Putting brains into buildings

Digitalisation has transformed the way we operate our buildings, leading to the emergence of smart buildings that can intelligently reduce energy and water use and operational costs, boost their occupants’ safety and security and even alert managers to the risk of accidents and equipment failure.

Siemens buildings
The building industry is racing to develop new digitalisation software that can provide buildings with intelligence so that they can collect and analyse data to anticipate and meet their occupants’ needs. Image: Siemens

Futuristic, smart buildings can now read weather forecasts to adjust their heating and cooling systems, use lights to guide people to safety during fires and even automatically park cars in their multi-storey car parks.

As the world becomes increasingly urbanised, industry players are coming up with new digitalisation software that can provide buildings with the ‘brains’ to become more intelligent, so that they can collect and analyse data to anticipate and meet their occupants’ needs.

In Asia Pacific alone, for instance, the market for big data in smart buildings is expected to almost triple from US$7.6 billion to just under US$20 billion between 2015 and 2020, according to a 2015 report by London-based market research firm Memoori Business Intelligence, which focuses on the smart building sector.

In a recent interview, Erik Verhaegen, head of building technologies division for Asean at Siemens, says that most buildings already collect vast amounts of data through their systems such as water meters, heating and cooling units and security cameras.

The main problem is that the systems are usually installed separately and little effort is made to integrate the data, which limits its use.

“If we establish more communication between them, for example by using a system of systems that brings together all of the information, we would be able to correlate the data and do more with it,” he says.

Seeing the big picture

One such “system of systems” is Siemens’ Desigo CC.  The integrated building management system collates data from a building’s systems, including those responsible for heating, air-conditioning, lighting, shading, ventilation, fire safety and security. This enables the program and the building manager to make better decisions.

Nor Azlan, a Systems Manager at Siemens, elaborates: “Let’s say an employee books a conference room for a meeting between 2pm to 5pm. Desigo CC can be set to automatically start cooling the room only at 1.30pm, and shut down the air-conditioning at 4.30pm.”

This prevents unnecessary use of the air-conditioning system for that part of the building, reducing the company’s energy use and costs and helping the environment.

The system can even link to websites and other points of information to help reduce energy use. For example, users can link the system to weather forecasts, so that air-conditioning systems can be automatically set to higher temperatures when rain is expected to provide natural cooling to the building and its occupants.

Digitalisation software can also help building managers in other ways, for example by adjusting the lighting system to show occupants the fastest and safest escape route during fires. The programs can also automatically customise visitors and employees’ access to different parts of the building for added security, and create cost-benefit analyses.

Siemens provides an Energy Management System known as Navigator. The service centric offering have experts who can analyse the data generated by building systems and support you with full insights to make critical improvements. The experts can also use the data to assess the impact of such incidents and calculate the potential energy and cost savings of proposed retrofitting projects.

Such cost-and-benefit information would reassure building managers who are hesitant about, say, replacing their premises’ light bulbs and bars with more environmentally-friendly versions due to the upfront expenditure.

Christopher Evans, Global Solutions Manager for Building Performance & Sustainability at Siemens, explains: “For such a project, we can put in sub-meters for three months to get a profile of the lighting use in the building. Then we can use the Navigator to do the calculations and say that, if you install a particular lighting system, you will save a certain amount, and we can guarantee that.”

Evans says that both the Desigo and Navigator can also be set up to send data autonomously to one of Siemens’ Advance Service Centres – where energy specialists ensure trouble free and efficient operation of buildings.

“If an alarm comes up on either system, you can use Desigo CC to rectify the problem, and then go into Navigator to calculate not just how much energy was wasted or lost due to the problem, but also the monetary cost and the environmental impact in terms of greenhouse gas emissions,” he says.

Siemens plans to add more features to the Navigator service such as additional rules for the analytics engine, forecasting and benchmarking by 2017, so that building managers can compare their facilities’ resource efficiency to others in the same sector. In the meantime, it can also be used to produce environmental reports.

As a testament to drive energy efficiency within buildings and to lead by example, Siemens aims to be the world’s first major industrial company to achieve a net-zero carbon footprint by 2030. The company plans to cut its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions – which currently total about 2.2 million metric tons a year – in half by as early as 2020. To achieve these goals, Siemens will invest some €100 million over the next few years in order to reduce the energy footprint of its production facilities and buildings1.

Leading the way

United World College South East Asia (UWCSEA), a leading international school in Singapore is one organisation that has taken the lead in making their buildings smarter.

It has installed the Desigo CC system as well as Navigator amongst other programs and technologies in its 10 hectare Dover campus to collect and analyse building performance data. The campus has about 15,000 data points that generate information about its buildings’ systems at one-minute intervals.

Simon Thomas, the school’s director of operations and facilities, says that understanding the buildings performance is vital to efficient utility usage and proactive problem solving.

“This approach is not only in line with our sustainability mission but also ensures the maximum resources can go towards education of our students,” he notes. 

Analysing the data yields patterns about the school’s energy and water consumption to aid conservation programmes, as well as ensure that heating, cooling, lighting, ventilation and other systems are performing as expected.

“The devolvement of control is also something that’s very important,” Thomas says. “For example the school’s security team are now actively involved in the out of hours management of the campus accessing non-technical screens on their smartphones to remotely control air-conditioning systems, for example.   

The campus’s digitalisation also means that administrators such as himself can check on the buildings’ systems remotely at any time and fix problems promptly.

Thomas notes that building systems always faced significant shortcomings in data analytics as they were often framed around the control of individual objects rather that data related to performance.

“But as modern buildings consist of rather complex interdependencies and sensors, I am happy to find a platform that will allow us to see and understand these interdependencies within a more open IT architecture,”  he says.

This in turn allows the school to make full use of the myriad of data points that are available to us to get a more holistic view of our campus.   

“This is the future of smart buildings,” he adds.

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