Building smarter buildings out of the rubble

As Australia and New Zealand look to rebuild following the natural disasters in Christchurch and Queensland, experts have found a silver lining: the opportunity to rebuild with smarter infrastructure.

As Australia and New Zealand look to rebuild following the natural disasters in Christchurch and Queensland, experts have found a silver lining: the opportunity to rebuild with smarter infrastructure.

IBM's David Bartlett

IBM's David Bartlett (Credit: Luke Hopewell/ZDNet Australia)

In a panel discussion on building "smarter" cities at IBM's Pulse Conference in Las Vegas, architects, risk managers and IBM executives said that cities should amend building codes and implement smarter technology in buildings as they are resurrected from the rubble.

Kenneth Schwartz is the head of the school of architecture at Tulane University in New Orleans. Tulane University, situated in New Orleans, bore the brunt of Hurricane Katrina as it barrelled through the city in 2005, claiming 1836 lives. As the rebuilding process continues in the city, Schwartz and Tulane University have teamed up with IBM to create a pilot program to rebuild smarter buildings out of the rubble of post-Katrina New Orleans.

"Our smart building solutions pilot program is all about how you take 100-year-old buildings, and implement smart building technology and new building systems in a way that leads the way for the campus," Schwartz said.

"The space for us involves how do you make new structures and old structures we restore smarter and more efficient and more effective in the way that they operate?"

The process of retrofitting a building in order to make it "smart" means implementing technology that can not only collect and present data about power and water usage, but that can also regulate them so that the building can start delivering efficiency savings, according to IBM.

Technology included timed power usage, automated lighting and air conditioning, sustainability through solar power generation and water recycling right down to energy-efficient light bulbs, building positioning and environmentally friendly exterior glass.

David Bartlett, IBM's vice president of Tivoli Industry Solutions, agreed with Schwartz, saying that a natural disaster does provide an opportunity to rethink and reshape building codes and smart strategies.

"One of the reasons we have this smarter planet campaign is because we've been pretty dumb as a planet for a while. A [natural disaster] like this … does provide an opportunity to rethink. We've got a new way forward. Rather than continue the old, unsustainable ways of building, let's use this as an opportunity that energises the community to move forward in a positive way," Bartlett said.

He added that, in his opinion, constructing smarter buildings is preferential to building new, high-capacity power plants.

"Rather than build new nuclear power plants and alternative energy sources, let's focus on what we do have and how to do it far more efficiently. That's the huge opportunity before us," Bartlett said.

Clay Nesler, another panellist from Johnson Controls, said that rebuilding a city or community with smarter, greener structures also has a flow-on effect to risk and insurance.

"Natural perils over the last decade or so have increased dramatically in intensity, and [Tropical Cyclone Yasi] was a good example of that. There are lots of weather events that are getting much, much stronger now, but that feeds directly into the insurance space when they turn around and cancel policies for people in risk areas.

"What is coming now, very quickly, is the ability to assess individual structures and rewrite policies based on the characteristics of your structure and things around it," Nesler said.

IBM is currently in the process of making many of its buildings smarter, according to Steve Mills, senior vice president and group executive of IBM Software and Systems.

Mills added that the technology behind smarter buildings is analytics — fairly inexpensive these days.

"The cost of computing has come down enough to be able to do [smart building management]. You no longer have to feel like you only have a partial perspective of how your devices are operating… Five to eight years ago, we would have been talking about the high cost of these systems, but there's been a lot of money spent on IT infrastructure to do analytics so that cost has come down," said Mills.

Luke Hopewell travelled to Las Vegas as a guest of IBM


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