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Steering a course through buildings' digital transformationThe Big Read

Bob Snyder

To tie in with March’s RISE Spotlight on Smart Buildings, Bob Snyder, Content Chairman of ISE’s Smart Building Conference, discusses how in-building technology becomes a critical driver for everything that happens in a building – and how the pandemic accelerates trends that were happening anyways.

Almost any discussion about smart buildings seems to start with an attempt to define ‘what is a smart building?’

You probably have at least one friend that is ‘book smart’ yet unclever in so many other ways. Some friends you may recognise as ‘street smart’, while others might have greater emotional intelligence. People can be ‘smart’ and yet very, very different from one another.

The same range of ‘smart’ exists for buildings. People argue over the definition of smart building because there are so many ways in which a building could be smart.

We’ve been making buildings smarter for decades now and so, depending upon the history of the building, a building can be ‘smart’ in one way, but dumb in others. For example, it could be ‘energy smart’ and yet fail intelligence in any other aspect.

Another legacy comes from our history of creating ‘silos’ of operations in buildings – in one silo, we controlled HVAC functions, another for access control, another for lighting and so on. Silo thinking still leads some owners or builders to commit to one smart silo but not others (or several smart areas of building control but not all), based on perceived needs and budgets.

For any definition, it’s much better to think of smart building as the vehicle, instead of a destination.

The building industry’s digital transformation

Yet the vehicle is changing, changing as much our automobiles of the ‘90s will differ from 2021 models. Today’s building industry now faces the same digital transformation that has already shaped other notable industries.

Vinyl records gave way to digital compact discs which gave way to music streaming… Kodak fell not to Fujifilm but to a horde of digital cameras that ended up in our mobile phones… Printed magazines and newspapers gave way to digital publishing… Broadcast TV channels now lose to streaming… and so on.

The building industry, under pressure from owners and tenants, faces rising costs, energy and sustainability responsibilities, and expectations of comfort, safety, and internet access. Digital transformation offers the builders the solutions, a chance to use new technologies and internet protocol (IP) to create better building scenarios.

Not all buildings will adopt a full smart building platform, but more and more buildings will add digital intelligence. Let’s not forget about the retrofit business, as almost 75% of buildings aren’t new. And buildings come in all sizes and for many different purposes. Here we are mainly talking about commercial real estate (CRE) and buildings for education, worship, sport, government and retail.

The transformation creates new winners and losers, pits incumbents against challengers, and leaves prospective owners and tenants bewildered and befuddled by the technological choices.

Every day seems to bring new solutions. While a single innovation can be hailed as welcome rain on parched soil, the birth of more than 700 IoT platforms tends to be viewed as a downpour, an unwanted flooding that submerges opportunity. That creates more demand for integrators that can sort out solutions.

Touchscreen displays at the Edge in Amsterdam, claimed to be the world's most sustainable building
Touchscreen displays at the Edge in Amsterdam, claimed to be the world's most sustainable building

Why is audio-video linked to smart buildings?

For CEDIA integrators in residential technology, this probably seems like an obvious question. In many ways, residential integrators grasped the opportunities in smart home long before pro AV considered smart office and smart building.

In pro AV, we’ve always described ourselves as part of the ‘built’ environment. Smart building is important to us because it determines the changes in the built environment we work in.

We’ve existed for a long time now as a silo, just another separate expertise where we playfully mock the others who seemed to exist in parallel to us… or occasionally perpendicular, but never intersecting.

Until IT and IP came along. Oh, how we struggled with that change. Now most industry executives would admit we play more and more in an IT sandbox. Some others still treat IT managers like Attila the Hun.

No matter what we think of IT, we are now as an industry very familiar with IP technologies and how our product categories connect with the IT network.

We’ve also had great experience in bringing together disparate technologies. (Heck, we say ‘audio/video’ industry as if those two haven’t been like cat and dog for years.) Connecting in-building screens, projectors, lighting, audio, physical security, video conferencing, paging and evacuation, control, and collaboration we don’t appreciate how clever we are compared to some other single-minded technology installers.

Today AV can be all about communications, collaboration, scheduling and resource management. And smart buildings serve as the landscape for these AV advancements.

As a goal, smart building management wants all systems inside integrated to work together: AV has been just another silo. Now AV falls under the smart building purview.

As the built environment changes, as silos break down and as significant integration is required and no one channel has yet acquired the new integration experiences required then the integrators in all industries in the ‘built environment’ are on a race to become ‘master system integrators’ for buildings. Or at least to expand their scope of business interests.

You can take a look at a company like Vanti in UK to see the evolution into Master Systems Integrator class.

Of course, not every AV integrator is expected to become a Master Systems Integrator. Most will need to know about smart buildings because if you are working in ‘the built environment’, you’ll need to know what’s happening that will impact your livelihood. Others will find opportunity in annexing the closest skillset(s).

You ask, “Why pro AV?” Many would answer, “Why not pro AV?” Integrator is what we call ourselves. The obvious skillset most pro AV integrators share is the ability to integrate systems (hence the name Integrated Systems Europe (ISE) for the industry’s largest event in the world). Smart building offers the opportunity to become of more strategic value by adding more integration skillsets.

