News Article
April 5, 2011

What is a Smart Building?

The first buildings ever constructed were primitive shelters made from stones, sticks, animal skins and other natural materials. While they hardly resembled the steel and glass that make up a modern city skyline, these early structures had the same purpose - to provide a comfortable space for the people inside.

Buildings today are complex concatenations of structures, systems and technology. Over time, each of the components inside a building has been developed and improved, allowing modern-day building owners to select lighting, security, heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems independently, as if they were putting together a home entertainment system.

But building owners today are beginning to look outside the four walls and consider the impact of their building on the electrical grid, the mission of their organization, and the global environment. To meet these objectives, it is not enough for a building to simply contain the systems that provide comfort, light and safety. Buildings of the future must connect the various pieces in an integrated, dynamic and functional way. This vision is a building that seamlessly fulfills its mission while minimizing energy cost, supporting a robust electric grid and mitigating environmental impact.

At the most fundamental level, smart buildings deliver useful building services that make occupants productive (e.g. illumination, thermal comfort, air quality, physical security, sanitation, and many more) at the lowest cost and environmental impact over the building lifecycle. Reaching this vision requires adding intelligence from the beginning of design phase through to the end of the building's useful life. Smart buildings use information technology during operation to connect a variety of subsystems, which typically operate independently, so that these systems can share information to optimize total building performance. Smart buildings look beyond the building equipment within their four walls. They are connected and responsive to the smart power grid, and they interact with building operators and occupants to empower them with new levels of visibility and actionable information.

Enabled by technology, this smart building connects the structure itself to the functions it exists to fulfill:

  • Connecting building systems

  • Connecting people and technology

  • Connecting to the bottom line

  • Connecting to the global environment

  • Connecting to the smart power grid

  • Connecting to an intelligent future

Connecting Building Systems

Modern buildings contain complex mechanical devices, sophisticated control systems and a suite of features to improve the safety, comfort and productivity of occupants. Many of these systems involve machine-to-machine communication, but because the data is general in nature and the communication protocols have been proprietary, information only flows along certain paths. The smart building will require connectivity between all the equipment and systems in a building. An example is chiller plant optimization, which boosts the efficiency of chiller operation by incorporating outside weather data and information about occupancy. Another example is using data from the building security system to turn off lights and reduce cooling when occupants are not present.

The movement toward interoperable, connected devices and systems within a building requires cooperation between many different parties, many of whom are historical business competitors. Despite the challenge, voluntary collaboration over the past two decades has led to the adoption of open standards such as BACnet®, Modbus®, and LonWorks®1, leveling the playing field by enabling every manufacturer and contractor to make their contribution to a functional whole. The result is a building where lighting, air conditioning, security and other systems pass data freely back and forth – leading to higher efficiency, more safety and comfort, and lower cost operation of the facility.


Connecting People and Technology

The most sophisticated software and elaborate hardware in the world would be nothing but wires and transistors without the people that use them to work more effectively. In that sense, the people that run a smart building are a crucial component of its intelligence.

With budgets tight and staff constrained, there is no room for difficult training and steep learning curves in modern day facility management. Instead, a truly smart building provides intuitive tools that are designed to improve and enhance the existing efforts of the people on the ground. As the smart building evolves, the sharing of information between smart building systems and components will provide the platform for innovation. Future applications will appear as facility managers interact with tools and technology to do their jobs better – providing more comfort, more safety, and more security with less money, less energy, and less environmental impact.


Connecting to the Bottom Line

A smart building can be considered a “supersystem” of interconnected building subsystems; it has been compared to the internet, which connects computer networks into one larger “supernetwork.” In a smart building, the integration of systems can be used to reduce operating costs.

There are numerous ways that a smart building can save money; most involve optimized operation and increased efficiency:

  • Optimized cooling and ventilation equipment Modeling loads dynamically allows the system to spend the minimum amount of money to provide the comfort level desired.

  • Matching occupancy patterns to energy use A smart building will run leaner (and save money) when there are less people inside.

