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Getting beyond the marketing of digital building platforms

Software
(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/TechnoVectors)

For an industry used to keeping to itself, the built environment is gaining a lot of interest. Everyone from investors to casual LinkedIn observers has more reasons than ever to look at buildings and wonder what’s going on inside. The industry itself is known for moving slowly when it comes to adopting new technologies, but novel concepts and products are now entering this market at a dizzying rate. 

Add to that the confusion for professionals who source and procure Digital Building Platform technologies for implementation in their spaces, let alone across their entire enterprise. The waters get even murkier when it comes to cloud platforms and their impact on ROI for energy usage and day-to-day operations. 

Facility managers, energy professionals, and building operators are increasingly hit with daily calls and LinkedIn invitations to review the latest platform for managing and operating their buildings to a modern standard. 

How do users weed through marketing fluff and truly put these platforms to the test? 

The why, how, and what of technology decisions 

Breaking down technology decisions into bite-size pieces, starting with fundamental functions, is the most straightforward way to cut through the promotional haze. Two simple questions to ask include: (1) Who on your team will use this technology? and (2) What problem will it solve for them? Answers to these questions will help you maintain your key objectives top of mind, making it easier to narrow options from hundreds down to a handful. 

Another way to keep problems and solutions top-of-mind when sourcing smart building technology is to identify your use cases. Understanding why you need something is essential, as Simon Sinek says. If you don't know why you need a technology platform for your smart building, it is difficult to prove that one is better than another. Further, once you have chosen one, it is difficult to determine whether it has been successful. We find use cases to be the most direct line from why to how and what. 

For example, let’s examine the why, how, and what questions for a real estate developer planning to construct or modernize a commercial office building.

-- Why will people come? – Our building will be full of amenities and technological touches that will make discerning tenants feel comfortable, safe, and part of a warm community of like-minded individuals.

-- How will we do it? – Implement the latest tenant-facing technology offering services and capabilities that are not readily available at home. We will create indoor and outdoor environments that make people feel comfortable and happy.

-- What tools, products, and technology will we use? 

Technology decisions are big: this last question is often the hardest to answer and is usually left blank until the last possible moment. For building systems integrators, this is where the real work begins.

Focus on the desired outcomes 

When various stakeholder groups begin their investigations of the technology, it is crucial to define the outcomes everyone hopes to achieve for each use case. When evaluating specific products, it also helps to categorize them by a few high levels. 

Several high-level outcomes, such as digital twin enablement, data normalization, and data storage, are expected across multiple categories of systems.

However, only an enterprise building management system includes the most expected outcomes.

Integration Platform as a Service, Bespoke Reports and Dashboarding, Analytics as a Service, Energy Optimization Platforms have various enabled and optional outcomes.

The vendor selection bake-off 

Once the Digital Building Platform category is selected, the vendor selection process begins. The focus moves away from marketing to the most important functionalities. This will help level the playing field for competitors and help facility managers make informed decisions. Scorecards are commonly used in vendor selection processes, but oftentimes the definition of each factor is not well understood by evaluators. 

If you are a smart buildings consultant, this is obvious. However, if you are a property owner, developer, general contractor, or facility manager who is responsible for making this decision, it is imperative to understand the requirements so you can assemble an appropriate team of evaluators. Consultants are a valuable part of the team, but this decision should not be left to the consultants alone, as they will most likely not be there for the life of the building systems and selected technologies. 

The evaluation team should include:

-- Industry professionals and thought leaders with experience using many different software and hardware platforms.

-- Cross-functional, multi-disciplinary people who are present and accountable. 

-- People who are in the build process as well as people who will operate the building post-occupancy. 

-- People who can understand the needs of the occupants and operators of today while maintaining a steadfast eye on the needs of the occupants and operators in 5-10 years. 

Selecting a Digital Building Platform (DBP) to assist your employees, partners, and vendors in operating a first-class facility is more like selecting an ERP than it is like selecting a Building Management System.

This is a fundamental concept and is not often considered until it is too late. Successful building operations platforms will be accessed daily by many different roles on a consistent basis. Unlike a BMS that is primarily used by people in mechanical rooms, the DBP will be accessed by people in sustainability teams, IT teams, service providers, and people in mechanical rooms. 

The selection of a partner is as critical as that of the technologies when considering the lasting success of the effort. This can be equally tricky, given that the industry is evolving so quickly and many of the technologies are very new. It is important to understand the history of the team installing the systems, servicing the systems, and supporting the systems for the life of the platform. In many cases, the partner is the determining factor between success and failure during the implementation and long-term support phases. 

Most buildings are beginning their digital transformation and are looking for ways to bring people back, keep people healthy and create environments where people want to spend time. Many of us have learned how to be successful working remotely, but that doesn’t mean we don’t miss that personal human interaction that can only come from being together and sharing common experiences and spaces. 

When it comes to the built environment, creating those comfortable, healthy, and enjoyable places requires new tools. Selecting a solid DBP is one of the most important decisions to be made. 

It’s also important to understand the outcomes or features available in a particular category of smart building platforms. While data storage might be familiar to many, data normalization or digital twin enablement might not be. Facilities managers interested in upgrading their technologies should re-familiarize themselves with the outcomes and their definitions.

Definitions

Digital Twin Enablement - Creating a Digital Twin is a process used by many platforms and companies to enable Digital Buildings. Once a digital twin is created, companies can implement things like a single pane of glass, HVAC analytics, energy optimization strategies, etc.

Data Normalization - In the Digital Building context, this is the process of integrating multiple data sets from like or related building systems and applying an ontology to the data.  

Data Storage - This can refer to storage of the relationships and metadata required by the digital twin process or it can mean storage of building system data in a data lake.

Single Pane of Glass - For the most part, this is referring to a user experience that combines more than one building system. For example, a graphical user experience that includes lighting controls, HVAC controls, and power metering.

Dashboard - Web page visualization of data typically represented in the form of widgets, charts, tables, and icons. 

Mobile App - An application specifically designed by an organization to run on the IOS or Android operating systems. 

Mobile-First Web Design - A web application specifically designed to be responsive to the device you are accessing the web pages from. The user will have a user experience designed for the platform (phone, tablet, laptop, etc.) being used in real-time.

Operator Command and Control - This is a suite of widgets or objects that allow the user to change setpoints and schedules as well as override specific outputs like lighting commands, pumps command, economizer dampers, and control valves from the interface.

Automated Optimization Strategies - Generally executed from the cloud, this is the capability of software-based automation that modifies setpoints or outputs in order to satisfy a specific goal, typically energy reduction, demand management or plant optimization.

Reporting - This definition is sometimes confused with dashboarding as the two can be similar in nature. The biggest difference here is that reports are designed to properly format into a printable, shareable document that doesn't require a connection to the platform.

Analytics - Analysis of data used to infer additional insights from a collection of data, sourced from one or more systems.

Machine Learning - The science of implementing algorithms that use data to execute strategies. Machine Learning depends on training data input by the software engineers to make predictions and decisions.

Artificial Intelligence - Intelligence demonstrated by machines. This differs from Machine Learning in that the training data is not required to infer decisions based on the source data. This mimics cognitive ability.

High Availability - A characteristic of a system that aims to ensure an agreed level of operational performance, usually uptime, for a higher-than-normal period.

Disaster Recovery - A set of policies, tools, and procedures to enable the recovery or continuation of vital technology infrastructure and systems.

Brian Turner, CEO, Buildings IOT

Brian Turner, LEED-AP BD&C, leads an experienced team of system integrators, engineers, and building scientists dedicated to making the promises of smart buildings a reality.