Buildings can be smarter, but are we up to the challenge?

A proliferation of sensors and control systems are making our buildings "smarter," but IBM's Wayne S. Balta explains why we need a holistic view to analyze all that data.
Written by Wayne Balta, Contributor

Wayne S. Balta is IBM's Vice President of Corporate Environmental Affairs and Product Safety.

Crumbling bridges and roads are not the only failing infrastructure around us. Many buildings where we work, play or live are crying for help -- and it's time to listen.

Buildings in need of an infrastructure update demand significant natural resources and generate pollution that can be lessened. The United States National Science and Technology Council estimates that commercial and residential buildings consume one-third of the world's energy.

In North America, for example, such energy use translates to 72 percent of the electricity generation, 12 percent of the water use, and 60 percent of non-industrial waste. And if worldwide energy use trends continue, buildings will become the largest consumer of global energy by 2025, or more than the transportation and industrial sectors combined.

Opportunities to improve the infrastructure of our buildings was a major topic of discussion in March at the second meeting of the Innovations for Environmental Sustainability Council, which IBM formed with the World Environment Center and other companies, including Boeing, CH2M Hill, Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical, F. Hoffman-La Roche, General Motors, Ingersoll Rand, Johnson & Johnson and Walt Disney.

Buildings emit more harmful carbon dioxide emissions into the environment than cars. Energy costs alone represent about 30 percent of an office building's total operating costs. What's more, up to 50 percent of energy and water used in buildings is wasted. These issues are accelerated by worldwide urbanization; and while 85 percent of companies say they are focused upon sustainability, only 30 percent are collecting data with enough frequency to make changes.

The sustainability of buildings is a growing priority as companies, property owners, builders, utility companies and local governments work on meeting the demands of a sustainable future.  By adding a layer of intelligence, elements of a building -- temperature, electricity consumption, ventilation, water consumption, waste management, telecommunications, and physical security -- can be integrated for better management and control.

The vast majority of buildings in this country were built before turn of the century. And I'm referring to the 21st century, the point in time when it became possible to analyze vast amounts of data from sensors to make the world's systems work better, from the traffic on our roads to the water in our reservoirs.

With the proliferation of sensors and control systems put into use over the last decade, many buildings now can sense, measure and see the exact condition of practically everything in them. This can drive efficiency, save money and advance sustainability.

Such technologies can manage office buildings, museums, warehouses, factories, power plants, campuses, resorts, and even entire neighborhoods. Technology is being used to protect priceless works of art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Louvre. The U.S. Air Force is automating facilities management and infrastructure maintenance across 170 locations worldwide. The project spans more than 626 million square feet of real estate, and includes more than 100 million square yards of airfield pavement and 10 million acres of land.

The unprecedented proliferation of smart sensors and control systems is enabling buildings to sense, measure and see the exact condition of practically everything in them, but these systems often operate independently.

Understanding a building from a holistic point of view requires collaboration between the facilities management team and the CIO's office.  People must embrace a cultural shift and develop new skills to manage a building's  complex "system of systems" spanning operations and IT.

This shift challenges organizations to think past short-term repairs and take a long-term view of infrastructure requirements. The so-called "green" building movement uses environmentally preferable materials and construction techniques to be environmentally friendly, but that's only part of the equation. Institutions can construct or retrofit buildings that capitalize on new, analytical insights derived from the wealth of data generated by the infrastructure itself, and they can subsequently operate and maintain buildings more efficiently as well.

Today's leaders are blazing new trails, making buildings and infrastructure systems more efficient and sustainable. The good news is that the key enabler for real change now exists. People want it. The technology is here. And the planet is hungry for innovation. Let's do more to promote energy innovation.

Photo: The building management system at IBM's headquarters in Armonk, N.Y. tracks data points from heating and cooling systems to promote energy savings and predict maintenance needs.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards