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The Internet of Things is reshaping buildings and technology

Authored by Steven Shutt

The digitally connected world of movies and media like Star Wars, the Jetsons, the Dark Knight and countless others promise a future where everything in the real world is controlled by real-time, holographic dashboards. While functional holograms may not be a reality yet, many of the other aspects of transmitting information and controlling real world systems and devices from a centralized location is already a reality enabled by the Internet of Things (IoT).

The IoT enables devices from household gadgets to industrial equipment to report health and status information, show historical usage and be controlled from a centralized location or automated software. The most rudimentary applications for the IoT involve monitoring personal homes, but the implications of the IoT in commercial and industrial settings are far more wide-ranging and powerful. Objects, devices, and systems with the ability to network and transmit information (telemetry) create the ability to develop and analyze massive amounts of data to drive continuous improvements. One application that is applicable across industries is the design, construction and retrofit of IoT technologies to make buildings intelligent.

Intelligent buildings

Given the incalculable footprint that buildings inhabit by consumption of resources, energy, space and time, structures are a natural starting point for IoT to drive environmental sustainability and workplace improvements by making shelters intelligent. Intelligent buildings use less energy, more efficiently utilize space, have maintenance that is more predictable, are more responsive to the needs of their inhabitants and tenants, can attract better talent, are safer and provide the opportunity to learn and improve. All of these benefits are made possible by smart building components and systems that can scale between a single connected lightbulb, to buildings, all the way to entire campuses and cities.

Before any project can begin, taking a number of considerations into account is important to make any intelligent building holistically successful. When considering an intelligent workplace the needs of all stakeholders (support staff, employees, visitors, management, maintenance, etc.) must be accounted for well before any wire is laid or technology installed. There are many tools to establish an end-to-end understanding of the solution’s human component through human factors, engineering studies, design thinking sessions, regular meetings with an engaged and financially empowered steering committee and an integrated change management team with technical expertise to sustainably make the organizational changes needed for the new environment.

Making decisions on technology and platforms in lock step with the organizational side of the establishment when developing intelligent building solutions. Larger considerations include determining the most needed/desired applications, interoperability with a client’s existing cloud software stack (e.g. Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud Platform), the specific network protocols needed for the solution (e.g. Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ZigBee, Z-wave, MQTT), and many more. While technology and platform decisions are extremely important, they are out of scope for this quick discussion as the landscape of the IoT is ever-changing and multiple routes can be taken for achieving project success.

Lighting

One of the most intuitive and inexpensive opportunities to jump into IoT-enabled solutions is artificial lighting. With smart light bulbs and lamps being one of the first IoT-enabled technologies made available to mainstream consumers, the benefits of connected lighting have been publicized for over a decade. Applications using lighting systems, both connected bulbs and window technologies, can have a large impact on the energy usage of the building/organization and the resultant energy costs. A few simple benefits include, in order of increasing complexity:

  • Monitoring lighting health and status automatically to highlight when bulbs need to be replaced
  • Turning lights on/off intelligently based on workers present, time of day, and time of year, rather than using not-connected motion sensors which often annoyingly have blind spots and activate/deactivate at inopportune times
  • Biasing room lighting towards more natural sunlight during the day by turning off artificial light and raising blinds which can enhance employee experience and productivity
  • Changing lighting conditions based on personal preference. For example, increasing lighting in a conference room where more employees are present to better illuminate a whiteboard, or decreasing lighting if that particular employee is more productive in that environment

Decreasing energy usage through connected lighting solutions usage obviously has a positive impact on a company’s energy expenditures by decreasing demand and carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel-generated power. An even greater energy impact can be seen when also incorporating connected Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) technologies into an intelligent building.

HVAC

While more capitally intensive than connected lighting solutions, the long-term benefits of connected HVAC systems are many times that of lighting as climate control is generally the largest component of a building’s energy costs. Smart HVAC systems have the capability to dynamically predict and react to many information streams to optimize the use HVAC equipment, minimizing cost and carbon output, particularly for firms with strong business intelligence to act on these insights.

An example useful to many offices is a system that can identify upcoming cold weather to predict energy demand by dynamically switching to different sources of climate control – heat pumps, gas and/or electric furnaces, window blinds controlled to allow more light/heat and opening/closing windows – to minimize costs and maximize employee comfort. In this scenario the building can also ramp up the production of heat during non-working hours when energy costs are cheaper to serve as a heat sink throughout the rest of the tenant occupied hours.

Another application of HVAC systems brought to the forefront with the Covid-19 pandemic is monitoring and filtering air. By watching metrics like levels of allergens, pollutants, carbon dioxide levels and other factors, intelligent HVAC systems can be a key component for employee experience and health by working to ensure that everyone in the building has access to fresh, clean air that ultimately can help employers get the best performance from their people. For instance, high amounts of carbon dioxide in the air (like those found in sealed environments like many office buildings) have a measurable negative impact on human cognition. By monitoring and taking steps to ‘freshen’ the air supply, both employee experience and performance can be improved which can have outsized benefits for the company.

Businesses can see dividends both environmentally and on the bottom line by incorporating IoT into their building technology, lighting or HVAC systems. After the initial smart building system implementation, Baker Tilly Digital has the tools to help clients make the most of their investments into IoT and intelligent buildings. Contact us for more insight into how Baker Tilly Digital can provide custom solutions to fit your company’s goals and needs.

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