Decoding Design

5 predictions for smarter buildings in 2012

5 predictions for smarter buildings in 2012

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The VP of IBM's Smarter Buildings Initiative talks to SmartPlanet about what he thinks will be the top 5 building trends to make our cities smarter and more efficient in 2012.

In the United States, buildings make up 70 percent of all energy use, and almost forty percent of all carbon dioxide emissions. Rethinking how buildings use energy is an essential issue of our time, and many have taken on the challenge of retrofitting energy hogs-- to save money, to make cities more efficient, and to help the planet.

Smart buildings can help people translate the mass amounts of data that our buildings generate, which in turn helps us more accurately understand (and mend) our energy use.

Today, the smart buildings market is estimated to be around $30 billion globally, but it still has a lot of growing up to do-- technology is still evolving and the need for more energy efficient buildings is still slowly making its way into planning and development agendas.

Dave Bartlett, the Vice President of IBM's Smarter Buildings Initiative, recently made predictions for the top five building trends that are going to make a big impact in 2012, as smarter buildings become more of a priority.

In a conversation with SmartPlanet, Bartlett explained his predictions and let us in on some projects that are already taking place to help these predictions come to fruition.

Prediction 1: We will see smarter neighborhoods.

Neighborhoods, said Bartlett, "are a great place to gain momentum for what we need to do at a city level. When you can study buildings in the context of a neighborhood. Neighborhoods mimic living systems."

For example, IBM is involved in a project in Boston's BackBay to help the neighborhood implement smart grid technology that electronically monitors and analyzes power consumption.

With the carbon matching system in place in this neighborhood, traffic patterns can be broken down, and other sources of carbon can be traced. According to Bartlett, this system helped IBM identify carbon in unexpected places, like in methane leaks from utilities. "When you can have this type of project in the neighborhood," he said, "you can then redesign a green corridor there. It can be a blueprint for the larger city level."

Prediction 2: X-Ray vision (or greater transparency into building function)

Currently, most people understand what is happening in their building and how much energy they are using in the form of a summary at the end of each month. Smart meters, one of the key parts of a smart building, allow building owners and residents to instead get a "real time" view into their energy usage.

"This creates a lot more transparency," said Bartlett. "We use a lot of resources without really understanding how we can change." Seeing the energy or water we use per task, then, will help drive a transformation in energy efficiency.

Taking a cross-section of a building's consumption will be very helpful for larger structures and campuses. Analytics will point directly to behavior that can be changed, as well as recommend temperatures that save energy, and show instantly when something needs to be fixed.

IBM’s campus in Rochester, Minnesota has implemented this system of transparency. The buildings there take up a massive 3.2 million square feet, and IBM takes real time data from over 300,000 data points, combining the results help make the campus as efficient as possible, so far cutting energy use by eight percent.

Prediction 3: The proliferation of an "Internet of things."

Sensor technology ,that is coming from the physical infrastructure (like that used on the IBM campus), is making way for a huge amount of objects that are connected to the Internet that can help people with tasks.

This "Internet of things" exists to give people information by increasing the connection between people and their cities, and by using people themselves as the sensor technology. With feedback from citizens, cities can be smarter. Apps, like the parking app Streetline that helps drivers find available parking spots, use this sensor technology too.

"People are probably better at defining what they need than any technology, providing a more dynamic interpretation of the surroundings, and apps can help them contribute," said Bartlett. He called this "environmental crowd sourcing," or the ability of a citizen to use their smartphone to alert the city to building issues, potholes or water problems by uploading photos or using an app to identify the problem.

Bartlett said that IBM has found that people want to be involved in the improvement of their communities, and have been very receptive to the apps that have been introduced so far.  "Just as smarter buildings and smarter neighborhoods are the building blocks of smarter cities, people are as well."

Prediction 4: More energy options for buildings

Bartlett predicts that in the near future, as we develop more low carbon energy sources, building owners will be able to go to what he calls "the energy cafe" and select different kinds of energy to use-- rather than a building being forced to use just one thing. The cafe just means that there will be a number of different energy sources available over the grid.

With smart meters, not only can building operators get an idea of how much and what kind of energy they are using, buildings in the future can choose, and change, the energy they use according to their specific needs.

This method was implemented on IBM's campus, following a new sustainability mandate. "I think that it is really cool," said Bartlett, "because depending on your own needs and how much you want to be a part of this, it puts people in control instead of having to take what is provided."

Prediction 5: Real estate finance teams will become corporations' smarter buildings teams

In the next few years, accounting changes will require all publicly traded corporations to make their expenses transparent. Building costs are typically the biggest expense under payroll for a company, so transparency will likely place pressure on the corporation to make aggressive changes to their energy use. "There is nothing going to make a company take action like expenses," said Bartlett.

Smart building initiatives will help them listen to how their buildings are wasting energy and money, giving them an opportunity to cut costs and reduce their carbon footprint.

IBM has been working with New York City, a city whose buildings are much more responsible for green house gasses than many other cities due to its density, to help 4,000 buildings meet Mayor Bloomberg's energy efficiency goals.

"The technology implemented here is going to help him get transparency and find most and least efficient buildings," Bartlett said. Currently, the cost of energy use in New York City municipal buildings is more than $800 million per year, and accounts for about 64 percent of the greenhouse gasses produced by the city's government operations. The goal, with the help of IBM's carbon intelligence software, is to reduce New York City's greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2017.

What will it take to see these predictions happen?

"All of these predictions are based not on wild fantasy, but on things that are actually happening," said Bartlett. The price of alternative technology is starting drop due to the technology getting more efficient, which will undoubtedly push people to use the new methods of looking at energy consumption.

Adoption of smart meters and smart building technology is going to pick up the fastest in states that have incentives for those who do so. Adoption, he said, "requires smart meters, yes, but it also requires a utility that is willing to buy back the energy that you don't use." So far, cities in the Northeast and in California are leading the way, as energy costs are higher in these areas-- "but its good to pave the way and show some leadership."

Images: Aires Almeida/Flickr, IBM

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Beth Carter

Contributing Editor

Beth Carter is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has worked for Catalyst magazine, the New York Times Syndicate, BBC Travel and Wired. She holds degrees from the University of Oregon and New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure