We spend 90 percent of our lives in buildings, and two-thirds of all energy is used by them. Buildings are clearly important to us.

That said, building management is stuck in the past, primarily because there are structural and market barriers that prevent us from rapidly improving operational and energy efficiency in a unified way, at scale. My colleague, Michael Murray, wrote a great article for GTM about why it is so hard to simply get data out of buildings, the foundational step to make buildings smarter.

Yes, it is becoming easier to get data out of buildings and use this kind of data to reduce costs, increase occupant comfort and improve efficiency. But it should be even easier, and these problems should have been solved long ago.

Moreover, new integration challenges are on the horizon: the proliferation of new devices and new internet of things (IOT) systems will require that the central operating system for buildings must be even more extensible in the future.

In short, we need to move beyond building automation and metering systems that operate in silos, each monitoring a building or subset of the portfolio a building owner manages. We also need to incorporate new building technologies into our existing systems. Once all of these systems and technologies are unified, any individual with a role in building management can get the information he or she needs, quickly and easily.

To accomplish this goal, we need three things: better integration between the systems that are available today, extensibility to support the systems of tomorrow, and better software that allows professionals to make data-driven decisions. This may sound like the holy grail, but its actually more realistic than you might think.

Let’s start with the problem.

Across a portfolio of buildings, a university or a corporate campus, you will almost always find a multitude of systems that have been implemented by different vendors, at different times. And some buildings just don’t have any kind of advanced metering or automation infrastructure.

In fact, according to the Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey, only about 6 percent of all commercial buildings have a building automation system, and the penetration of building automation rises to only about 25 percent among even the verticals known for complex, automated buildings, like healthcare and universities.

There’s a seemingly perplexing issue taking hold at many organizations: they have too many disconnected systems in place (some of which may overlap in their coverage), but there are also significant gaps in being able to access key building performance data (real gaps, or perceived gaps due to unfriendly systems that few can use). This means that staff members have to spend a lot of time managing the systems, instead of managing and optimizing the buildings.

Questions that should be easy to answer, such as “Which building had the highest peak demand last month, and how much did it cost us?” or “What is the status of my building schedules, and are any of my buildings starting up early?” are quite challenging. Bigger questions, such as the estimated and actual budget for the organization’s buildings, or Energy Star scores for all buildings, are handled as consulting and service engagements or through completely disparate software solutions.

These problems are very real. I’ve talked with some facility teams that have a separate staff member trained to use each building automation system they have installed. What happens if one of these individuals is sick on the hottest day of the year, and the director of facilities realizes that half of a building that happens to be unoccupied is being cooled? It would be difficult to respond in time to avoid setting a new peak for the billing period. 

Regardless of whether a new peak is set, it’s hard enough for facilities to explain demand charges to the finance team. The facilities team should at least have quick access to key energy data, without spending a day querying a database and reviewing spreadsheets.

Now, back to the solution.

There are three parts: a system that can utilize all the existing technology within your buildings so as not to require heavy capital investments in metering and hardware; the ability to integrate with new advanced monitoring systems in the future without heavy service costs; and the ability to quickly answer questions from internal stakeholders using intuitive software. When you have such a system in place, staff productivity will dramatically increase, building cost of ownership will go down, and occupants will be happier and more productive.

Let’s break three pieces down a little bit more.

1.

 Use the data from systems you have in place. Owners of buildings with automation systems and metering equipment have made substantial investments in these technologies. Instead of installing new, duplicative metering hardware, it makes sense to utilize what has been installed in the system to drive new smart building systems.

The key is to pull the data from these existing systems together with a software solution that allows uniform management of points, data analysis, and other key actions, regardless of the hardware source of the data. This abstraction layer has a force multiplier effect on current systems, by taking precious building performance data -- wherever it may have come from -- and serving it to users in a consistent way. No longer does the facilities team need a staff member trained to use each system, because everyone can use the same system.

2.

 Provide extensibility for the future. The IOT age is here, and that means that there are more and more technologies that can make your building smarter. At the same time, traditional submetering technologies are dropping in price, making it easier to monitor spaces and end uses within buildings.

These are great developments for the building owner. One can now install clip-on, self-powering submeters to capture breaker-level loads, stick-on patch meters that can be placed on top of individual breakers to sense consumption without invasive monitoring, and even ZigBee gateways that can connect directly to a utility smart meter and provide true real-time data -- no professional installation required.

Submetering a building is no longer a months-long project with many zeros following the dollar sign -- it can be an internal do-it-yourself project for the facilities or IT team. Moreover, the procurement process is becoming frictionless, too: instead of calling your local building technology vendor, who will sell you the meters that work for them and connect to the on-premise software that’s been in place for many years (yet is underutilized because of its poorly designed software), you can pick the best-of-breed or most cost-effective hardware, with certainty that it can integrate with your other technology investments.

3.

 Enable data-driven decision-making to be the norm across the organization. Once an organization gains visibility over all of its buildings and associated systems through a single software solution, staff time that was spent on data acquisition and management can suddenly be used to quickly identify problems, fix them and verify the associated cost savings. This requires items one and two above to be perfected, but it also requires an innovative suite of applications specifically designed to support multiple organizational stakeholders across departments in order to get the information they need, in a format they understand, when they need it, on the device they choose to use.

When software allows you to rapidly generate budget reports for the finance team, send energy data to Energy Star for benchmarking, and provide building technicians with a list of specific items to address in a given building, all the building technology investments made across the portfolio are now being fully utilized and working in tandem. Your team can finally focus on value-add activities and not waste precious time and resources on manual data manipulation and calculations.

We believe that the technology is ready to allow portfolios to move to this model, and that the dollars make sense too. Systems integration costs are reduced substantially, new hardware requirements are minimal, and modern, web-based intuitive software is the norm.

With more time to analyze problems, instead of manipulating data, suddenly facility management teams are able to shift to higher-value tasks that have significant impact on the organization’s bottom line. Facilities teams are also able to seamlessly collaborate with other teams that need quick access to key information, such as: total building energy spend, anticipated equipment problems that may occur in the next three months, actual energy spend against the annual budget, and whether the expected ROI for a set of energy conservation measures was achieved.

In the past, stakeholders outside of the facilities team didn’t have the expertise or time to use the highly technical building-specific technologies of the past, and didn’t want to burden the already overworked building technicians with questions. The best part is that these advances get us what we really want: buildings that are more functional, more efficient, and serve as better places to learn, produce and innovate.

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Joseph Aamidor serves as Director of Product at Lucid Design Group, guiding the product strategy for the firm’s energy management software solutions. Joseph is a subject-matter expert in sustainability and energy issues with over 11 years of experience in consulting and software product management, sales and implementation.