  • Proactive maintenance of equipment Analysis algorithms will detect problems in performance before they cause expensive outages, maintaining optimum efficiency along the way.

  • Dynamic power consumptionBy taking signals from the electricity market and altering usage in response, a smart building ensures the lowest possible energy costs and often generates revenue by selling load reductions back to the grid.

The open access to information is a platform on which significant value can be built. A smart building creates this platform by connecting information in an open format, allowing for the development of new applications that save time, energy, and operating costs, in the same way that new web applications are developed for the open information found on the internet.


Connecting to the Global Environment

For decades, building management systems have automated the process of providing just enough energy to heat and cool buildings to meet comfort standards. These energy efficiency measures contribute to an organization’s sustainability goals, such as tracking and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But if the data is trapped within the building management system, executive-level decision-makers cannot measure and act on it.

Translation software called “middleware” gathers data from all automated systems throughout an enterprise – regardless of manufacturer or communications protocol – and merges it into a common platform for analytics and reporting. One result is the emergence of web-based dashboard displays that offer a visual snapshot of which facilities are experiencing high energy usage, abnormal maintenance costs, and many other situations that deserve prompt attention.

This provides executives in charge of sustainability and carbon footprint management with the visibility to see the big picture of their organization, no matter how many buildings or geographic locations are involved. When information is available quickly and can be accessed anywhere, managers are able to make better decisions that have an immediate impact on profitability.


Connecting to the Smart Power Grid

Truly smart buildings will leverage knowledge that resides outside its walls and windows. The smart grid is an ideal place to start. Electricity markets are evolving toward “real time,” meaning that buildings can receive requests to reduce demand when wholesale prices are high or when grid reliability is jeopardized. In addition, dynamic electric rates are a growing trend, meaning a building is charged closer to the actual cost of producing electricity at the instant it is used instead of the average cost over long time periods.

For instance, a utility on the smart grid may be programmed to read the weather forecast, and anticipate a temperature increase that will result in increased demand the following afternoon. The utility could communicate an “offer” to pay the smart building $0.50 for every kilowatt-hour drop from its average electricity usage. A smart building could accept this offer by activating an internal demand-reduction mode and thereby reducing its load.

While energy use and occupant comfort are crucial to any organization and therefore require human involvement in the decision-making, technology will be the key enabler, providing building operators with the tools and information they need to make smart choices. (Facility managers are constrained as it is; there would be very limited response to participating in a smart grid if it required operators to perform a “second job” monitoring markets and reacting to signals.)


A day in the life of a smart grid and smart building illustration


Connecting to an Intelligent Future

Smart buildings go far beyond saving energy and contributing to sustainability goals. They extend capital equipment life and also impact the security and safety of all resources – both human and capital. They enable innovation by creating a platform for accessible information. They turn buildings into virtual power generators by allowing operators to shed electric load and sell the “negawatts” into the market. They are a key component of a future where information technology and human ingenuity combine to produce the robust, low-carbon economy envisioned for the future.

The advantages extend well beyond the four physical walls of the smart building. The electric grid becomes more robust and reliable. Society’s carbon footprint is minimized as renewable energy sources provide the power, balanced with a network of information that matches demand with variable supply on a minute-by-minute basis. Electric cars move people to homes and workplaces, serving as moving batteries in a smart system. And businesses operate at a new level of efficiency by using data in new ways, leveraging the connection between systems that until now have been entirely independent. These benefits are not temporary, but extend throughout the entire lifetime of the building, from modeling and design to renovation and beyond.

The smart building is at the center of this vision, providing not just the roof overhead, but also the information infrastructure to make possible a truly intelligent world.


Additional Information

Case study: First building in Austria to be awarded a Green Building Certificate shows how Vienna’s UNIQA Towers became the first building in Austria to achieve a Green Building Certificate, using smart building technology.

April 2011


1 BACnet is a registered trademark of the American Society of Heating, Ventilating and Air Conditioning Engineers, Modbus is a registered trademark of Schneider Electric, LonWorks is a registered trademark of Echelon.