Let's make buildings great again!

Benjamin Kott

Benjamin Kott

Dec. 20, 2016

Apologies for the title. Yes, it helped to grab your attention. And no, we didn’t support the guy during the election and definitely no – we will not “just get along” now that he’s made it to the top. Instead we will fight harder than ever before to protect the planet and reduce our consumption of natural resources and toxic emissions. It might even make the RoW (rest of world = everyone outside of the rust belt) more united in fighting the good fight.

Which brings us to the point: we think we’ve figured out how to get there, possibly even within the timeframes postulated by the Paris agreement and the plethora of scientific research on the topic. As the current arctic temperature anomaly of more than 20 degrees C (yes, twenty – and unfortunately in the wrong direction) shows, there’s no time to lose. It might even already be too late for the 2 degrees limit, but this doesn’t bear thinking about. We’ve just got to plough on and try harder.

Finally then, on to buildings. The title is actually topical in more than one way. We spend most of our time in buildings, and they are the single biggest individual source of consumption of resources and emissions (through the generation of electricity in power plants and the burning of gas onsite). So it’s a good place to start. And after many years in the sector, we know one thing for sure: when it comes to reducing energy and resource consumption in buildings, we’re only just scratching the surface of what is possible. Heck, in most cases we’ve not even figured out where the surface even is!

That’s another grand statement right there. But as engineers and not politicians, we can actually back this up. We’ve even got the data to prove it!

Let’s start with this – taking a look at where the average commercial building sits today on the technology curve, we get a first indication of why things are so bad when it comes to managing them efficiently:

 

Number of devices connected to the internet

 

Buildings are literally 25 years behind the curve! We’re in the age of the connected toothbrush (or the WiFi kettle for some). And buildings are basically Pre-Internet. The defining factor of the Web was the Internet Protocol (IP), which means that devices could talk to each other and exchange information. Which is basically the essence and backbone of the Internet. Buildings, on the other hand, aren’t even at that stage. Most information management in buildings is paper based, or spreadsheet based for the more advanced ones. Yes, there are building management systems (BMS) in the larger sites. But talk to anyone who’s ever laid hand on a BMS and you know that these are not the answer to the problem, and in the vast majority of cases they are not optimised (commissioned, in technical terms) for running the building in the most efficient way.

But first things first – let’s take a look at why so little has been achieved to date to fix things, despite all the hard work of so many in the industry. Beyond pre-Web 1.0 tech in buildings and a general lack of data (at least historically speaking), this is what the industry is being faced with:

The problem domain is hard

The domain is mathematically hard – sparse, noisy, high dimensional streaming time series data. This type of data doesn’t get nearly as much attention as other areas of machine learning (computer vision, for example)

It is not enough to crunch numbers and output an alert which nobody will read – we need to focus on explanation and interpretability so that people can work with the information.

Existing solutions are inadequate

Many industries are flooded with low-quality ‘analytics’ platforms that provide more data, more graphs, more stats into the data, but without aiding in the actual driving of outcomes.

Tunnel-vision on specific problems such as electrical consumption savings; but not enough focus on health, well-being, and the way people use buildings (reminder: buildings are for people).

We know for a fact (did we mention we are engineers?) that technical solutions to address the vast majority of inefficiencies exist. And they are available today and shouldn’t cost too much, thank you very much. But, and this is a ginormous but, we’ve still been getting things wrong for a very long time:

We’ve been missing the business case all along, and at every step of the way

  • Change for the sake of change isn’t compelling, even making it ‘about the environment’ isn’t enough
  • We need to be able to communicate the value of what we do to every level of the ‘building management stack’
  • It’s especially hard to communicate the value of machine learning without hand waving details (and many of the details aren’t fully understood yet!)
  • The industry is generally conservative and risk-adverse (after all, buildings have been around forever); at the same time step changes aren’t compelling because the upside is too small to individual stakeholders.

 

In summary, we need to rethink the way we interact with data for buildings entirely, but what does that really entail? We think it mean these three things – just to get started:

 

COMMUNICATION – Ensure we understand what really drives all the different actors in the building management stack, from landlords to managers and tenants, and with all the service providers in between. Hint: we will need to communicate things in various different ways, and even the same word such as ‘savings’ has a different interpretation at each level – e.g. energy savings, cost savings, time savings, hassle savings and so on. But they all matter.

 

DATA and ANALYTICS – Yes, data is still key, and once we have access to it (more and more is coming out of buildings), we need to analyse it properly. And not just analyse it, but understand it, and translate it into something that makes sense to the key stakeholders (see above). This involves not just technical domain knowledge, but also a deep understanding of the value drivers in the world outside of our tech bubbles. From how tenants assess the productivity of a workplace to the ultimate asset value.

 

COLLABORATION – None of us can crack this alone. Not even the best funded, biggest tech companies, or, say, utilities. Our next generation, super advanced platform called Alphadeck will certainly help. But we either work together to provide an end-to-end approach that’s at the same time near fool proof and also incredibly sophisticated, or ... else.

 

With all this in mind – can we make buildings great, in the sense of super low energy, low emissions, highly comfortable and suitable work/life environments? Yes we can, is the answer! If only everything was that easy. We could even look at the sky again and think what else is possible. Or to say it with Cooper from Interstellar:

 

"We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt."

 

For more information on any of the topics above, Alphadeck (the next generation version of our platform), or to discuss the Science of Interstellar in more detail, contact ben@energydeck.com.


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