June 2016

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Applying All the Laws of 3 to See the Future of Smart Buildings

Edge Control Will Shift BAS-Industry Focus Toward People and Productivity

Alper Üzmezler

Alper Üzmezler,


Therese SullivanTherese Sullivan,
BuildingContext Ltd

Contributing Editor

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If you understand the 3-30-300 Rule, plus Murphy’s Law, Moore’s Law and Metcalfe’s Law, you can make this prediction about the future of smart buildings: A lot of the processing workload involved in automating control over building infrastructure will be moving to edge devices, rather than to a remote cloud, and people will be more comfortable and productive in building spaces as a result. 

In the short-hand of the aforementioned rule, 3, 30 and 300 are all dollar values per square foot of commercial building space. The 3 is an estimate of how much energy costs, 30 approximates the cost of a commercial rent/lease or mortgage contract, and 300 is a rough average of what employees cost in salaries and benefits. The geometric progression in value at each stage of that cost-per-square-foot ladder is what building owners and property managers are supposed to internalize. The number 3 could be substituted with a 2 or a 4, depending on average prices within the real estate market under study. The 3-30-300 Rule is another way to say that the most effective way to measure Return on Investment (ROI) for a space upgrade or retrofit is in terms of how it makes occupants more productive and how it promotes better business outcomes.

A focus on the $3 per square foot in energy costs has led many early adopters of Smart Building technologies into that Murphy’s Law phenomenon of ‘What can go wrong will go wrong.’  Post-occupancy studies of major retrofits and new construction projects from the last decade have provided some alarming results about the success of energy-efficiency measures like programmed HVAC and lighting controls. Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Professor of Architecture Vivian Loftness summarizes that “automation has led to more complexity, leaving the occupants of all these offices disempowered and uncomfortable.” Last month, Brian Turner of Controlco described much the same problem when he covered the Past, Present and Future of the Buildings Industry Workforce. He cited the UK study that found great dissatisfaction with the status quo in building management systems. In many cases, operators and occupants undermined the programming with manual overrides or simply unplugged the BMS leading to significant energy waste. His article also pointed out that we are on the cusp of real change.

The next phase in Smart Buildings is focused on the $300 per square foot opportunity and is characterized by the incorporation of Buildings Internet of Things (IoT) workflows. The important step that is happening now is the introduction of edge controllers that can handle the tasks of gathering, analyzing and presenting real-time data locally. The bulk of the information sharing and processing happens between these edge controllers and the sensory networks that surround them. Less reliance on centralized supervisory control and the need to send volumes of raw trend data to a remote cloud-hosted repository simplifies control automation programming and enables faster, more secure machine decision-making. Edge computing is how the goals of interior environments that are responsive to occupant comfort and building equipment that is self-correcting will be achieved. We can thank Moore’s Law — the theory that processing power for computers doubles every two years — for the ability to package so much intelligence and storage into edge devices at a price that makes it possible to smarten-up every piece of equipment, light fixture or other thing that would make people more satisfied and productive if brought under digital control.

Moore’s Law is certainly in play here, but the law that may best describe what will happen next in Smart Buildings is Metcalfe’s. First used to explain how telecommunications networks grew over the second half of the last century, Metcalfe’s Law states that the value of a network increases in proportion to the square of the number of connections. Edge Analytics Controllers (EACs) and the networks of sensors that will orbit around them will proliferate at a geometric rate in commercial building settings. The success of one edge application will lead to more, making even more sensed data available which will spur ideas for more applications, and the pattern will repeat.

BASSG has just introduced EACs that come with semantically-tagged, preconfigured apps designed for secure, open-BAS (building automation systems) functionality. They work atop legacy equipment and support standards and open source software native to the buildings industry like Sedona as a software framework and Project-Haystack for semantic tagging and efficient transport of metadata. We are already seeing Metcalfe-pattern growth in the number of talented developers and successful companies joining Project-Haystack. Haystack is a web service that provides definitions that help developers build their applications, and it also is a repository for live data and historical data from specific definitions. The proliferation of Haystackable edge devices like BASSG’s and others entering the market is going to add to that repository and continuously boost the value of the Project-Haystack network overall on a Metcalfe-predicted trajectory. The marketplace will be transformed, and building owners not using EACs to impact that $300-per-square-foot opportunity will be left behind.


Professor Loftness of CMU gives another perspective in a recent interview. She is now head of CMU’s Intelligent Workplace Living Lab where researchers and students can change out innovations and run experimental studies on air, light, thermal comfort, acoustics, ergonomics and more. She says, “Buildings are not commodities that can be replaced with the next hot product. They house the people that are most precious to us and the activities that are most critical to education, production, community, and health outcomes. Design for the highest performance over the long term.” Open-source communities like Project-Haystack are long-term focused as she recommends. And edge devices based on open technologies offer a more secure and supported path to the future as well.


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