June 2014

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Building Controls Go Social and Mobile

With mobile and social platforms, the sky’s the limit on how we can improve building operations in relation to occupants.

Lindsay BakerLindsay Baker,
VP Research and Marketing,
Building Robotics, Inc

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There’s always talk in the tech world about the next big waves of innovation. Today, two of the big spotlights are on ‘social’ technologies and mobile technologies.

‘Social’ technologies harness the power of established networks of people to help consumers make decisions like purchasing, inventing new things, etc. We see it with technologies like Yelp, Amazon customer reviews, and websites like Kickstarter.

And when the tech world says ‘mobile’, it doesn’t just mean that you can access something on your phone. True mobile innovation is “mobile first"- technologies that recognize that smart phones are not just small versions of your computer, they have an enormous potential beyond that. Phones go everywhere with us, phones have sensing capabilities far greater than computers, the list goes on.

Now that the buildings industry is migrating towards the Internet of Things, what will this IoT landscape enable, in terms of truly groundbreaking technology? It’s not just the ability to look at more data, or to speed up our existing business practices. It’s allowing buildings to become a part of the technology revolution, where mobility and the harnessing of social networks are becoming the norm.

So what do social and mobile trends look like for building controls and operations?

The word “Social” in reference to the built environment can mean a lot of things. Lee Odess hits on some great points in his interview this month- social building controls are really personalized building controls. Social buildings will start to recognize the individual and react accordingly, and there’s great technology emerging every day to help that happen.

But how do we build the tools that allow people to interact with their environment, to get what they want out of it? Most folks don’t know how HVAC systems work, or what levels of light they enjoy. At Building Robotics, we take a people-centered approach, which means designing systems that allow for simple interactions, diversity of user types, unpredictable schedules, and dynamic facilities management. What does this mean?

Simple interactions- people like simple choices, not too much information, just enough to get them what they need. In the case of Comfy, this means just three simple buttons. But using another example, think about complex lighting control panels in conference rooms- without a training session, no employee is going to intuitively understand how to use the bank of eight sliders and switches that are available to them, so they never get used.

Diversity of user types- now that we can provide controls that are more tuned to smaller spaces, we need to think less about the “least common denominator” of building controls, and really think about how different people use the space. There will be folks who don’t want to use controls, and folks who want to use them every day. There will be people who sit at their desk all day, and those who sit in a different spot every hour. How do we design great building controls so that everyone can get what they need?

Unpredictable schedules- by most (anecdotal) estimates, a typical commercial office building today is only 50-60% occupied at any given moment (not in terms of leasing, but in terms of actual people in the space). People are coming and going, using huddle spaces instead of their desks, tele-working, some workers arrive at 6am, some at 10am. With all this empty space, how can we optimize the operations of buildings?

Dynamic facilities management- this all amounts to the need for tools that allow today's facility manager to recognize and respond to more moving pieces than ever before.

At Building Robotics, we use all of these design constraints to create our software, Comfy. We’ll be talking more about it this month at IBCon and RealComm, at our sessions on Smart HVAC and Mobile Applications.  There’s a lot more info out there on user experience design, but one good place to start in our industry is a fun, informative piece by the Usable Buildings Trust, Controls for End Users.

Another social trend in technology that will likely spread to the building industry soon is the consumer review. Just like we can read reviews on Amazon of things we want to buy, or reviews on Yelp of where to eat dinner, soon technology portals will allow people to share how they feel about the buildings they work in. This is already possible through portals like GBIG, and the long-term implications on real estate pricing should be obvious. With social networks allowing regular occupants to voice opinions about buildings, competition for great indoor environments should start to increase momentum, and, much like all social platforms today, the best buildings will be the ones that get the highest scores from occupants. And since HVAC, lighting, and other building systems are some of the most prominent occupant-facing systems, we can expect these to matter more and more to building owners.

The ‘mobile’ trend ties into all of these dynamics very well. In the past, a truly dynamic building that responds to the comings and goings and varying needs of occupants was not possible. Today, it’s becoming possible. Indoor positioning is emerging as a viable technology (although spatial accuracy still needs improvement before we can really step on the gas), enabling us to get towards the real goal: using people and their mobile devices as the sensors for the building. No need to pay for extra hardware and infrastructure to monitor and ‘sense’ basic info about where people are in space, or what the temperature might be. This means that mobile devices will also become the interface for the building. If you don’t like the light, you’ll pull out your phone and change it. If you see something broken, snap a photo and send it to the facility manager. In this way, mobile devices will allow us to do what we’ve always wanted to do, which is to have a better way to interact with occupants in buildings, in a way that’s positive and manageable for the facilities team and the workers in the building.  Engaging occupants in helping to make the building run smoothly, save energy, participate in Demand Response events, hold competitions- these will all be significantly easier to do.

Mobile also allows us to *not* bother occupants when they don’t want to be bothered. Through machine learning and mobile tracking, we can build profiles of what people want and provide it to them without asking as frequently. Our mobile device will become our calling card, informing a space of our preferences before we arrive. The Nest thermostat is the best example of this, and its success should tell us all that consumers will be looking for more of this type of technology in the future, in the office as well as the home.

With mobile and social platforms, the sky’s the limit on how we can improve building operations in relation to occupants. It will surely take a learning curve to get there, and some will move faster than others, but the good news is that mobile and social technologies are not necessarily hardware or expensive capital investments, they can be easily added on to existing infrastructure. This technology is arriving on the marketplace now, and savvy building owners understand the potential positive benefits for tenants, so now is the time to start asking how your products and companies can be a part of this new revolution in controls.

About the Author

Lindsay Baker is the VP for Research and Marketing at Building Robotics, Inc, a new venture-backed software startup. She is responsible for client relationships and occupant experience at BR, as well as leading marketing efforts for the new software, Comfy. A former consultant to Google’s Green Real Estate Team, and the initial team that developed the LEED Rating System, she has extensive experience in implementing and evaluating energy efficiency programs. Lindsay is a LEED AP and a Ph.D. candidate at Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment, a leader in occupant comfort and behavior research.


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