ENTOUCH Smart Building Solutions

Welcome to the Machine: A Beginner’s Guide to Smart Buildings for Commercial Real Estate Owners

Over the years, machines have gotten some mixed reviews. Pink Floyd offered an eerie and Orwellian take on the topic in their hit song, Welcome to the Machine.“Where have you been? It’s alright we know where you’ve been.” And, who can forget, HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey and his ominous, “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

As an early adopter of technology, I tend to take a more positive stand regarding machines. I like to remember Rosie from the Jetsons’, always fussing over her family, as a more positive role model for artificial intelligence than HAL. Ironically, the Jetsons’ accurately predicted future technologies like driverless cars, video chat and many technologies that we take for granted today. This perspective is especially important when it comes to managing a distributed portfolio of commercial real estate. It’s hard to argue with author, Rick Riordan, when he says, “People are more difficult to work with than machines.” Or futurist, Isaac Asimov, who wrote, “In a properly automated and educated world, machines may prove to be the true humanizing influence. It may be that machines will do the work that makes life possible and that human beings will do all the other things that make life pleasant and worthwhile.”

In a properly automated and educated world, machines may prove to be the true humanizing influence.

Isn’t that why we create machines? Don’t we harness technology to make life more pleasant and worthwhile? Of course, we do. When we leverage technology in an intelligent way, it can be used to serve us and the people we serve.

In previous articles, we discussed the rapid urbanization of America, the growing population of “green-thinking” Millennials and Plurals, rising investments and legislation around smart building innovation, and the pressure these place on commercial real estate owners to adapt. We also discussed three areas of technical innovation that commercial real estate managers are likely to confront near-term. These include building systems designed to improve occupant health and wellness, alongside energy-efficiency; the Internet of Things (IoT), machine-to-machine communication; and advanced data and analytics, to master the information gleaned from an integrated system and improve business decisions.

This article will put forth a guide that commercial real estate owners can follow to rapidly and efficiently improve aging facilities in the age of smart building technology. In short, it’s all about the machines and how to leverage them for a better facilities ecosystem.

Reality Check: We Are Surrounded by Machines

Like it or not, your real estate portfolio, be it comprised of retail, medical, grocery, restaurant, etc., is a machine-rich environment. It represents a grab-bag of building systems and aging equipment, including HVAC, lighting, refrigeration, security, computer and other mechanical apparatuses that must be maintained, and often replaced, in order to keep business running. This creates confusion for a facilities manager tasked with scheduling regular maintenance around unpredictable and expensive truck rolls, in response to emergency calls that can come at any time, day or night.

Fortunately, the technology exists to rapidly, securely and efficiently link these disparate machines to a single, connected ecosystem. An ecosystem that perpetually scans your distributed portfolio, maps trends, identifies outliers and alerts you to potential emergencies for a more focused, proactive approach to facilities management.

Where is your navigator?

We’re embarking on a journey to harness the power of the technology and data within your portfolio and let’s face it, you’re covering new ground. Not only that, you probably have neither the time nor the inclination to become an expert in the field. So the first step in the beginners guide is to identify your guide, your navigator well, your partner. Find a partner who can undertake this journey with you. Most importantly, find a partner who can identify a reasonable goal and shepherd you through the realization of that goal.

We’re going to convert each of your disparate facilities into a data generating machine. We’ll need to collect the data, process it, transmit it, transform it, make recommendations and execute. Your partner needs to be an expert in most, if not all of these areas. Better yet, your partner should have a toolbox of solutions that jumpstarts the entire process for us. A dedicated solutions partner will save you time and money, freeing your people to perform more business-critical tasks, while ensuring continuity of service should your employee roster unexpectedly turn.   

IoT: Reaching Out to the Edge

IoT technology is the keystone of a connected, smart building network. It enables machines to communicate with other machines, gathering data at the edges of your commercial real estate universe for centralized processing and control. Imagine having eyes and ears on the critical pieces of equipment within your portfolio, constantly monitoring and reporting everything about each unit, from energy usage, battery life, to ambient inputs, settings, equipment status and other critical information.

