Smart Buildings

Google Digital Buildings Project: Putting the Internet into the Building Internet of Things

The Internet was first conceived as a platform for academics to share information through a structured worldwide web of peer-to-peer connections. As it turned out, everyone else wanted to share information too, leading to the open, user-led, beautiful mess we see online today. Opening up the Internet to the world allowed anything and everything imaginable to be created, for good and for bad, thereby creating a digital world that reflects its users’ various needs.

In recent years we have tried to bring buildings, cities, and physical things online, but instead of the open, user-led, beautiful, messy internet, the emerging Internet of Things (IoT) has largely been a siloed and closed attempt to bring the real world into the digital one, or vice versa.

“How do we achieve a digital world, digital city or even a digital building with little agreement on what “smart,” “intelligent” or “digital” is? How do we compare digital buildings within a city without any criteria or common ground?” says Kathy Farrington, Technical Program Manager at Google. “One approach is to focus on creating the infrastructure to allow for any device to work with any application. This builds towards a world much more in line with the explosive potential of the Internet, rather than bespoke environments we see in buildings today that are limited in their utility.”

One company that should understand the benefits of an open internet more than most is Google. A champion of the dot com generation pioneered an open approach that has played a big part of facilitating the creation of our endless range of online resources over the past 20-years. Today, Google has business units dedicated to buildings, cities, and the IoT. It also has its own large portfolio of buildings and campuses, which it had operated and managed using the best methods available from the fragmented and closed smart building sector. Inspired by these limitations, Google launched its Digital Buildings project in July 2020, and the initiative could trigger that open internet-style growth in the smart building market.

The Digital Buildings project is “an open-source, Apache-licensed effort to create a uniform schema and toolset for representing structured information about buildings and building-installed equipment.” The project originated from the need to manage a very large, heterogeneous building portfolio in a scalable way by enabling the management of applications and analyzes that are “trivially portable between buildings.” Through a combination of semantically-expressive abstract modeling, an easy-to-use configuration language, and robust validation tooling, Google has made something that could spark a new open era for smart buildings.

In creating the Digital Buildings project, Google have considered the following elements:
* Human Readability
* Machine Readability & Interpretation
* Composable functionality
* Dimensional Analysis
* Correctness Validation
* Cross Compatibility

The Digital Buildings Project is not the first attempt at an open-source ontology for smart buildings. In fact, Google has been very clear about other initiatives like Project Haystack and Brick Schema being a key inspiration for the project, they state that “maintaining cross-compatibility and/or convergence with both is a long-term objective” for the project. However, in an effort to manage its own large portfolio of buildings Google has taken the evolution a step further with an ontology that sets the parameters for a semantic data model and tools for building, validating, and associating equipment with a specific model. Furthermore, “cross compatibility and/or convergence” with Brick, Haystack and RealEstateCore could be the real game changer for the standardization of smart building systems.

Without convergence, or domination by one ontology, we may just have a new form of fragmentation. Each ontology has its benefits and each has already been adopted to varying degrees. The release of Haystack 4 at the end of 2019, for example, improved many aspects of Haystack 3, such as a more complete ability to define relationships amongst, within, and between entities. BrickSchema, meanwhile, excels in defining classes and relationships for HVAC and electrical systems but is currently limited in its use for other operational systems in buildings. RealEstateCore covers building structures, ownership, inhabitants, technical systems and sensors.

“It is not clear how many Haystack community members and integrators have implemented these concepts, or who is working toward updating their Haystack 3 implementations to Haystack 4. As far as cross-compatibility goes, Haystack 4 is the only version that will have a chance of aligning with Digital Buildings and Brick, so any convergence between the three needs to start there,” says Brian Turner, CEO at Buildings IOT.

“What is more difficult to ascertain is how widely Brick is being used in buildings around the world. There is no doubt it is being used and should be included when aligning the standards. These two models are slightly different which will lead to problems down the road if the systems within the project don’t follow a consistent standard.”

In order for the industry to move forward, building data needs to be modeled in such a way that it is portable and consistent across multiple buildings regardless of the individual design engineers, system vendors, or installing contractors. If we can achieve that goal, manufacturers and solution providers will adapt their products and services to be utilized across a broad spectrum of buildings. That is the goal of Haystack, Brick and now Digital Buildings, but they still lack a consistent strategy for modeling relationships, which leaves space for each integrator to define this crucial element in a slightly different way. Futhermore, none of these projects promise to integrate the broad range of legacy and proprietary systems that exist in the majority of building stock.

Google’s Digital Buildings project is a step in the right direction for smart buildings, especially for the efficient management of building systems across large portfolios. However, Google has created this system for its own collection of modern buildings rather than the market as a whole. While legacy and proprietary systems may never be truly integrated into wider portfolio management systems, Google’s promise to create convergence between Haystack and Brick is a landmark moment for the emerging semantic tagging / ontology trend in the industry. If and when this open convergence materializes, the industry will become stronger but dependent on the commitment of Google to the future of the smart buildings market as a whole.

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