Talk to almost any energy efficiency professional and the conversation will inevitably come back to big data and information management.

The ability to gather information on how buildings consume energy is growing more sophisticated. Companies are now able to collect vast amounts of information in the built environment. On-site, that includes meters, building management systems, individual pieces of equipment, and even occupants themselves. At the market level, that includes energy prices, weather, tariffs and everything else that might impact how a building performs.

Actually, much of this data has been available since direct digital controls flourished in buildings in the 1980s. However, the technologies to manage and understand that information are only now just being implemented. As companies start talking about the importance of data, people are taking note.

We're currently writing a white paper on "intelligent efficiency," a term first used by ACEEE as a way to describe the convergence of the energy efficiency and information technology sectors. In every interview with the 30 analysts and industry professionals we spoke with about the energy efficiency market, the discussion always turned toward the digital technologies enabling information awareness within buildings. This became the centerpiece of our analysis.

So it seemed appropriate that every speaker in yesterday morning's opening sessions at the Building Energy Summit in Washington, D.C. talked about the importance of smart buildings in unlocking the vast potential for energy efficiency. 

"Technology is bringing people together in new ways, and this is finally moving to buildings," said Dilip Rahulan, founder of Pacific Controls, an automation company based in the United Arab Emirates. "We're creating values that are very different from traditional ways of managing buildings."

Smart buildings aren't just cool. They're often the key to bringing more efficiency projects on-line. Many organizations still don't know anything about how their portfolios of buildings are performing. Some barely understand their utility bills. Web-based analytics tools are helping firms visualize what's happening in their buildings in real time, allowing them to take more effective action proactively.

"Reporting needs to be in real time," said Dan Probst, chairman of energy and sustainability services for the real estate company Jones Lang LaSalle. "We need to know how our buildings are operating today. The technology exists today to do that. That's the kind of thing that will form our industry."

Jones Lang LaSalle manages a 2-billion-square-foot portfolio of buildings around the world. Better analytics are helping the firm see what's happening across that broad range of assets.

"Visibility in how equipment and systems are performing right now can greatly improve operational efficiency," said Probst. "That changes how we think about operating buildings. That’s the kind of thinking about technology that will play a role in operations."

Change in the built environment is slow, however. There are often conflicts between facilities managers, sustainability managers and financial officers when it comes to prioritizing how buildings are run. This can prevent companies from adopting new technologies. But as companies get beyond the easy efficiency opportunities, information technologies will help them tap into deeper savings. 

"There's a lot [of efficiency] out there and we need to get it with a different framework," said Chuck Leitner, chairman of the Greenprint Foundation. "Information is a big part of defining what makes a better building. That's where it starts."

Keep an eye out for our upcoming white paper on intelligent efficiency. We'll flesh out how information awareness is breaking down traditional barriers in the energy efficiency sector.