Innovations in Comfort, Efficiency, and Safety Solutions.
INTERVIEW – Steve Jones of The S4 Group was featured on a People of Prospect segment on April 27th, 2021 hosted by (Prospect SV). Prospect Silicon Valley takes an ecosystem approach to innovative technology, building community amongst corporate, startup, government and academic partners that together help bring new ideas forward. Their work brings market insight, development resources, and connection to partners and funders in areas such as mobility, buildings, and energy.
“People of Prospect,” is a ProspectSV hosted webinar series dedicated to highlighting individuals in ProspectSV’s ecosystem, especially about their industry knowledge as well as who they are as people. Doug Davenport, Executive Director and Founder,
What is the potential of smart building technology?
What are some barriers to smart building projects?
What is Steve’s problem-solving approach?
In this article I recap the discussion with Doug Davenport, focusing on what we learned during the discussion.
Doug: This is a little zoom cast that Prospect Silicon Valley does to highlight interesting people in our ecosystem. and we were really fortunate to get to know Steve Jones and his company, The S4 Group, recently when we were doing a project around emerging technology in small buildings. We got really excited about S4 because they're doing something really kind of unique in the building space. We're really excited to introduce to you Steve Jones of S4.
Doug: Well hey, let's talk a little bit about what S4 is and what your company does. I understand from our work with you that you're really providing a building automation layer. You know sometimes the buildings that have never had such and I thought maybe you could tell us a little bit about what S4 is about and what your technology does.
Steve: We focus on the retrofit and upgrade marketplace for building automation systems. If you look at the history of building automation you know originally it was focused entirely on heating and air conditioning and the control of the airflow for the heating and air conditioning in buildings. The original manufacturers of electronic building automation systems each did their own thing in their own way i.e. everything was proprietary. And the game that they played was to get your product into a building while it's being constructed. By doing that you know you're going to be there for 25 or 30 years until a major upgrade is done to the building. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, a lot of the manufacturers got greedy and their maintenance and support fees just kept escalating year after year. Finally, the building owners got tired of that and started rebelling. They just dropped their service and support contracts. This forced disruption in the status quo and changes in the way these companies did business.
Government, industry, and academia got together and defined a communications standard for building automation. That protocol is called BACnet, Building Automation Control NETwork.
That's where our product comes in. What we have done is defined a gateway product that integrates into these legacy proprietary building automation systems, discovers everything that is existing in that system, and publishes each device that we find and its associated points as emulated BACnet IP devices and attributes. What that does for the building owner is it breaks the mold of having them locked into a specific manufacturer. Now they can go to anyone in the industry who's who supports the BACnet IP protocol, which is virtually everyone, add value to their building without having to rip everything out and replace it.
Doug: You don't have to, or let's say the building owner doesn't have to, wrestle with the existing legacy BMS. If they want to change their lighting system, they don't have to wrestle with your BMS. Or if they want to change their HVAC or make modifications to their HVAC, they don't have to wrestle with the BMS. Your system recognizes all of these as interchangeable and it allows the building owner then to work with this as an automated smart System.
Steve: Very close. What we are actually doing is allowing the building owner to salvage all the legacy field devices that are scattered throughout the building. We learned how to speak the proprietary language and so we make them look like they're current generation products. That avoids the building owner having to shut down their building, rip everything out, and replace it with current generation open BACnet systems. This approach also gives them the freedom to choose technology from anywhere in the building automation industry to augment what that building does.
The one thing that I want to emphasize here is that what we're doing is we're giving the building owner technology that is instrumental in providing a very sophisticated transition plan for those legacy systems. They are 25 to 30 years old at this point they're way beyond their designed lifespan. To be fair to our partners, and their customers, I always coach them as follows. Yes, add value to your building very quickly with S4 technology because we provide the enabling technology to allow you to do that. But be realistic. Understand that at some point in time you're going to have to bite the bullet and replace those legacy systems before they die just simply of age.
