Are We Too Buzzed on Building Automation Buzzwords?
Author: Environmental Systems, Inc. (ESI)
“Smart buildings.” “Big data.” “The Internet of Things.” The hype can be so intoxicating. Everywhere I look, every tradeshow I visit, it seems like the building automation industry is drunk on buzzwords. We’re overindulging in shiny objects and over-promising the savings.
We’re only human. We’re lured by the fancy terminology surrounding promising new technologies, and we want to join the party. A building that basically runs itself … Who doesn’t want to drink some of that Kool-Aid?
The problem is that, after the happy hour of hype, we’re often less than happy with the aftereffects. That expensive software fails to be a magic elixir of building efficiency.
So, rather than the buzzwords, I think it’s time for straight talk. People need to understand what building automation systems can really do for business operations and bottom lines. Just as importantly, they need to know what it takes to achieve these benefits.
The First Step Is to Acknowledge the Problem
Let’s start with this truth: So-called smart technologies aren’t actually smart. While it’s true that complex pieces of equipment are collecting and sharing data like never before, no software on earth is going to automatically repair a mechanical failure.
Buildings aren’t smart, either. Most are not built to run well over their life cycle, but rather to meet a budget, look a certain way or meet a specific organization’s needs at some fixed point in time. Building concepts such as low lifetime operating costs or flexibility to meet evolving needs are typically low priorities.
Nevertheless, automating building functions is a crucial pursuit. In today’s competitive atmosphere, the potential of better-performing buildings – and, by extension, better performing organizations – is just too great to ignore. That’s the case whether you’re in retail, manufacturing, health care, education, corporate real estate or government.
Tapping into this potential, however, isn’t as simple as installing the latest control platform, no matter how fancy its name or marketing materials may make it sound. Ultimately, every smart technology still relies on smart people to use its data and make informed decisions about how to operate it.
How do we make those informed decisions? We’ve got to get down into the details and grasp the realities. Success in building automation requires the management of complex relationships among buildings, systems and people – key connections that are misunderstood or completely overlooked in favor of dazzling tech talk.
From what I’ve been seeing in the industry, I believe these relationships break down into five realities that must be addressed comprehensively to avoid the headache of a failed solution.
No two buildings are alike. They come from different eras, run different systems and fulfill different purposes. And even within individual buildings, multiple different systems and functions must be coordinated.
Moreover, buildings evolve over time. They function differently depending on age, location, environment, purpose, occupancy and a host of other variables.
It’s no small feat to connect all these factors in a way that supports the success of each structure and the organization as a whole.
The gadgets and the software are getting more advanced by the day. The concept of the Internet of Things – as well as the implications of the data sharing it enables – is enticing.
But in many cases, such promise and progress can be daunting for people trying to implement the latest technologies. The system you upgraded just a few years ago may already be dated. It might not get along so well with the new software.
Then there’s the “big data” being generated by today’s interconnected equipment. What exactly do you do with all that information? How do you know what numbers to look at, and how to respond? The good news is that it’s possible today to leverage and analyze data more effectively and find savings that we wouldn’t have seen before – but only with the right tools and expertise.
Intelligent buildings begin with intelligent and cooperative teams – teams that often haven’t had to work together much before.
People at all levels and across a wide spectrum of functions (IT and Facilities in particular) are going to need to embrace the strategic importance of building automation systems as well as their role in success. They each have their own goals, needs and perspectives. Uniting them all behind a common vision and mission is a significant challenge. Some reorganization may even be required to do so.
Product vendors are everywhere in this industry, touting a dizzying array of products. Large manufacturers, meanwhile, are promoting supposedly plug-and-play software platforms.
They’re all geared to sell stuff, not to solve the unique problems that any given organization faces.
Delivering on the promise of building automation requires a rare combination of flexible technology, sophisticated expertise and an intimate understanding of the challenges involved in each building.
An “intelligent building” sounds cool. But what does it really mean?
As I said at the outset, the buzzwords being tossed around in our industry make it all sound so simple. But it’s not. And if we’re to fully realize the underlying potential, we’re going to have to dig deeper.
After all, many companies have already implemented the most straightforward building efficiency improvements, whether through a new HVAC system, upgraded lighting or something else. After these achievements, getting to the next levels of ROI is going to be a lot harder. We’ve moved past the “low hanging fruit” to looking for the “change in the couch.”
There’s no mystic potion you can drink that will solve everything for a given set of circumstances and result in a spectacular, self-managing building. There’s only the intelligent, ongoing management of relationships among buildings, systems and people. That approach, more than any intoxicating buzzworthy terminology, is what will make a positive impact for buildings, businesses and all the people they serve.