A Call for Truly Creative Building-Automation Systems

A Call for Truly Creative Building-Automation Systems

When our industry discusses building-control systems, building-control devices, and building-control interfaces, we all imagine what those things should be. But those preconceptions limit our imagination, limit our creativity, and limit our industry. We also keep saying certain things cannot be done. We are creating systems and solutions that are expected, and we’re not being truly creative.

Consider this story: Sherlock Holmes and his assistant, Dr. Watson, were camping out in the wilderness and as the night went on, Holmes awoke and looked up. He then turned over, nudged Watson awake and asked, “What do you see?”

Knowing how detailed Sherlock can be, Watson replied, “Sherlock, I see the North Star, which has helped guide us to this spot. Beyond that I see the Big Dipper and Orion. I also can make out the edges of the Milky Way and know that there are universes expanding beyond that.”

Watson was about to continue his rapturous explanation when suddenly Sherlock elbowed him and hissed, “Watson, you idiot, someone has stolen our tent!”

This story illustrates how we sometimes see what we expect to see, but miss the answers or opportunities right in front of us because of our perceived conclusions.

For example, when I say “light switch,” most people picture this:

So if people saw this instead, they might not know what it was, even though it, too, is a light switch:

Compare our industry to the home game industry or the cell phone industry. These industries are not that different from the building control industry, so why have you seen so much advancement in home gaming and cell phones?

Why does a thermostat have to look like a thermostat? Why couldn’t everyone wear a sticker that measures their comfort and adjusts the space to that person’s sensation? When the person moves from one zone to another, that signal would be communicated to the new zone. It could also count the number of people in each zone. Temperature is only one measure of comfort, but we base our whole industry on that value.

And then there are the expectations from a customer point of view. We need to quit “dumbing down” our expectations and branding what systems are supposed to look like. We have done this for so long that the people who occupy our buildings expect the product we deliver to look a certain way. When it does not, they have a poor perception. This only further encourages the creativity-limiting behavior. Instead of limiting ourselves and our industry, we can and should teach our clients and expand their expectations.

If customers in the home gaming and cell phone industry can adapt and request new directions, so can we. We just need to push the envelope. Don’t miss the tree when you look at the forest and when someone asks you what you see, take a minute and think about what they are truly asking.

Thanks to the book Jesus Life Coach by Laurie Beth Jones for the Sherlock Holmes story.

J. Christopher Larry PE, CEM, CEP, CIPE, LEED AP, is director of energy engineering for Teng Solutions, Richmond, VA. He has spent more than 20 years working to minimize the building industry’s energy and environmental footprint through refining building design, building modeling, performance optimization, and intelligent controls. He has held numerous positions within the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), including chairman of the Chapter Technology Transfer Committee and chairman for Technical, Energy and Governmental Activities. He is past president of the Association of Energy Engineers (AEE) and instructs the certified energy manager training course for AEE. He is the current chairman for the Building Intelligent Quotient (BIQ) within the Continental Automated Buildings Association (CABA) and also is a member of the Zero Energy Consortium.

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