Doug: This does allow building owners to hold on to their legacy systems and get more value out of them before that time finally comes, right? I’m personally really excited about that idea. I see it in a lot of different industries where you know these kind of old legacy systems that were founded on a completely different kind of business model for software. They didn't anticipate even a tenth of what we need to do with buildings today. And here we're able to bring them up to at least a functional standard and allow that asset replacement cost to be avoided for a while. Eventually it is necessary to upgrade those systems, which is huge.
I wonder, and I think it's fair to ask you, because you're the founder of S4 and the president of S4 just how big a problem is this in the United States? When you think about the building stock in the U.S. and you think about those 1990 to 2000 vintage buildings that you're talking about where is your sweet spot? How many buildings out there are in that space? You know just kind of rough numbers in terms of maybe percentage of the building stock?
Steve: Around 40 percent of the existing stock of buildings are these legacy buildings that you know needs need some attention. It's a huge issue out there. It's gotten even more important as building owners are now having to address the issue of how do I prepare this building to bring occupants back after the pandemic? How am I going to make those people feel like it's safe to be in that building? That's going to be a really interesting problem!
Doug: I want to get to that and I’m going to put a pin in that topic for a moment. Sticking with the current state of buildings today just a different kind of question. So, 40 percent of billions of square feet of commercial buildings are being run by legacy systems that really could be operating more effectively more efficiently. They can participate in demand response and other grid services if they had this kind of technology.
If they worked with S4 there's so much more value they could gain. A huge portion of that billions of square feet of commercial building happen to be little buildings. I love you said something legacy buildings need love too. A whole lot of those legacy buildings are these little buildings that don't have the huge budgets that support engineering teams and all this other stuff and I just wonder how you feel about small buildings as a market when you look at S4. What's your feeling about the small building market in automation?
Steve: There are buildings where the only automation they need is a smart thermostat because the only mechanical systems they have are a traditional heating and air conditioning unit. It may be a little bit bigger than you would use in in a home. For instance, the building that that my office is in has four units in the building. Two in the first floor two on the second floor, each one has a smart thermostat and associated remote sensors. That does an adequate job. There's not a whole lot more you could do without incurring a lot of expense for minimal ROI. The thermostats are Wi-Fi devices that that connect to a cloud-based service that optimizes the building. So it is very efficient.
Doug: That's interesting. I want to bring in a question that somebody from our audience this morning asked and I’m going to ask it. How does how does your layer interact with systems like Building IQ and other rating systems that allow an owner to better understand how their building is performing? Could you also focus on technologies like NMAC or MMV 2.0 where it's giving that Prius effect in terms of building monitoring and giving you real time feedback on performance?
Steve: Before when we were talking about what does S4 do I described I described how S4 works in the context of upgrading the traditional building automation system to newer technology. You would have a legacy operator workstation for the building automation system. Probably you would have a global controller that would orchestrate everything that's going on in the building. What we didn't talk about you've just alluded to so I’m going to take that lead.
The S4 box now can act as an on-site agent for value-added applications. Part of our business strategy was that we really didn't care what that application was. In fact, we consciously stayed away from developing dashboards, or energy management applications, or analytics applications, on our own because our business strategy was we wanted to be application agnostic. We wanted to be able to team with anyone in in the industry who is providing applications without competing with them.
Once the S4 box is installed in one of these legacy buildings not only can you upgrade the legacy building automation system, the heating and air conditioning control, but now you can use the same technology and introduce best-of-breed energy management applications, building analytics applications, continuous commissioning applications, and so forth. That all comes about because we decided as part of our architecture, we would use the BACnet protocol as a way of normalizing the data in the building so that anyone who needed that data could then have access to it. In fact, this brings the complete value proposition of BACnet and open systems to the S4 product.
Doug: That's excellent. So, the so the technology works for one building, but it also works for a portfolio of buildings. Absolutely cool.
