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New studies into common afternoon drowsiness experienced by office workers have created an opportunity for the smart building industry to tackle the issue. While most experts agree that mid-afternoon is a perfectly natural time to sleep, the office environment simultaneously adds additional drowsiness drivers and a sleep-impeding atmosphere.

This universal workplace phenomenon, known as the “post-lunch dip”, represents a collision of biology and economics. While the body’s natural cycle may encourage workers sleep, employers traditionally do not, leading to millions of us reaching for the “post-lunch caffeine and sugar”.

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The 24-hour cycle of the body, or its circadian rhythm, is naturally in a resting phase approximately 7 hours after waking up. So in the afternoon, it happens to converge with another physiological cycle – known as homeostatic – that measures the amount of time spent awake and that is also pushing for a rest. Then add food digestion to the equation and you can see why anyone might struggle against those heavy eyelids.

Add to the this the fact that in the last few years, several studies have found that high levels of carbon dioxide (or low levels of oxygen) in offices could be affecting our sleepiness, as well as our concentration and decision-making abilities.

Building regulations have led to well-insulated office spaces, reducing temperature fluctuations but also reducing fresh air circulation. Typical outdoor CO2 concentrations hover around 380 parts per million (ppm), while within offices CO2 concentrations were found to be as high as several thousand ppm.

Now researchers at Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) joined forces with Cumbernauld-based Gas Sensing Solutions (GSS) developed a smart energy building management system that would help make employees become more productive, or at least stay awake during office hours. The smart energy management system is able to monitor air quality, anticipate a drop in atmospheric oxygen and reacts to correct it.

The system was developed under a project by the Innovation Centre for Sensors and Imaging Systems (CENSIS) and could be ready for market release within a year.

The system utilizes sensors that are able to detect the number of people in a room to be able to automatically adjust room temperature and air quality to keep the occupants comfortable. The sensors, which were provided by GSS, have a battery life of up to 10 years but the team is already working on a solar-powered version of the system. The sensors are placed both inside and outside the building, so the system can also react to external conditions such as lowering the temperature inside when it’s getting too hot outside.

“People have traditionally tackled afternoon drowsiness with making a cup of coffee, but in reality the issue tends to be associated with diminishing air quality”, Dr Hadi Larijani, GCU senior lecturer in the Department of Computer, Communications & Interactive Systems, said.

“Modern building regulations have focused on thermal insulation, so insulating a building to prevent heat loss has the associated effect of preventing any fresh air getting in. That means the people inside are sitting in a room where the oxygen levels are falling throughout the day”.

“Retrofitting air conditioning is expensive and doesn’t really address the central problem of air quality, whereas our system will make intelligent decisions about the conditions in the building and take action to address it” Larijani added. “That might involve increasing the flow of air into a particular area where the system thinks it will do the most overall good. We’re not saying it’ll stop coffee cravings altogether, but people may find themselves less dependent on caffeine if the air quality stays at a steady level throughout the day”.

The development follows the recent trend towards greater sensory input from buildings, part of the wider Internet of Things (IoT) and Big Data movements. A recent Memoori report on Big Data in Smart Buildings expects enablement hardware (sensors, actuators, switches etc) to grow from a value of $8.38 Billion in 2015, to $14.25 Billion in 2020, representing a CAGR of 12%. This is in addition to related analytical software and cloud services which show even greater growth potential.

“The impact of smart buildings on our daily places of work could be profound” says Michael Bayer, President EMEA, of business communications firm Avaya. In addition to keeping employees awake and alert the “office knows your preferences for light, temperature and room type. It will alert you when someone who might be useful to a project you’re working on enters the building; and even automatically set up a meeting with that person. This is the world of smart buildings”, stated Bayer.

In addition to the short-term economic gain of reducing office drowsiness, smart buildings may have an even more important long-term mission. Classrooms concentrations of CO2 have shown to consistently exceed 1000ppm and occasionally exceed 3000ppm, surely having a significant impact on the education of future generations. Crowded classrooms may not only suffer from over-stretched teachers, but also oxygen deprivation, a problem smart technology may overcome with huge implications for society.

CENSIS chief executive Ian Reid said, “Intelligent automation is going to be a growing theme of future technology, and these kinds of projects illustrate the opportunities for businesses and researchers to come up with ideas which make a genuine difference in society”.