It’s all about integration

The challenge around smart building has been to break down the traditional silos and think about the building network as a single entity (or at least as a totality). IP drives digital transformation. IP creates the opportunity to connect various industries, diverse technologies and a multitude of various devices—and to connect 24/7 and for control/monitoring to be done remotely.

Web-based platforms to allow vertical technologies in a building to integrate seamlessly with each other. They can deliver a single view of how efficiently and effectively a building operates. Armed with this data, managers can take proactive steps to avoid waste and improve use, cutting emissions and making savings at the same time.

IP enables companies to build platforms that do this, yet this has met reluctance from incumbents as well as from builders and owners who seem to change only at glacial speed. (Like glaciers, they don’t start moving until after some heat is applied.)

Today often multiple networks (Ethernet, wireless, devices, control, safety) run on various protocols throughout a building. The proliferation of a multitude of IoT platforms has only added to the unwanted diversity within buildings. Just because they might be IP-based platforms, it doesn’t make them compatible, so the industry seeks solutions that bring interoperability on a faster timescale than the regular capitalistic solution of merger and acquisition.

Some big names in smart building (KNX, Zigbee, Thread, BACnet, DALI, and Open Connectivity Foundation) have founded an association, IP-BLIS, to make commercial buildings more responsive to the needs of users by promoting a secure, multi-standard, IP-based harmonised IoT solution. Harmonisation of access to an IP network with connected building automation products allow for better integration.

On the cutting edge of smart building, one finds the talk turns no longer to ‘silos’ but discussions (and arguments) about OT and IT networks: IT being the familiar information technology (for data) and OT standing for operational technology (for the physical world).

The silos are slowly coming down to two (OT and IT) and the smart money is on their convergence. After all, it’s one network to rule them all.

Pandemic accelerates ‘smart’ thinking

According to experts, the pandemic accelerated some existing trends like ecommerce, unified communications and work-from-home. It might not be immediately obvious from the now empty buildings in many cities, but researchers in smart building confirm investors are still pouring money into creating smart building solutions. Meanwhile building owners and tenants are investing to prepare for a safe and healthy return to their buildings.

Some in our industry have already responded to the challenge. One such company is Diversified, a technology solutions provider (2000+ employees, 50 worldwide locations, and more than $1 billion in an annual revenue). Michael Parker, director, strategic accounts EMEA at Diversified in London. “Many of our customers see us as their strategic technology partner for all of their sites globally,” he says. “Most of them now face the same challenge: How do we safely re-open our facilities to employees and guests alike, whilst providing full confidence in using those spaces?”

Diversified has created, from various vendors (some existing relationships and some new), its own integrated solution ecosystem to enable a safer and more efficient return to work.

Some key areas of technology

Building IoT

This chart from Memoori shows the main applications for IoT in commercial buildings and how they interrelate

A building management system (BMS), otherwise known as a building automation system (BAS), is a software installed in buildings to control and monitor the building’s mechanical and electrical equipment such as ventilation, lighting, power systems, fire systems, and security systems. In the early days of BAS, each vendor had a proprietary protocol. With the popularity of open source, however, BAS manufacturers have made their products more generic.

Building information modelling (BIM) is an intelligent 3D model-based process that gives architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) professionals the insight and tools to efficiently plan, design, construct, and manage buildings and infrastructure.

The Internet of Things is a network of sensors, meters, appliances and other devices capable of sending and receiving data. Buildings IoT connects building operations systems (HVAC, lighting, plumbing and access control, and so on) and networks together to share data, improve operations and create smarter, healthier buildings. BIoT devices mainly fall into four categories: energy, equipment, environmental and people (or spaces).

A smart building digital twin acts as a bridge between the digital and physical worlds by using connected sensors and IoT devices to collect real-time data about physical items. This data is combined with context and processed, then used to understand, analyse, administrate and optimise processes within a smart building.

Companies like TPEX International BV in Amsterdam already offer Smart Building as a Service, taking the burden of technology and capex costs and making building owners happy with the flexibility and opex option.

ABB says subscription-based Building as a Service (BaaS) models may go mainstream in the next decade. These would allow building owners to download a turnkey software package that quickly transforms a suitable physical shell into a digital hospital, a hotel, a university department, an office HQ or a residential home for the elderly.

Bob Snyder has been the Content Chairman for ISE’s Smart Building Conference for the past 10 years. He is also the moderator of AVIXA’s Smart Buildings Power Hour.

He will be appearing alongside AVIXA’s Sean Wargo in one of the Watercooler Virtual Meets during RISE Spotlight – Smart Buildings: The Way Forward, on Tuesday 9 March. 

Smart Building at ISE 2021

ISE really is a feast for smart building technologies, solutions and insight. Not only will the show host the Smart Building Summit, but the Smart Building Zone at ISE provides a category-specific area of the show floor for those interested in this segment of the AV and systems integration industry. Visitors to this zone will find manufacturers, suppliers and integrators, covering a range of technologies, including: air conditioning, lighting and shutter control, security systems, heating, ventilation, monitoring, alarming, water control, energy management, metering, audio and household appliances.

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