Steve you mentioned upgrades that are happening all over the place for the reopening of public spaces. Schools, hopefully great restaurants, and lots of other meeting spaces. How do you look at that from the standpoint of your company if we're talking about needing to upgrade HVAC for children to safely be in school all day? Where do you see yourself playing in that and how can you contribute to the reopening?
Steve: What I see is that historically building owners could look at maintenance and enhancements to their building infrastructure as being optional. If they had to had to cut corners somewhere, they could survive with deferred maintenance on their building automation and HVAC systems. In some cases, for an extended period. If no one was complaining about being too hot or too cool that was okay.
Because of the Covid-19 pandemic and related concerns with health and safety upgrading those buildings now becomes mandatory. To introduce a new term into this discussion, building owners have to think in terms of turning my building into a sustainable smart building.
In order to be sustainable every bit of infrastructure needs to be able to talk to everything else in the building. It doesn’t necessarily all have to be implemented for every building. It should be driven by how the building is used and the requirements of the building occupants. Buildings are dynamic. Their usage, and the requirements of the occupants change over time. If implemented properly the technology supporting the building can evolve to accommodate these changing requirements.
Let's look at the architecture of a building, or the way a building works, very much the same way you look at your own body. Everything interacts with everything else. Everything has to be working in order for the whole building to be healthy. That has not been the case in the past so now things like is the elevator system working optimally? Is it moving people where they need to be when they need to be there? Is the access control security system and the lighting system aware of where people are in the building? Once you can detect occupancy you can make smarter decisions about what must be turned on, what your set points need to be for heating and cooling and so on. Once we expose all that legacy building automation data to BACnet now all these other value-added applications can come into play.
Doug: Yeah is there any practical limit to the number of smart thermostats that you can handle building?
Steve: No. There really isn't. If there is a limitation it is more of a business limitation. The manufacture of each of these smart thermostats have different policies about how many thermostats you can have under one account. You may need to have multiple accounts, but it's a solvable problem.
Doug: I guess I want to ask one more wonky question about buildings, and then I want to ask a wonky question about Steve. We've been talking a lot about taking old systems and extending their lifetime, expanding their capabilities, bringing them all into BACnet, and being able to interact with them in the way you've been talking about. We've talked about how this will work for really big buildings. Can this also work for small buildings?
It can work for a single building. It can work for many buildings. This whole idea of building energy efficiency came out of the field of physics and it came out of the interest in what people thought was a relatively mundane problem. A building gets put together, and screwed together, then people work in it, or live in it. But it's actually a really dynamic, really complicated system.
It came from the idea that these buildings are just naturally inefficient because no one was aware of the conception that each component played right. A lot of was it was around reducing the energy usage. Then we introduced solar, we introduced storage, and it was about making that building net zero. Energy itself is becoming greener. Here in California there are what we call community choice energy groups, which are kind of regional utilities, that are promising to make the actual energy they provide carbon-free. The energy itself is becoming a zero-carbon proposition so what does that do in in terms of just managing a building? Are we moving from energy being the enemy to cost being the enemy? Or is it about the occupants themselves? How do you see that problem?
Steve: I’d state it just a little bit differently. If you look back in time, the building was, if you will, owner centric. Whatever the owner was concerned about that's what was taken care of. In most cases it was cost. How much is it going to cost me to run this building? If the costs are too high let's take some shortcuts. That's all that they looked at.
The pendulum is swinging and now buildings are becoming more occupant centric or people centric. Especially if you look at the real estate investment companies. They own hundreds of thousands square feet of property and a lot of that is sitting vacant right now. It doesn't matter how much they do to save money in operating those buildings they're not going to survive unless they get occupants back into those buildings. To do that they have to start thinking about what do those occupants need? They need to be comfortable. They need to feel like they are safe. They need to feel like they're not coming in into the office with the office being an incubator for the next strain of the virus, and so forth. It's more than just temperature control. It is controlling the amount of outside air that that flows through the building. It's making sure that the filtration systems are working. It's introducing technology that will clean the air while killing the pathogens. It becomes a balancing act between running the building costs effectively or efficiency and running the building in a way that it's going to induce occupants to come into the building and stay there.
