Smart Buildings and Smart Occupants

Smart buildings have been gathering attention recently in the context of sustainable design. Through their heightened awareness of what is going on inside and outside of the building, and ability to respond accordingly, smart buildings have the potential to reduce energy consumption, lower operating costs and improve indoor comfort conditions.  

While the idea of smart buildings has been around for decades, advances in Internet technology are helping to provide a standard communications infrastructure so that building systems, which were previously isolated, can now talk to one another. These can include telecommunications systems, building automation systems (control over heating, ventilation, lighting and other indoor environmental variables), life-safety systems (such as security, fire suppression), and energy systems. 

Information flow between building systems alone can lead to significant efficiency gains. It is therefore surprising to learn that systems integration remains a minority practice in much of the existing building stock. “Many buildings have the capacity for real-time monitoring through installed meters and sub-meters, but this data is still vastly under-utilized”, says David Helliwell, CEO of Pulse Energy. The company’s energy management software is designed to tap into these data streams, making real-time building energy consumption accessible to building users, operators and owners. 

Building researchers often report difficulties in obtaining building performance data. The lack of available information suggests a broken feedback loop, relating in part to a tension among design professionals around where in the building the control and intelligence should reside.

On the one hand, there is a belief in automated system intelligence, whereby occupants are kept comfortable with minimal engagement. Buildings are embedded with technologies and control strategies designed to perform tasks altogether more reliably and effectively than people, and free occupants from these tasks enabling them to pursue other activities. Examples of spaces thus designed include Georgia Tech’s AwareHome and MIT’s PlaceLab

On the other hand, there is a belief in ’people-oriented’ intelligence, whereby the active engagement of operators and occupants is seen as a key component of building energy efficiency. Many green buildings are designed on the premise that occupants can be much more adaptive  than automated control systems, modifying their environment when needed and reducing the overall footprint of the building.

The Phillip Merrill Environmental Centre, the first LEED Platinum-certified building in the U.S., and the Kenton Building, which aims to become the world’s first Living Building, are two examples of contemporary buildings embodying the ’smart occupant’ philosophy. 

Ultimately, both system intelligence and occupant intelligence need to be accommodated to enable the successful delivery of sustainable buildings. Research increasingly acknowledges this fact, for example, North House, a solar-powered dwelling being developed by a team of Canadian students and faculty for the 2009 Solar Decathlon, aims to strike a balance between empowering occupants to help the building work more efficiently, and supporting occupants through automated information, feedback and control.

Similarly, the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability, currently under development at the University of British Columbia (UBC), aims to be Green, Humane and Smart, where ’smart’ refers to the integration of building performance with inhabitant performance, and ongoing monitoring and feedback is seen as critical to getting the most out of the available energy and material flows. 

In the above examples, ’feedback’ is considered key to ensuring the building systems and users are responsive and adaptive to changing conditions and needs. Feedback can be defined as generating knowledge about a building to guide present and future decision-making and behaviour. Feedback can act on a number of different timescales through a variety of processes: 

  • In the design phase, feedback relates to gathering information about occupants’ needs and desires in order to inform the building design and management process. This includes pre-design research on user requirements and needs, functional program review, interviews with individual users, involving users in design workshops, and setting expectations and performance targets. The U.K.-based Soft Landings process is an example of an emerging service designed to guide the design and construction team through continuous feedback and follow-through.

  • During the implementation phase, feedback relates to the design team, and building itself, informing users of design intention and the environmental consequences of their actions. This includes training of operations and maintenance staff, conducting building information sessions and tours, and monitoring of building energy and system performance. Real-time building energy monitoring in particular has gained attention in recent years, spurred by the increasing recognition of buildings as a key contributor to the mitigation of climate change. A vast number of companies and products are now on the market geared to deliver this feedback. 

Pulse Energy is one such example. Having grown from a staff of 2 to 30 full time employees over the last 3 years, business for the Vancouver-based energy management company is booming. Notable partners streaming live data include UBC, Grouse Mountain, Harbour Centre, Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, and Busby Perkins + Will. The PulseTM software collects energy data and quickly presents the information as a dashboard display, with advanced capabilities for energy analytics and reporting.

It has been recognized as one of the top three products in the energy visualization market by U.C. Berkeley Centre for the Built Environment. According to Helliwell, “the idea of what we’re doing has gone from something that is peripheral to something most people think is something they now have to do.”

Technology such as PulseTM, when supported by relevant policies and building standards, ultimately provide the means for for a third type of feedback:

  •  Long-term continual feedback, information on building use and users acquired by researchers, transmitted to practitioners and then translated into effective decision-making for the improvement of future buildings. A number of initiatives suggest that we are getting closer to the realization of evidence driven sustainable design.

Green building rating systems are seen to be shifting towards performance-based evaluation both in Canada and the U.S. Government schemes such as the European Energy Performance Building Directive and the State of California’s Assembly Bill 1103 further help to calibrate industry expectations by moving towards more consistent results and confidence in projections. 

The next article in this series will explore implications of the shift towards performance-based standards in terms of problems and solutions for valuing green in real estate. You can read the first article in the series “Can you be Comfortable in a Green Building?” here.

Zosia Brown and Stefan Storey, are PhD students at the Institute for Resources Environment and Sustainability, UBC. This article is part of a special GLOBE-Net Series “Building Tomorrow.”

The Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability (IRES) is both an interdisciplinary research institute and a major interdisciplinary graduate education program at the University of British Columbia. It is the mission of IRES to work to foster sustainable futures through integrated research and learning about the linkages among human and natural systems, to support decision making for local to global scales.

By Zosia Brown and Stefan Storey

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