Latest from Building Automation

Modular Building Institute

How Smart Are We—And Our Buildings?

Jan. 3, 2013
Smart buildings, bulding automation systems, and the quest to create "automated intelligent buildings" have been around for many years. Unfortunately, here in the early 21st century, the phrase “building automation” has become so problematic it provokes skepticism, rather than visions of innovation, among many building owners.

It’s a misconception to think “smart building” discussions started only with the advent of computers. Buckminster Fuller, the famous creator of the geodesic dome (among other things), was writing about intelligent homes and buildings as early as the 1930s. And it was during the 1960s— when—computers began to become prominent in the building-control industry—that we became obsessed with the “automated intelligent building.” Unfortunately, here in the early 21st century, the phrase “building automation” has become so problematic it provokes skepticism, rather than visions of innovation, among many building owners. 

Control companies have been talking futurism for years but some end-users would consider progress to be incremental at best. Facility managers seeking to invest in intelligent building technology are demanding wider integration of systems within a building, particularly information technology and control systems. This focus has become acute with the emergence of energy use within facilities as a key cost driver and sustainability concern.

The goal is to help facility owners and managers achieve system simplicity and high uptime. It’s largely driven by the fact that most buildings these days have smaller staffs with less technical ability. The objective is to fix problems remotely, or, if that’s not possible, to efficiently dispatch a service technician to the right place at the right time, with the required expertise and proper tools.

Yet, some things that look easy turn out to be difficult. And some things that should be kept simple are allowed to become unnecessarily complex. That’s part of the strange saga of networked buildings that never quite achieve their goals.

Over the decades, the seductive images of intelligent buildings have become part of public mythology. The “smart building” must be a facility that “does things for you” in dramatic, futuristic ways.

This means managing the environmental temperature, pressure, carbon-dioxide level, volatile-organic-compound dilution, and humidity within the building and creating an environment conducive to productivity, safety, comfort, and energy efficiency. Our solutions need designed and implemented with a “do it right the first time” mentality.

Building management futurists want to know if overhead doors are left open, pipes have burst, HVAC systems are overridden, or security triggers were released. But do your building owner clients really want proprietary interfaces for all these things? How many user manuals do they want to read? How many systems do they want to be trained to use? 

The answer to doing more with less, with minimum dependency on the controls manufacturers, lies somewhere with the “futurists” camping out in the open protocol community.

Richard A. “Dick” Starr is president and chief executive officer of The Enterprise Corporation, a design/build/maintain contractor in the Cleveland, Ohio area. The company is an authorized Tridium Systems Integrator, NEBB-certified air/water balance agency, and the exclusive Linc Service contractor for northeastern Ohio. In 2011, the company was selected as Contracting Business Magazine’s Commercial HVAC Contractor of the Year. Starr also sits on the national boards of both MCAA and MSCA.  He can be reached at [email protected].