Unified Building: The Need For Converging Technologies

July 20, 2021 | Technology

In the early days of smart commercial technologies, applications in the commercial real estate space were long on promise but fell short in execution. Early efforts for the development of the smart unified building that could automatically adapt to changing conditions were hampered by the complexity of integrating multiple systems into a single platform. That challenge is further enhanced by the limited functionality of property-specific smart technology applications.

However, the possibility of considerable advancement(1) is beginning to emerge as innovations over the past two decades in building automation systems (BAS) have continued. These technologies(2) include features, such as the Building Internet of Things (BIoT), in building navigation, and maintenance systems. These advancements have brought the vision of a unified building — one that connects and integrates all systems, components, and devices into a single platform to provide a unified view of the building — far closer to the minds of the mainstream than ever before. Can this vision become a reality?

Moving Towards a Unified Building System

Fundamentally, a commercial space may have more than two dozen disparate systems, each potentially developed by a different manufacturer. To realize the promise of unified buildings, facilities managers and systems integrators have often struggled to integrate systems such as:

  • Ventilation
  • Lighting
  • Power
  • Fire safety
  • Plumbing
  • HVAC
  • Mechanical
  • Communication
  • Security

Integration of these basic systems is challenging enough, given that many buildings may contain outdated legacy systems or else systems incompatible with each other. Granted, sensor technologies embedded in these systems have brought the idea of a “self-aware” structure into a more tangible existence. Nevertheless, compounding the challenge is the deployment of BIoT, AI, and other smart technology-powered systems, such as:

  • Occupancy sensors
  • Visitor wayfinding
  • Touchless, mobile, and facial recognition access systems
  • Smart lighting and temperature regulation systems
  • Predictive building system maintenance
  • Smart power regulation and optimization

While integration seems a ways down the road, commercial properties that have integrated some of these successfully have been able to exercise greater control of the building, save time and money, and provide a better tenant experience. Smart technologies are helping tenants optimize space utilization, security, building maintenance, technology choice(3), and power consumption, among other benefits.

Space utilization

By leveraging sensing technologies, BIoT can help facilities managers and tenants optimize space usage. For example, in a unified building, a manager may track the number of people occupying a meeting space at one time or over a designated period.

Or they may be able to assess how much foot traffic is coming into a retail storefront. By analyzing this data, managers can make smarter decisions about how to utilize space in the future.

Security

Smart technologies may provide multiple opportunities for managers to enhance their buildings’ security while minimizing the need for dedicated security guard services. Instead, this function might be managed by a facility management associate.

BIoT will one day enrich access control options, allowing facilities managers to leverage facial recognition more effectively. Intrusions would then be detected more efficiently. In addition, sensing technologies could rapidly distinguish natural from artificial threats and automatically recommend steps to evacuate buildings while safeguarding critical building infrastructure.

Maintenance and Repair

By pairing BIoT with AI tech, unified buildings will sort and organize building system data and use machine learning algorithms to recognize abnormal behavior in HVAC, power, plumbing, communications, and other systems.

Such anomalous behavior could trigger notices to facilities managers that critical systems are in need of repair—and even schedule repairs and order parts. Further, machine learning algorithms can analyze system usage and performance data to predict when a system may require service. Insights from predictive maintenance across the entire building infrastructure will enable facilities managers to stay ahead of maintenance events. A unified building would more easily mitigate the risk of system breakdowns, extensive downtime, and costly repairs through comprehensive communication between systems.

Power consumption

Sensors(5) are already averting the waste of a tremendous amount of energy by powering down light and HVAC systems when facilities are unoccupied. Could integrated BIoT and sensing technologies, AI and ML technologies could identify peak and off-peak energy costs and integrate passive heating and cooling technologies, such as window shades, to allow in or block light for passive temperature controls? This would not only optimize comfort levels but lower operational costs.

Compatibility Challenges

Connecting core building systems with smart automated technologies can allow a lean support staff to produce a seamless experience for tenants working or living in a unified building. While some integration platforms are compatible with a significant range of building systems and technologies, platform vendors themselves often struggle to make their products more widely compatible.

Vendors are offering agnostic solutions to owners and management companies. The fact remains, that in some aspects of their digital solutions, they must pay software licensing fees to building system manufacturers to ensure their platform is compatible with that building’s systems. Some have even developed custom scripts through a system’s Application Programming Interface (API) that does not run afoul of the manufacturer’s copyright protections.

The question of how best to integrate disparate systems through APIs transcends the commercial property space. As businesses strive to provide consumers and firms with a unified customer experience across markets and industries, they’ve encountered challenges consolidating popular technologies and creating a seamless user experience. Companies have developed custom scripts to connect their technology to another’s API. However, as most established copyright case law predates the use of APIs, businesses are unclear as to the boundary between integration and copyright infringement.

To illustrate the level of ambiguity, this boundary line was the subject of a U.S Supreme Court case Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc.(4) The case centered on whether Google transgressed that boundary when it used nearly 25,000 lines of Java SE program code to ensure that Java programmers could work with Google’s Android platform. The Court ruled that Google had not trespassed the bounds of fair use. However, because the relatively narrow ruling rendered questions about API copyright protections moot, there remains some uncertainty about where the lines are drawn.

The Growing Promise of Unified Buildings

Despite integration challenges, building technology, systems integration(7), and property management companies continue to make great advancements in developing fully integrated buildings. Buoyed by emerging calls and funding for smart cities, environmental imperatives, cost-savings potential, and commercial consumer demand, building managers continue to deploy new and upgrade existing BAS systems equipped with the latest in BIoT and AI.

Leveraging these technologies through a single platform will one day make buildings more resource-efficient, inexpensive to operate and maintain, and tenant-friendly. The cultivation of ecosystem partnerships(6) and brand agnostic technology platforms has softened the barriers to collaboration. While compatibility issues remain a challenge, momentum is on the side of consolidation, as consumers continue to demand building systems integration and all the benefits unified buildings provide.

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Footnotes and Sources:

  1. TalkMarkets Startup Watch blog: Tapa Solutions: https://talkmarkets.com/content/tapa-the-startup-that-offers-a-smart-healthy-and-safe-option-to-manage-buildings?post=284391
  2. Tapa Solutions: https://twitter.com/tapa_solutions?lang=en
  3. Igor-Technology: https://www.igor-tech.com/our-platform
  4. Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc.: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/20pdf/18-956_d18f.pdf
  5. Archpaper: New Pre-and-Post Occupancy Sensors And The Way We Design Workplaces. https://www.archpaper.com/2021/04/new-pre-and-post-occupancy-sensors-way-we-design-our-workplaces/
  6. Igor Ecosystem Partners. https://www.igor-tech.com/our-platform/ecosystem-partners
  7. Building technology and systems integration companies: https://www.johnsoncontrols.com/https://www.se.com/us/en/
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