In the past the management approach was run this building as cheaply as I possibly can. Now it's be as economic as you can while still meeting the goals of making it a safe, and inviting, environment.
Doug: What I love about building automation is that the kinds of conversations interior designers have about delivering an experience and delivering an environment that's productive, and satisfying, and rewarding, and all of these great emotional terms. It kind of feels to me like building owners have a greater hand in delivering that kind of environment with the technology like yours because now everything is controllable.
Steve: Absolutely! If we could talk a bit more about what does S4 bring to the picture. With any new construction the building automation systems are already going to be BACnet. That gives the building owner the opportunity to introduce any value-added application they need to meet the goals you just talked about. But that still leaves this forty percent of the built environment that is legacy. These properties can't utilize current generation value added applications until you introduce a product like the s4 product
Doug: That's great! I promised a wonky question about Steve. I know you were an executive at Johnson Controls, so you knew a little bit about buildings before you started this. Right? So, this may have been your expertise but this is a big problem. You don't seem like the kind of guy that goes out on top of the hill and ponders the existence of buildings and what it all means. I am curious how you approach problems because you've brought a lot of clarity to a lot of really complicated stuff just in this conversation. Tell us how did you approach this problem? What's your philosophy of approaching really big hairy problems like this?
Steve: Listening is number one. Let me talk about how we designed our product. There are a number of products out there that are in the category of protocol converters. They do the basic task of taking one communications protocol and translating it to a different one. In our case the different one ends up being BACnet. But we didn't do it the way everyone else in the industry does it. We took a step back and we very carefully looked at the entire integration process, not just the not just the protocol conversion portion of it. We ended up using a little more robust computer platform than everyone else uses in the industry because we were going to ask it to do a lot more.
If you look at the process of upgrading a building there are lots and lots of things that typically would be done manually. Every time that you do a manual step you introduce the possibility of a human error. What we did in the design of the s4 product is we said let's let that computer do as much as it possibly can do. We automated as much of the integration process and the installation process as was practical. But we stopped short of claiming that it's a plug-and-play solution because every building is unique in some way shape or form and every situation is unique. We automated as much as we possibly could while still giving the installer the flexibility to customize the solution for a particular building. It's a much different solution than you would typically find out there. It is different because we took the time to listen, we took the time to really understand the entire problem that's being solved, not just very small portion of that problem.
Like any other product there is a little bit of a learning curve. This comes with working with computers, networks, and any technology. You're always going to have that. With the integration intelligence we included in the system you can go into a legacy building and in about an hour have the s4 product installed and up and running.
Doug: That's excellent! I have so many more questions for you I wish we had time to talk about how technology like this could put the ESCO industry in the grave. I’d love to talk to you about what happens after all buildings are automated and that's no longer the problem. What's the next big problem? I wish we could talk about that but we're a little out of time. I just wanted to give you an opportunity to shout out your website, social media, anything else you'd like folks to know about.
Steve: We do have a website https://www.thes4group.com. We have all the product descriptions out there, we have lots of success stories and case studies, we have a partner finder where you can find a integration partner that knows the S4 technology and can act as the master systems integrator to bring it all together.
We recorded all our training modules that we would have normally done in a two-day training session and published those on our YouTube channel. We spend a lot of time on LinkedIn so you can find me out there frequently. Let's connect wherever and whenever it's appropriate LinkedIn is a very productive environment for business to business relationships to be built.
Doug: Thank you so much for this. This was a great conversation. You're working on a really important problem. You've got a really important solution and this was just a really cool time to talk.
Steve: I appreciate everything you guys have done and look forward to speaking to the attendees.
Doug: Everybody have a great day and Steve we'll talk to you soon, okay? Great take care.
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