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Smart building technology – the move you have when you can’t move buildings

Building Services By Nalin Nanayakkara, Senior Engineer, Building Performance – 17 May 2023

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Nalin Nanayakkara

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While stories about self-driving electric cars are an exciting part of the smart city narrative, the technologies that deliver the most benefit to society are largely invisible. Energy management and monitoring, zoned controls for lighting and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) rarely make headlines – but they are the essential smart infrastructure for achieving net zero.

Similarly, stories about big, shiny new buildings with all the high-performance green features are eye-catching and bring up FOMO for tenants with itchy feet. But for some tenants or owner-occupiers, changing addresses throws up either functional or reputational risks.

For health sector organisations including medical clinics, hospitals, palliative care and other specialists, budgets are tight and the business case for new premises can be hard to make.

Another group of occupants that faces more nuanced challenges with simply switching to a better building are public sector departments and agencies. The days of developing new, purpose-built premises are possibly on hold as both state and federal governments look to re-balance budgets.

Public sector bodies are also under pressure to lead by example in terms of energy-efficiency, reducing emissions and progress towards net zero. One of the factors that drove increased uptake of NABERS and Green Star in the early days was the procurement policies of federal and state governments that mandated a certain level of energy-efficiency performance to demonstrate action on energy-related carbon emissions.

Make what you’ve got work better

For large government tenants, there is a sound business case for negotiating with the asset owner for upgrades in exchange for staying in place.

The question then becomes – what to ask for?

In general, there are two things most occupants want from a building - better performance in terms of comfort and amenity, and lower operational costs. Smart building technology can deliver both and can be part of a staged approach to improving buildings that unlock optimisation of performance with minimal disruption to normal building uses.

Submetering on building services can be a clear winner. This is a major enabler for improving energy performance – and NABERS ratings - through ensuring visibility of when and exactly where energy is being used. As an entry-level smart building technology, it can also be retrofitted on most building services, and integrated with the central building management system (BMS) via an IoT (internet of things) architecture.

As part of IoT network design to enable all the smart devices in a building to communicate with each other, a smart buildings design engineer also needs to ensure there is an effective cyber security strategy in place. This is critical to reduce the risk of cyber eavesdroppers (or hackers) breaching the system and potentially compromising either building operations/systems or the business systems and processes of occupants.

Does your BMS know where it is?

It's important to note that smart systems themselves are not a plug-and-play silver bullet for energy demand reduction.

For a start, even when there is submetering and a BMS to coordinate and manage building services operations, the data may not actually be very useful.

That’s because a BMS and submetering must be properly commissioned for the specific building, its climate conditions and operational and demand profile as well as being benchmarked against the performance specifications it was designed for.

We so often come across cases where an easy win for improving energy efficiency is for one of our building performance services experts to go on-site and properly commission all the submetering, sensors and BMS.

Or perhaps the BMS is an old-school siloed technology that doesn’t communicate effectively with all the other building services systems and their various submetering, controls and sensor features.

IoT delivers real bang for the buck in a building by connecting the various smart building features into a coordinated, cloud-hosted information architecture. This is the kind of project our system integrators specialise in – developing the IT and smart system design that enables everything to communicate and ensures the whole kit and caboodle delivers useful data for improving operations, maintenance and conditions for occupants.

Another benefit from the retrofit perspective is IoT smart systems mean not every building system must have hard-wired controls and sensors. A CASAMBI lighting system for example is Bluetooth-based, so the controls that change lighting levels in response to occupancy, time of day or task can be managed via a smart phone or other device. This could be a valuable retrofit for an older hospital, giving an improved experience in patient zones while also enabling incremental reductions in lighting energy use.

Other smart systems that can save on energy use include controls and automation on heating, ventilation and air conditioning that respond to occupancy or ambient conditions to reduce energy waste from over-heating or over-cooling.

Smart pathway to net zero

Another aspect of smart buildings to keep at the front of our thinking is the role they play in the net zero transition. Electrifying everything and decarbonising the grid require us to ensure energy demand is as low as reasonably possible across all buildings and urban infrastructure. The capability to monitor, measure and manage energy demand in real-time is critical for this at both an individual organisation and asset reporting level and at the whole-of-economy scale.

As guardians of public wellbeing, both public sector organisations and health sector entities can play a clear leadership role in showing how attainable and beneficial smart asset decarbonisation can be for all stakeholders.