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Intelligent Buildings

Increasingly smart, better connected, self-monitoring homes and offices provide safer, more secure, low energy consumption buildings able to self-manage heating, lighting, security and air-flow

One of the much discussed, but yet to be realised, dreams for architects, engineers and progressive developers in the idea of the zero-waste, zero-energy building: One which, in use, has zero net energy consumption and zero carbon emissions. As, operation accounts for 85% of the total whole-life energy consumption and buildings account for the majority of global CO2 emissions, this would be a big step forward. Alongside the design of an office, home or factory, and the materials used in its construction, a pivotal enabling issue in this aspiration is the idea of having intelligent buildings – ones which adopt low and high tech methods to ensure optimum management of resource. With major advances taking place across the ICT field, increased integration of control systems and, in some markets, regulations for the roll-out of smart meter systems, all the ingredients for the high tech option are coming into place. With several countries such as South Korea taking the lead, smart homes that control energy, ventilation, communication services and so on are starting to be built. By 2020, many see that the  majority of new buildings being constructed around the world, and many that are being refurbished, will be increasingly intelligent and so provide a big push towards the zero energy building that so many are aiming for.

Today 40% of the world’s raw materials go into buildings and in the U.S. they already represent 70% of total energy use, of which around half is wasted. In the EU, where air-conditioning is less prevalent and the average home is smaller, buildings currently account for 40% of energy end-use. A recent report from the SMART programme forecasts that, with increasing urbanization, worldwide energy consumption for buildings over the next 20 years will grow by around 45%. The challenge has therefore become increasingly clear and action is now finally being taken: While the concept of the intelligent building has been around for several years now, as we move towards delivering the reality, there is increasing alignment around what it is and what it can mean.

With a vast array of organizations from the EU and the city of New Delhi to IBM and Cisco all pushing towards the realization of the intelligent building, there is a growing wish-list of the capabilities that they will have. Most agree that, at the core, is a networked digital control system that will manage a host of services in the most sustainable and economical manner. On top of that backbone we have the ability to manage and control energy and water provision and consumption, heating and ventilation, lighting, building access as well as options such as surveillance and even tracking of people and things within the building. Some even see that, as part of new tele-care and tele-heath systems, buildings will soon have a major role to play in healthcare and be a key component to the roll-out of automated people care.

As IBM views it, “thousands of sensors can monitor everything from motion and temperature to humidity, precipitation, occupancy and light. The building doesn’t just coexist with nature – it harnesses it. Smart buildings can reduce energy consumption and CO2 emissions by 50% to 70% and save 30% to 50% in water usage.” The SMART 2020 programme, which looks at both technological and social change around carbon emissions, sees that smart buildings and accompanying smart grids will save around 4Gt of CO2 equivalent emissions in 2020.

By bringing together ubiquitous computing and ‘The Internet of Things’ into the built environment, sensors and embedded micro and nano control systems can effectively make the intelligent building and all its services into  high tuned machine just like in a high performance vehicle. The majority of energy, ventilation, access and water devices will have embedded RFID chips and SIM card and so become intelligent objects within a wirelessly connected environment. Clearly the volume and complexity of all the information generated by the different systems within each building will be significant, but with the ever increasing availability of cheap processing capability, most experts in the field do not see this as a barrier. What does raise concern are issues such as conflicting standards in the construction industry, differing opinions of the best solutions, a lack of financial incentives for building owners to invest in smart technology and the generally slow response of the building sector to change. However many see that progress is on the cards and momentum for change is itself building.

A critical element in all of this is the role of smart meters which are being introduced across many parts of the developed world over the next decade. In the EU smart meters are seen as pivotal to meeting the energy consumption targets that have been agreed for 2020. Wirelessly connected to both utility suppliers and home management systems these will not only measure instantaneous energy and water consumption but also be able to provide pricing information to help building owners and occupants tailor supply and demand. With their ‘bi-directional communication capability’ that will enable utility companies to undertake better demand side management, these smart meters also open the door to the idea of smart grid where energy is sent to, from and between different locations. With each building effectively acting as an active node in a grid, local energy production and storage can become far more efficient and consumption peaks and troughs can be smoothed. Taken in conjunction with more distributed sources of renewable energy supply such as wind, solar and biomass, the smart grid and intelligent buildings can really make a difference in energy consumption and sustainable living. As part of the Future Agenda project a team of postgraduate student at the Royal College of Art designed a localized smart grid system ‘Just Energy’ that showed how this concept may look and feel in reality by 2020.

On top of the functional side, many architects and engineers are also very keen that future intelligent buildings are also better places to live and work in: They should be “safe and secure” but also “comfortable and make us feel happy and valued.” The regulatory actions already undertaken will ensure that in many markets, the ability for more of the infrastructure to become more ‘intelligent’ in the way that utilities, communications and access are managed. The challenge will be for us and individuals to both change our consumption behaviours many of which conflict with improved efficiency, while at the same time, preserving – and ideally enhancing – our ability to get the most out of our buildings.

The average building is around for 60 years so whole-scale change towards the zero energy ambition will take far longer than ten years but, through a combination of retrofit and new-build, over the next decade, many are positive about progress in developed and developing markets.  Indeed some suggest that, linked to the roll-out of high speed broadband, developing countries could again use intelligent buildings as another leap-frog opportunity over developed economies with more of a legacy infrastructure.

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