Soon all buildings could become autonomous, able to tell us when to change light bulbs or how to stock canteens while controlling their own heating and cooling systems.
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Buildings are evolving into “smart organisms”, which not only monitor and collect data about how their systems perform but automatically adjust them to make better use of resources.
And, eventually these smart organisms will be linked into “smart cities”, with buildings automatically sharing and optimising energy.
That is the view of Alina Prawdzik, head of smart and connected at Innogy Innovation Hub, an offshoot of energy giant Innogy aimed at finding – and funding – game-changing technologies that will shape the energy system of the future.
“We’re now at the stage where buildings can monitor lots of things, but we don’t allow the building to automate,” she explains.
“We can all imagine autonomous cars. Now we believe that there will be autonomous buildings – and eventually these will form groups that will become smart neighbourhoods or smart cities. The buildings will become our customers.
10 year horizon
“It is a somewhat fantastic vision,” she admits. “It is not going to happen in the next two years. But 10 years ago, none of us could imagine autonomous cars; now we can all imagine how it’s going to look.”
Pradzik thinks start-up businesses and individuals are the key to unlocking creative solutions to our energy problems.
Her hub is looking all over the world, in every sector, to find the right people, then providing them with funding, mentoring and a platform for “co-creation, collaboration and convergence”.
The hub works across various sectors, and has so far created a €150M (£131M) portfolio by investing in so-called “disruptive” individuals, start-ups and early stage businesses.
In order for the building to be self-sufficient, you have to have a digital twin, when all the data is in one place
The hub’s “Smart and Connected” arm is looking for technologies specifically related to improving the way buildings perform.
“We are interested in buildings because they consume 40% of energy; they are the single biggest customer of energy,” explains Prawdzik.
“If you have a smart building – one that is not only measuring things but automating them – it will lead to better use of resources.”
She describes how office buildings are typically run: with heating and cooling systems on at the same time, or with simple day/night settings that mean heating is on at weekends even if the building is unoccupied. “It’s very simple and logical to realise that finding another way to use the building will have a big impact on heating, lighting and CO2.”
Self managing building
Enabling a building to manage itself means systems can be optimised to suit the people using them, and adjusted as circumstances change, says Prawdzik.
“This is our hypothesis. But in order for the building to be self-sufficient, you have to have a digital twin, when all the data is in one place,” she says.
“We invest in construction solutions that have the digital twin component.”
An example of the direction Prawdzik describes is The Edge in Amsterdam (pictured), home to financial consulting giant Deloitte.
This was designed to be the most sustainable office building in the world. It uses 70% less electricity than comparable office buildings thanks – in part – to physical systems such as the largest array of photovoltaic panels of any European office building and an aquifer thermal energy storage system that provides all the energy required for heating and cooling.
Measuring human factors
But in addition to the technical innovations, the building’s occupancy, movement, lighting levels, humidity and temperature are continuously measured, and – using smart technology – the building systems respond to maximise efficiency.
Heating, cooling, fresh air and lighting are fully Internet of Things integrated, so with zero occupancy there is next-to-zero energy use.
By predicting occupancy at lunchtime using real time historical data and traffic and weather information the business can avoid wasting food in the staff canteen.
Similarly, data monitoring can help building managers decide to exclude unused rooms from cleaning schedules, and can alert managers when light bulbs need replacing.
Old buildings also have to adapt to be smart buildings
In addition, every employee is connected to the building via an app on their smartphone.
This enables them to find parking spaces, free desks or other colleagues, report issues to the facilities team, or navigate within the building. They can customise the temperature and light levels anywhere they choose to work in the building via the app, which also remembers how they like their coffee, and tracks their energy use so they are aware of it.
The Edge is not fully autonomous – it still has a facilities manager – but it does show what is possible with current technology. It is also a new building, which was designed to work this way from the outset.
“New buildings are a very small percentage of buildings, so old buildings also have to adapt to be smart buildings,” says Prawdzik. “It’s not very difficult – you just need a willingness to try to do it.
“Buildings have very long lifecycles – sometimes hundreds of years – but the lease term is getting shorter and shorter,” she adds.
“The inside design might not be the design for the future, so they have to be flexible.”
She compares a building shell to the body of a car: “If you think of something like a Tesla, that is just the hardware for the software. So, the walls and windows of a building are hardware for a flexible space, and technology can help here. Technology can make the building smarter and better used.”
Prawdzik says that on an average weekday, office buildings are 35% under-used.
“Analysing how space is used and how we can better optimise the space through technology makes a lot of sense.”
While energy reduction is a big driver for seeking out these technologies, another is the wellbeing of the building’s occupants.
“We spend 90% of our time in buildings,” says Prawdzik.
“Imagine if you come to work fresh but leave even fresher; if walking round the office felt as fresh as walking outside with proper light, and you’re getting some exercise.”