Smart Cities: Smarter buildings

We've all heard of the 'house of the future'. It crops-up in conversation each time a new domestic gadget appears on the market, claiming to take us nearer to a time when homes are completely automated.

The brainchild of both architects and electricians, the typical futuristic multi-million pound smart home has fibre-optic throughout, intelligent lighting that illuminates a path through your house when you come home, and electric heating of 'zones' selected via a smartphone app. It probably has a state-of-the-art home cinema, too, and a team of robot vacuum cleaners that keep the place clean.

The smart home is already with us, though in practice only the very wealthy can afford the custom installation required. For smart cities to thrive in a low-carbon future, the answer isn't smart homes, but smart buildings.

“A high-performance 'smart' building is one that operates dynamically and with autonomy to maintain the safety and comfort of its inhabitants,” says John Milton-Benoit, General Manager at UTRC Ireland, a big US engineering firm with brands such as Carrier, Otis, Pratt and Whitney, Sikorsky, and it's currently researching building systems and smart grids. “The smart home automatically accounts for factors such as weather conditions, system and subsystem performance, energy pricing data and energy consumption to operate at peak efficiency. It’s also critical to ensure this level of operation can be delivered not only to new construction, but retrofit for existing stock, as well.”

That's crucial since existing buildings account for 40 per cent of the world’s energy use, so efforts to reduce energy use can't just focus on smart new-builds – and nor can it be restricted to high-rise, either, where the close clustering of technology makes it much easier to be smart. “These opportunities exist for small to medium sized buildings as well – the vast majority of buildings are less than 10,000 m2,” says Milton-Benoit, adding that a physics-based understanding of how buildings operate is necessary to create a truly smart building that's capable of communicating its energy needs – and even generating its own energy. “Smart buildings provide local resource management, including the control of electrical and thermal loads,” he says, “and may also include local generation via solar panels or combined heat and power micro generators that can sell power back to the grid.”

In the interests of making a smart building operate efficiently over its lifecycle a huge amount of automation is required. Heating is key; the exterior walls of smart buildings can be coated with enough solar panels (or, further in the future, printable/paintable solar nanocrystals) to ensure a self-sufficient central heating system, with an array of sensors and motors able to both lower blinds and open windows in direct sunlight to keep a constant temperature.

However, interacting with the smart building will differ from person to person. “Certain classes of users prefer a 'set and forget' approach, where they define their preferences and expect the building to meet them,” says Milton-Benoit. “On the other end of the scale, many end-users wish to have 24/7 access via their smartphone or tablet so they can set parameters for building systems control at any time from any location.”

Here the safe, secure, and easy to operate system – the human-machine interface, or dashboard – is crucial if smart building systems are to catch-on. Though critical, most residents of a smart city are likely to be at least conversant with technology as we enter an era where all aspects of our lives are becoming automated.

“In the future the market will move towards home automation services,” says Macario Namie, VP Marketing at Jasper Wireless, which works on machine-to-machine networks with telecoms operators. “This provides centralised control of appliances such as lighting and heating and as a result consumers can benefit from greater energy efficiency.” Appliances would be controlled via an interface accessed from smartphones and the Internet. “This is the next big move which steps up smart metering from measuring the energy used to also being able to control all devices from a singular point to create an efficient and comfortable environment,” says Namie. “Eventually this will also extend to building automation.”

However, if these machine-to-machine connections are to become standard and sustainable throughout smart buildings, it's going to need to be energy-savvy. “Low-energy Wi-Fi enables the ecosystem of connected devices for the 'Internet of Everything' to expand through low energy monitoring and control applications,” says Kanwalinder Singh, Senior Vice President, Business Development, New Markets, Qualcomm CDMA Technologies. “It is aimed at customers implementing machine-to-machine communications in the smart home, building and appliances channels.”

Qualcomm Atheros already has an Internet of Everything portfolio, its scalable IP infrastructure products covering smart energy, intelligent home, security and building automation. “These technologies allow systems to communicate with home appliances such as refrigerators, washers, dryers and thermostats that can allow consumers to better monitor and control their energy consumption or alert them of impending repairs,” says Singh.

Smart buildings are a key component of New Songo, a much-trumpeted and on-going smart city project in South Korea.

Commercial buildings within the business district are totally automated, with structured cabling, lighting control, audio-visual systems, parking control and even remote meter inspection, while residential buildings add a 'U-home' network that includes tele-prescence screens and super-fast broadband.

Connectivity is vital to the smart building, but what about it's place within the smart city? “Smart buildings serve as the fundamental building block of smart cities,” says Milton-Benoit. “The smart building's function is to provide the needs of the end-user in the most efficient manner possible, while smart cities plan and manage many large-scale services across multiple districts, including the management of waste, water, energy (electrical and thermal), and transportation.” He thinks that achieving an efficiently performing smart city is all about how well the control systems of both the buildings and the city interact with each other. “Building control systems must respond to requests from the city while maintaining the end-user requirements. For example, if the building receives a request to reduce energy usage during the day, while the resident is away, the building control system could reduce power supply to the hot water tank by reducing the temperature set point for the hot water.”

However, despite the need for a low carbon economy, there are problems with this top-down approach. “Research shows that residents don't want the city to tell them when they can or can't take a hot shower!” says Milton-Benoit. We all want smarter, more automated and convenient buildings, but only if we can control them ourselves; in the digital age, 'smart' sustainability will always come with strings attached.

To learn more about smart buildings, head over to Smarter Trends.