Envisioning Building Autonomy

— By Joseph Bocchiaro III, PhD, CStd, CTS-D, CTS-I, ISF-C

Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design International recently offered a brand-new course that I had the privilege of teaching. Entitled “Emerging Building Technologies – From Smart to Autonomous,” this 8-part certificate class covered a broad range of Intelligent Building Technology (IBT) topics. The arc of the content was the thought process of envisioning how a building project can be delivered as “smart,” “intelligent,” or even “autonomous.” There were deep technical aspects, along with many social and economic issues explored and modelled in class group exercises. The course modules included an Introduction to Intelligent Buildings, Occupancy Control, Space Planning, Infrastructure, Software, Wellness, Standards/Certifications/Codes, Implementation, Economics, and Occupant Commissioning. As the course creator, I was excited to experience the class’ reactions as they processed the content, and their interactions as they applied it to real-world case studies. A few of the more interesting things that emerged include:

  • Wellness has now become the second most important component of intelligent buildings, closely following energy management. The myriad advances in occupancy control throughout the pandemic, and the concentration on building certifications such as WELL are driving new design considerations.•
  • Artificial Intelligence is pervading many areas of intelligent buildings, and architects are open to embracing these possibilities. This includes pre-emptive building security measures, adaptive building automation, conveyance prediction, and facial and voice recognition.
  • The pandemic has brought attention to the importance of air circulation and fresh air replenishment. IBT has the potential to manage the balance between CO2 monitoring, damper/window control, and temperature control for optimal wellness and sustainability.
  • The pandemic has also driven innovation in touchless technologies, particularly in areas such as access control, wayfinding, and elevator operation.
  • Power over Ethernet (PoE) lighting is now broadly accepted as an acceptable technology, and the advantages it brings in efficiency and construction simplification are appreciated along with the new creative, personalized, and efficiency capabilities it offers to designers.
  • There is a steady migration of IBT devices that are becoming Internet of Things (IoT) “edge” devices, which require cloud connectivity. This is driving ever more stringent cybersecurity measures to protect the enterprise.
  • There is a spectrum from trust to distrust surrounding the acquisition of user data through smartphones. As there is a move towards developing “apps” for buildings, the “buy-in” of occupants interferes with the app’s success. This is not true throughout the world, though, and some countries such as India have widespread adoption of population authentication.
  • Along with the ability to locate occupants within the building comes a wide range of technologies that can be personalized to meet individual needs and preferences. This is an area where productivity gains and efficiencies may be realized, and the students teased out various scenarios by role-playing occupant profiles.
  • There are new Smart Building certifications such as the UL/TIA “Spire” program that add another layer of certification requirements to building design, with corresponding point systems and checklists. There is now movement towards certifying buildings with multiple programs, such as LEED/WELL/Passive House/SPIRE. The overlap areas are of particular interest, and the coordination between them drives synergy in the design. Developers are particularly interested in the return-on-investment of these programs, primarily in the ability to upcharge tenants for them.
  • The class was intrigued to imagine new applications of some existing IBT that was developed for other purposes. E.g., water flowmeters are used to monitor water consumption and wastewater removal. By combining and analyzing the data from these two sources, alerts may be generated when they do not correlate normally. This could indicate a water leak, which could lead to property damage if not mitigated quickly.
  • There is strong recognition that buildings have many relationships to their communities and cities, particularly where “Smart City” initiatives are in place. E.g., the transition to electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles, and Shared Autonomous Vehicles is driving designers to consider new relationships to parking and roadways.

Each of these emerging issues was discussed as if they are inevitable, and the class was focused on design solutions rather than speculation. These solutions were incorporated into their exercises, which highlighted the benefits of collaboration between different stakeholders — a necessity for successful IBT initiatives. Our Google Drawings app worked well as a quick and easy brainstorming tool. The class was enthusiastic and diverse — seven countries were represented — and the course will be offered again in January and June of 2022, both virtually and in-person at Harvard. Let me know if you are interested!

Reach out to Joe to learn more.

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