Smart Buildings

Unmanageable Smart Building Complexity is Holding Back Progress

“A record is a circular lump of vinyl into which is embossed a series of bumps and grooves, that when rotated and a fine needle run in said grooves, emits sounds we call music. If the grooves get damaged, the needle sticks in a hollow and endlessly repeats the same series of sounds,” reads an article by BSRIA. “We don’t have these problems anymore. Because we have digital, and I can listen to “The Girl from Ipanema” on various electronic devices scattered not just throughout the house but tucked in various crevices around my person. Well, I would if I could, but I can’t get iTunes to recognize a file downloaded to one device to playback on another. The software won’t tell me why. It sits there, literally and metaphorically mute.” “This, as an analog for smart technologies in buildings, is pretty much where we are today: adding complexity to comfort systems to meet supposedly […]

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“A record is a circular lump of vinyl into which is embossed a series of bumps and grooves, that when rotated and a fine needle run in said grooves, emits sounds we call music. If the grooves get damaged, the needle sticks in a hollow and endlessly repeats the same series of sounds,” reads an article by BSRIA. “We don’t have these problems anymore. Because we have digital, and I can listen to “The Girl from Ipanema” on various electronic devices scattered not just throughout the house but tucked in various crevices around my person. Well, I would if I could, but I can’t get iTunes to recognize a file downloaded to one device to playback on another. The software won’t tell me why. It sits there, literally and metaphorically mute.”

This, as an analog for smart technologies in buildings, is pretty much where we are today: adding complexity to comfort systems to meet supposedly higher expectations but introducing risks we subsequently can’t handle because the technology has outstripped our abilities to manage it. It often also alienates users in the process and compromises the building’s performance,” the article continues. “The real problem is whether the needs and expectations of the building users have been properly considered before reaching for a highly complex technological solution when, actually, reaching for a simple manual handle or switch might have done the job just as well.”

The most important trait of technology is that it works. While very occasional issues may be tolerated, technology must work the vast majority of the time to stand any chance of acceptance by users, which is a key requisite for success. In buildings, we have become accustomed to basic technology, such as light switches and power sockets, working reliably almost all the time. However, with the introduction of more advanced smart building technology, we have lost that reliability in the pursuit of functionality, and in doing so we have lost a level of user acceptance. So, what’s the reliability problem with smart building technology, and how do we solve it?

“When one turns on a physical wall light switch, the communication between the switch and the ceiling bulb is operational ≥99.999% of the time. “Five 9s” means the system fails on average ≤10 minutes-per-year,” explains Glenn Weinreb, co-founder and CTO of Manhattan 2, an R&D initiative to solve global warming and depletion of fossil fuel problems. “It’s a subtle point that gets little attention, yet is important. Occupants and builders don’t accept less reliability from common building infrastructure.”

Wireless and power-line communications are far less reliable with failure rates as much as 1% to 10%. If a traditional light switch doesn’t work 1 in 10 times, that switch would be labeled faulty or broken by users, so why should we expect them to accept such failure rates from new technology? The key issue here is communication, and until we can make wireless and power-line communications around as reliable as a traditional light switch, smart building technology will always have an acceptance problem.

Consider Tesla vehicles, for example, which have far more digital devices and software than a traditional vehicle. Teslas are almost like the smart buildings of the automotive world, except they have been widely accepted by users leading to a healthy 30-40% increase in sales year-over-year. To overcome the interoperability issues faced in their vehicles, Tesla integrated all devices and hardware around a single central software architecture, giving the firm an almost seamless ability to update software and optimize vehicle performance. There are limits to the Tesla - smart building comparison, of course, but also important lessons to learn.

In buildings, wireless communications face issues of dead zones, crowded spectrums, low signal-to-noise ratio, insufficiently sized antennas, and blocked signals, requiring more power or adaptation of the signal’s environment. For power-line communication, on the other hand, the signal must be routed into and out of a fuse box, where it mixes with dynamic voltage fluctuations that cause frequent data communication errors. On top of all that there are interoperability issues where different devices simply don’t speak the same language. In an age of smart devices with sophisticated data communication demands, poor interoperability creates significant usability and, therefore, acceptance issues.

“The sophistication of smart technologies needs to be matched by the sophistication of the installation, commissioning, user training, and system fine-tuning after handover. Often it’s nowhere near what it needs to be for the technologies to deliver their promise. Building performance studies are littered with automated lighting that either turns off lights when they’re needed or prevents them from being turned off,” the BRISA article continues. “As has been said many times before, unmanageable complexity is the enemy of good performance.”

To solve the sophistication issue of communication in smart buildings, we developed smart building communication protocols. In basic terms, Protocols allow devices to “talk” to each other in the same language, and when devices are connected together via a protocol, it forms a sophisticated building network that can be controlled by software. However, each device can still only speak a certain number of languages, meaning not all devices can speak to each other.

Even after nearly two decades promise of interoperable communication protocols, systems that fail to communicate with each other are rife,” states the BRISA article. “Building Performance Evaluation studies reveal underfloor heating and passive stack ventilation systems that are intended to be controlled centrally by the building management system but are actually controlled by the vendors’ standalone software that the BMS can only monitor. And if it tries to intervene it can’t, because of incompatible software.”

The most important trait of technology is that it works, and through the complex and fragmented landscape of smart building technologies we are not fully achieving that basic requirement. For the market to grow we need greater adoption, and for that, we need better levels of user acceptance. Interoperable communication protocols are a big part of solving this problem, and while we cannot expect all smart device manufacturers to apply the same software, we can make the software more open.

“The Future is Open Standards,” states our Future Proofing Smart Commercial Buildings report. “Open data, security, and communications standards are critical to improving the interoperability, flexibility, and resilience of digitally enabled building systems. The historical “walled garden” approach of siloed systems each operating based on proprietary communications protocols has, until recently, acted as a major inhibitor to the adoption of smart building technology, but the market is steadily shifting, and manufacturers are now actively providing support for more open protocols.”

The key advantage of open communication standards and protocols is that they enable the integration of new devices, IoT sensors, and systems, and facilitate data sharing on a converged network between devices built by different manufacturers. A building that adopts open architecture standards is, therefore, more interoperable from the outset and more future-proofed against inevitable new devices, connections, or upgrades. So, by employing more open standards across the industry, we can improve reliability and user acceptance in the short and long term, thereby driving technology adoption and market growth to the next level.

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