Why Buildings Are Smarter Than You Think

In the U.S., buildings account for around 40 percent of our energy consumption. Yet, they waste 50 percent of that energy.

A depressing set of numbers? To me, it's an opportunity.

Because the technology we have today gives us the tools that we need not just to slash this crazy waste, but also to re-imagine the concept of what a building is.

Big data, smart sensors, and advanced analytics finally let us see that buildings aren't the siloed, silent structures they seem. They are alive with data, dynamically connected and capable of responding to the ecosystems around them. They can be very task-aware -- alerting us to where energy and water are wasted, improving efficiency and occupant productivity.

Thinking of a building more as a living organism -- and listening and learning from what it's telling you -- means you start paying attention not just to the data coming from the heat and air conditioning units, but all the systems, including lighting, security, utilities and how that maps to individual needs or a variety of responses, much like city emergency scenarios.

That means you can you measure and improve how those systems work together. It gives you the real-time data you need to pinpoint and prioritize when something needs to be fixed before it breaks.

For instance, keeping a pulse on all building systems simultaneously allows you to maintain system health holistically to prevent situations like when air conditioning and heating compete with each other.

By linking employee badge data and even elevator usage, you can pinpoint how many people are working on which floors and accordingly shut off any lights, heating and cooling, or even computers and printers that aren't being used.

By tracking upcoming changes in the weather outside, your building can automatically open or close window blinds or leverage free air cooling so that you're smarter about using heat and air conditioning.

That produces results. Smart buildings can save as much as 40 percent on energy costs, 50 percent on water, and up to 30 percent on building maintenance.

But this "system of systems" approach doesn't stop with just one building. Once you understand how systems impact each other inside one structure, it's a small leap to grasp how much the systems in a community -- with other buildings, utilities, roads, open spaces, and public transportation -- impact each other.

Once these connections between systems are made, the data generated can be collected and analyzed to provide a real-time picture of the health of a city. This critical information can then be used to improve safety, productivity and efficiency.

Rio de Janeiro is making these types of connections. After devastating rains in 2010 brought the city to a standstill and killed more than 70 people, Rio developed a state-of-the-art intelligent operations center. The center collects data from 30 agencies, allowing managers to monitor dozens of data and video feeds about weather, traffic, police, and medical services on a real-time basis so they can coordinate emergency response and anticipate problems.

Another example of systems making smart decisions together is when buildings are more intelligently linked to the electrical grid. When connected, these two systems can dynamically participate to help prevent an impending blackout or lower ozone levels by selectively turning off lower priority tasks such as refrigeration defrost cycles, battery recharging, pool pumps, or underutilized elevator banks.

Buildings can also participate in their surrounding ecosystem by being the walls that provide contiguous corridors for plants to grow up the sides of buildings and across roofs, thus improving water absorption, oxygen production, and insulation -- naturally creating ecosystem for butterflies, birds and other animals.

As the world's population continues to increase beyond 7 billion, and as more people flock to urban environments, smarter buildings will become an increasingly important factor in the prosperity of a city.

By analyzing data, using sensor technology and integrating the physical elements of a city with the digital world, we can transform a city to improve the quality of life for its residents. The technology that exists today presents us with an unprecedented opportunity to "fast forward" how buildings and cities operate around us.

To learn more about smarter cities, click here.