The initial setup can be relatively easy. First, deploy relatively inexpensive edge devices, or sensors, to critical equipment within your facility and connect them to a centralized monitoring ecosystem. Using readily available technology we can transform dumb, legacy equipment into a smart unit. What’s more, this type of technology is highly scalable. As you add new equipment over time, the cost and effort to enable a network connection is strictly incremental.

Modern IoT devices are capable of storing and processing data, receiving and sending information and delivering valuable guidance exactly where it is needed at low latency levels. Given the high capability of the devices, much of the processing can be done independently at the device. Using machine learning concepts (a kinder, gentler version of HAL 9000) the device can effectively “make decisions” on its own, according to rules-based programming parameters, and relieve some of the burden on the facility team and the overall ecosystem for making an operating decision.

For example, a sensor detects that a certain room has been unoccupied for a predetermined number of minutes. The smart device automatically lowers the HVAC temperature settings and shuts off the lights, thus saving energy and collaterally extending equipment life in the process. Conversely, an HVAC unit that consistently runs hot triggers an alert for maintenance intervention, thus avoiding an expensive breakdown and ensuring continuity of service.

The question is how do you create this centralized ecosystem, and what do you do with the enormous amount of data these devices push up the chain for consideration?

A Single Source of Truth

We’re focused on a “beginner’s guide” here, our goal is to avoid serious capital consideration, sidestepping any steep hardware or customized software purchases. In fact, unless you actually are a smart buildings solutions provider, building this technology from scratch is not your core competency and not an initiative you should undertake. Given our objectives to drive a centralized ecosystem, you need to specify a cloud-centric solution. Your partner may have this in their toolbox and, quite frankly, it’s core to most contemporary solutions. Regardless, you’ll need a qualified provider who offers an application enablement platform, capable of communicating with the multiple devices and other enterprise-class cloud solutions that will ultimately connect to your smart building network.

The goal is to aggregate all your data onto a single platform that achieves one version of truth, one source of control. For this purpose, select a solution that includes the advanced data management and analytics that you’ll need to filter and visulaize information in real-time or near real-time. Look for a user interface that is easy-to-use, so that you can intuitively explore your facilities landscape, with key metrics and alerts in obvious places on the screen. And again, think “open systems.” Advances in smart building technology happen fast, and as new applications and tools are released, you’ll want to adopt the most exciting technologies to stay ahead of your competition and on top of your business needs.

The benefits of taking the first few steps toward “smart building everything” can be significant. Consider the list:

  • A single point of visibility and control across your entire real estate portfolio
  • A reduced need for human intervention through IoT automation
  • The ability to scale incrementally with ease
  • Efficiencies gained by permission-based business rules
  • Proactive building management based on real-time information
  • Lower energy cost, extended asset life, and reduced operating and maintenance expense

Isaac Asimov had it right. Machines can be mastered to make life more worthwhile. And, given that our world is moving ever into the “smart zone,” isn’t it worth your while to take the first few steps toward smart building technology?

Jon Bolen

Jon BolenJon Bolen is Chief Operating Officer (COO) at ENTOUCH, a leading smart building solutions provider serving more than 4,000 locations across North America. Jon oversees operations, account management and engineering for the firm. His customer-centric business philosophy helps shape ENTOUCH strategy, backed by a disciplined approach to tactical execution. Jon brings nearly 20 years of experience to the table, having successfully scaled businesses and delivered results throughout his career. While completing his MBA at Emory, he worked in product marketing for NCR. After leading several groups at RaceTrac Petroleum, he helped develop technology-enabled services for such companies as Radiant Systems, Trax Retail Solutions and Westec Intelligent Surveillance. Jon joined ENTOUCH in 2013 and helped transform the company’s energy management and controls solution into a Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) offering.