How does an intelligent building get so smart, exactly?

What differentiates an intelligent building from one with building automation?

We are seeing growing interest in the concept of the intelligent building (AKA, smart building or connected building). Often, however, we are then asked, “What is the difference between an intelligent building and normal building automation?” This is a good question! It may be valuable to start with a high level definition of an intelligent building. The one we like is: “Use of technology and process to create a sustainable building that is safer and more productive for its occupants and more operationally efficient for its owners.”

In short, this is a focused view of buildings as a system of systems with controls and integration being used to deliver a higher level of efficiency and an improved set of user interface tools.

Three Layers

So what differentiates this from traditional building automation? In some ways the whole concept is just an extension of building automation to cover more systems and functions, but in other ways it is completely different. Here are some specific examples:

Improved building systems control. The concept of the intelligent building starts with the design and selection of the right building system controls. These systems need to be designed to be properly optimized for efficiency, provide the data needed for efficient operation, be IP compatible, and use open standards so that they can be readily integrated. In addition to properly specifying and designing these systems, they also need to be properly installed and, most importantly, correctly commissioned. Building systems are often selected so that they can be competitively acquired from “best in class” suppliers and often will include a set of software tools for setup, troubleshooting, and limited operations.
Systems integration. The second tier of an intelligent building is the integration layer. This often is based on a middleware package that allows for systems to be readily interconnected using a combination of protocols and to provide user interface typically using a series of webpages. At the integration layer, information can readily be shared between systems for additional optimization. Web-based user interface allows for a single view of all of the building systems and can allow for operations and monitoring on-site with handheld devices such as PDAs and smart phones, or remotely from a Web connection.

Enterprise management. The final layer of an intelligent building system is enterprise management. This is clearly a departure from more traditional building automation. Enterprise management provides connections between the building systems and business systems. Examples of this include using information from a scheduling program, such as Microsoft Exchange server, to schedule lights and A/C in spaces such as conference rooms. Other examples include bringing information up to management dashboards that allow for easy analysis of building performance, including energy, sustainability, and productivity at a high level.

Enterprise management also provides tools for managing large groups of buildings as one virtual campus or enterprise.  It furthermore allows for ready connection to outside services, including utility demand response programs and analytic services that can readily assess building performance and provide recommended improvements.

From The Ground Up

Used together, these three levels of an intelligent building system can result in a significant improvement of system operations, operational efficiency, and high-level tools for facility assessment and optimization. Keep in mind, however, that the pyramid or hierarchy is only as good as the quality of its base. It starts with a solid design and delivery of the building systems and their associated controls, then builds with integration and connectivity. At a high level, the tools provide the ability to recognize and improve on system problems, but for an intelligent building to work, all of the underlying systems must be properly designed, implemented and commissioned. ES