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The smarter approach to ‘green’ cities

Dhamodaran Ramakrishnan
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While green buildings are constructed using sustainable materials, smarter buildings are designed to run more efficiently and, more importantly, communicate with and about their various systems. They don’t just coexist with nature, but they also complement the nature by adding more greenness to it.

How can our infrastructure, our buildings, work more efficiently, reduce carbon emissions, and enable eco-friendly, healthy neighbourhoods? How can we make our buildings more sustainable? By far, buildings mimic living systems, and given their environmental impact, it's high time we design our building from the earth up to reinforce our future.

Significantly, our buildings, from homes, apartments, offices, manufacturing sites, and more are massive energy users. Experts estimate that commercial and residential buildings consume one-third of the world's energy. Indeed, buildings in our cities consume 42 per cent of all energy worldwide and emit more harmful carbon dioxide emissions into the environment than cars; energy costs alone represent about 30 per cent of an office building's total operating costs.

What’s more, up to 50 per cent of energy and water used in buildings is wasted. According to industry estimates, by 2025, buildings will be the number one consumer of energy in the world. These issues are accelerated by worldwide urbanization; and while 85 per cent of companies say they are focused on sustainability, only 30 per cent are collecting data with enough frequency to make changes. The United States National Science and Technology Council estimates that commercial and residential buildings consume 1/3 of the world's energy. In North America, for example this translates to 72 per cent of the electricity generation, 12 per cent of the water use, and 60% of non-industrial waste. And if worldwide energy use trends continue, buildings will become the largest consumer of global energy by 2025 — more than the transportation and industrial sectors combined.

The good news is buildings are talking — and it's time for us to listen. As people move into city buildings at record rates, city planners all over the world are infusing life into the building aided by advanced technologies. Unlike the past, many of the systems that constitute a building — heat, water, sewage, electricity, etc. — managed independently, are getting more and more integrated. It’s a symphony out there… reducing buildings are seeing a reduction in carbon dioxide (CO{-2}) emissions into the environment.

While green buildings are constructed using sustainable materials, smarter buildings are designed to run more efficiently and, more importantly, communicate with and about their various systems. With the unprecedented proliferation of smart sensors and control systems over the last decade, many buildings across the globe have the ability to measure, sense and see the exact condition of practically everything in them. Increasingly, buildings are fast evolving like living organisms, they don’t just coexist with nature, but they also complement the nature by adding more greenness to it. For instance, a heating and cooling system is akin to the respiratory system; elevators and corridors are a circulatory system; and a building's smart sensors with sophisticated computer monitoring are the nervous system. And, they are evolving smarter.

Such buildings are live and smart, they are highly instrumented and connected systems of systems — water, power, transportation, etc. Similar to a living system in nature they can be complex, especially when you think about the conglomeration of buildings in a city's history. When we look at buildings holistically, with end-to-end visibility across all systems, we can see the live connections, the interactions, and opportunities for efficiency among the various systems. Each system affects others: water meters in bathrooms work together with security systems to analyze occupancy, affecting how quickly the building breathes in fresh air. Lighting, by heating a space, affects how much power is used for cooling. With the right data, an owner can decide whether replacing air conditioners makes better sense than a new roof. By adding a layer of intelligence, elements of a building including temperature, electricity, ventilation, water, waste management, telecommunications, and physical security can now be integrated for better management and control. Smarter, more sustainable buildings can quickly sense and respond at every system level possible — in order to protect citizens, save resources and reduce carbon emissions. Hence, there is a critical need to develop cost-effective ways of making buildings healthier and more energy-efficient.

However, such live, smarter buildings are not as expensive as one might think. It's not about retrofitting — it's about looking at the data that already exists, understanding it and using it in new ways. Energy typically accounts for 30 per cent of a building's annual costs — so savings through sustainability can have a big impact on a company's bottom line.

Besides, the opportunities for smarter buildings are tremendous. In addition, smarter building technologies can help organizations reduce water use by up to 30 per cent and energy use by up to 40 per cent — while reducing overall building maintenance costs by up to 30 per cent. And it's not just about saving money — it's also about saving what's inside the buildings. These sophisticated technologies help us manage office buildings, museums, warehouses, factories, power plants, campuses, resorts, and even entire neighbourhoods.

Technology today can make it possible to ‘listen’ to the abundance of information emitted from buildings. By analyzing this data and creating new applications to access it, we can identify and squeeze out building inefficiencies to reduce cost, improve energy usage, extend the operating life of the associated equipment and make buildings better places in which to live and work. In many cities across the world, new technologies are helping occupants of smarter buildings have more “X-ray vision’ of what they are using versus what other community members typically use. Advanced metering and monitoring can enable a real-time view into actual usage. This transparency also allows facility managers to make adjustments and repairs before issues appear. This has the greatest impact at large facilities, campuses and cities where the potential for cost-savings is enormous. Analytics provides even deeper, X-ray vision into what is happening now. As buildings and cities continue to be instrumented, managers will rely more on analytics to flag outlying behavior and dynamically adjust for optimal settings based on changing dynamics of people, weather, air quality, heat, water and facility maintenance.

With advancement of technology, increasingly, groups of buildings will mimic living systems — buildings will be addressed collectively as they relate to the ecosystem or neighborhood they reside in. This in turn will create smarter neighbourhoods which will help address health related or sustainability issues in a city, such as carbon emissions. For example, rather than just looking at air quality in a building we can think of the respiratory system of the neighborhood that a building “breathes” in — carbon emissions and other pollutants versus fresh air intake. This will drive measures like green roofs and corridors built to connect both horizontal and vertical surfaces, and blur the hard lines that are drawn between cities and the surrounding forests and farmlands. Consider this, Europe's most-visited museum, the Louvre, the U.S. Air Force and the Los Angeles Unified School District might not seem to have a lot in common, but each is now using smarter buildings technology solutions.

By far, live, smarter buildings are the building blocks of smarter cities and are vital for building a sustainable future for mankind.

There is a tremendous opportunity to help organizations ‘listen to’ and make sense of facility data from lighting, heating, air conditioning, manufacturing and computer usage by applying a real-time, analytic approach, regardless of a building’s age.

Indeed, the ultimate goal is to create buildings, bases, campuses, industrial complexes, and even museums and cities that are more efficient, productive and healthy.

Let’s leverage intelligent technologies, cement the information wisely, and breathe life into our buildings.

( Dhamodaran Ramakrishnan is Director, Smarter Planet Solutions, IBM India/South Asia)

Buildings mimic living systems, and given their environmental impact, it's high time we design our building from the earth up to reinforce our future.

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