruairi Barnwell, a Principal of DLR Group, described the status quo this way in his article last month:

“Design teams rarely get enough feedback about how their solution is performing after it has been delivered, and operations teams rarely have the opportunity to offer input when a building is being designed. In this scenario, we are faced with the challenge of designing and operating ultra-low energy buildings, while balancing ultra-high expectations for enhanced occupant comfort and end-user experience.”

Barnwell goes on to describe how DLR Group is rethinking the design-construction-operation life cycle of a building. He sees a prominent role at every phase for a building performance data platform. He is advocating for open-protocol data formats like BACnet, semantic tagging like Project Haystack, and analytics software that can support data-driven decision-making.  Ruairi comes from the Building Commissioning side of DLR’s business; but, his point is that once a project has the right data platform, there is every reason that architects, lighting designers, daylighting specialists, interior designers and other human-factors experts will start using it.

Matt Ernst, another Building Commissioning engineer from another large multinational A&E firm, describes the same broken feedback loop in his recent article, IoT Help Wanted: Solving the Smart Building Problem. He looks to Silicon Valley and the VC-funded start-up model for solutions and says:

“Occupant satisfaction is not quantified. It’s intuitively obvious (and proven in numerous peer-reviewed studies) that more comfortable occupants make for more productive employees, but we never followed up. We never created the mechanism to take occupant feedback and quantify how comfortable a tenant is and how that directly affects their productivity. Without a known value to a problem, no solution gets proposed.”

Like Ruairi Barnwell, Matt Ernst does see a few promising signs today, citing software platforms that make occupant experience measurable by applying analytics to real building data. They both point to the SkyFoundry operational data analytics platform, which is tightly integrated and highly complementary with the Tridium Niagara open-protocol building management system (BMS) framework. 

This is a good point to disclose that I’m now a Tridium employee and that the thoughts and opinions I’m expressing here are my own. One of these opinions is that innovative thinking around Smart Buildings is not centered in Silicon Valley, and another is that the iPhone formula for success falls apart quickly when applied to making buildings perform better for people. First, it’s clear that one company controlling all the hardware, software and services as Apple did for the Mac PC, the iPod, iPhone, iPad, etc. is not the direction the Smart Building industry is heading. In fact, when it comes to vendor lock-in of equipment operational data, the market is resoundingly rejecting that model. Tridium Niagara is the undisputed leader in open-protocol operational data management. We’ve just released Niagara 4.6 with notable improvements for building engineers designing Internet of Things workflows, including advancements in visualization, search, security and navigation tools.

Niagara 4.6 steps Tridium users toward taking full advantage of mobile technology. We do have to thank Steve Jobs for sparking that revolution. However, in terms of making the mobile aspects of tomorrow’s Smart Buildings ‘sing,’ Apple iOS has heavy competition from Google Android. Ken Sinclair has been talking about buildings ‘learning’ emotion by looking, listening and feeling. In fact, he’s made ‘Building Emotion’ the umbrella topic for our AHR Expo 2019 Education Sessions.  As if on cue, Google announced its own IoT chip this week. The new Edge TPU is designed for embedded system makers to add machine learning capabilities to their IoT gateways and edge devices. Training algorithms for vision, voice, motion-detection in Smart Buildings just became much easier. The new Google Edge TPU chip is designed to process and analyze images, videos, gestures, acoustics, and motion locally. The Pub/Sub (publisher/subscriber) mode of routing mobile messages from edge devices to the Google cloud is core to how these new chips will work. I wrote a series of articles on the BuildingContext blog in 2014 about Pub/Sub communications which you can find here and here. These are good to review if only to consider how long we’ve known that mobile technology will change how people will interact with the built environment.

contemporary When master systems integrators, commissioning experts like Barnwell and Ernst, and other types of building whisperers can wield edge devices, like the soon-to-be-released Niagara Edge 10, as simply as they do their smartphones, we will be so much closer to designing and operating buildings that make hearts sing. These edge controllers will enable all the right decision-support data to be acquired, stored and analyzed – either locally or in the cloud, either automatically or human-assisted, whatever is most appropriate for the IoT workflow at hand. And, it is highly likely that they’ll soon have something like the Google TPU chip aboard to help them train algorithms to capture some of the Whisperers know-how and intuition. Such cloud-connected Machine-Learning chips from public or private cloud providers have the potential to make Whisper knowledge much more scalable.

Today, it is relatively easy to see how Smart Building technologies will come together. But, it may be even more critical to Smart Building user experience that business partners learn how to fuse their processes. The closed-ecosystem path that Apple took to the sweet-spot intersection of Human Factors and Tech is a dead-end today. The Smart Building industry is going to have to get there via open-protocols, open-source, etc.  There will be value chains of many partners, often collaborating with traditional competitors. Customer needs in retail, healthcare, office tower, and other building categories will drive the composition of workflows. Multiple layers of the building-services hardware/software stack will be delivered on the as-a-service model. Tridium with its long-standing commitment to providing an open framework and its years partnering with the full spectrum of building equipment OEMs is already proving adept at navigating this new world. It is exciting to be a part of its growth as the industry accelerates toward the next connected, emotive phase of the built environment that may be every bit as revolutionary as the iPhone.


For Next Month: Here I covered my partial answer to why Smart Buildings and the architects and engineers that design them have had difficulty making an emotional connection with building users. However, A&E firms typically only have a hand in new construction and major retrofit projects. What about all the existing buildings that need to become Smarter? Human Resource (HR) Professionals are another category of Humanity experts that feel the pain of poorly performing buildings. Bad buildings make it hard to attract and retain the best talent. Gensler covers this topic here. Enterprises want more people-responsive buildings too. How is the Smart Building industry reaching them? I hope to cover that part of the answer next month.


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