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Fri 8 Jan 2010 04:00 AM

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Cutting edge

Can old and dated buildings be made ‘smart' in keeping with the latest trend of green building and sustainability? A cutting-edge innovation in wireless networking has fascinating implications for facilities management.

Can old and dated buildings be made ‘smart' in keeping with the latest trend of green building and sustainability? A cutting-edge innovation in wireless networking has fascinating implications for facilities management.First of all, what is a ‘green' building? This is best defined as the outcome of a design process predicated on resource maximisation in terms of energy, water and construction materials, while simultaneously reducing such a building's impact on both human health and the environment during its lifecycle. It is evident from such a simple definition that a ‘green' building is much more than the actual physical structure of the building itself.

However, people pay lip-service to sustainability without fully understanding its implementation, argues Martin Leith, contracts manager at Rotary Humm (M&E) Services Middle East. MEP consultants and contractors play a major role in bringing the green building trend to fruition in Dubai, but are hampered by the differing interpretations of the concept of ‘sustainability' and the role it plays in the construction industry.

"Traditionally what tends to happen, especially in the Middle East, was that architects design buildings remotely without consultation with the MEP consultants, thus missing out on many real opportunities to decrease the lifecycle cost of buildings," argues Leith.

"Then, typically upon appointing the contract, the MEP people are asked how could they obtain further LEED points to the completed design? This usually means proposing expensive technologies such as PV/thermal solar energy panels, but this invariably increases the total cost for the developer, who would normally not even consider such proposals due to tight budgetary constraints."


There is a misconception that green buildings are more expensive than traditional buildings. For example, a study sponsored by investment firm Good Energies on 150 green building projects around the world shows that, on average, they cost only around 2% more than traditional buildings, and yielded 33% savings on energy. This is contrary to the idea that green building is more costly.

It is estimated that buildings consume about 39% of all of the energy in the US in terms of operating costs. This refers to keeping lights on and running HVAC systems. Another 12% of total energy consumption in the US goes to construction and the building products sector. In total, more than half of the US's energy consumption is accounted for by overall construction and its ancillary industries.

Meanwhile, the cost of building structures to LEED standards is coming down, with owners reporting on increasingly lucrative payoffs in lower utility bills and higher rents. Leith says that new technological advances are also making it easier for developers to go the green route and start reaping the benefits of building smart. Rotary Humm sees a potentially massive market in retrofitting existing buildings to ramp up their operational efficiencies and bring down their running costs significantly.

Vital role

"This is where technology plays such a vital role, but the perception is that any new technology is invariably expensive. What people fail to understand is that investing in energy-efficient systems upfront will herald exponential long-term benefits at the end of the day," argues Leith.

Rotary Humm is in the process of rolling out new products to the Middle East that will give existing building owners and developers the leading edge in keeping up with the green building trend.

Before we look at one of these products in detail, it is important to highlight what makes a green building ‘smart'. Andrew Sedman, technical director at R&M, defines it as follows: "Any building has numerous systems, such as HVAC, lighting, audio/visual, video distribution, access control, voice and data networks, power management and life safety systems, to name a few of the most important ones. When any of these systems provides some form of reporting or alarming to a central location, we tend to regard them as being intelligent.

"In using ‘smart' or ‘intelligent' systems, the main focus is to reduce the overall operational and maintenance costs, while at the same time reducing demands on the environment and energy consumption. The facilities maintenance associated with smart buildings no longer requires on-site personnel, as everything is plugged into the Internet. Central location

"Multiple smart buildings can now be managed remotely from one central location, or any number of secure locations, via the Internet, thereby allowing maintenance companies to be proactive rather than reactive, save on operation costs and, at the same time, contribute towards green initiatives by removing the majority of the control cables and providing a more environment-friendly habitat.

To ensure this is done effectively, a reliable network is essential; a cabling investment requires in-depth consideration, as it is a 15- to 20-year investment, and in most instances would be restrictive for expansion and upgradability," comments Sedman.

This is where Rotary Humm has teamed up with Varis Energy to offer a full suite of solutions based around ZigBee technology, which is expected to play a critical role in the future, particularly in older buildings, where the cost of a complete cabling retrofit is prohibitively expensive and, in most cases, impractical.

"ZigBee is the only wireless standards-based technology that addresses the unique needs of remote monitoring, control and sensory network applications. It enables broad-based deployment of wireless networks with low-cost, low-power solutions," explains Leith.

ZigBee-enabled products have been adapted worldwide, with the exception of the Middle East. It is defined as the ‘wireless mesh networking protocol of the future'.

"What this means essentially is that ZigBee is not as susceptible to the typical interference issues associated with WiFi, Bluetooth or most other competing type of wireless technology," alleges Leith.

"With ZigBee, every single device connected to the network can act as a transmitter/receiver and/or repeater. Be it a light switch, a thermostat, an occupancy sensor or a HVAC controller, the signal always has multiple paths of communication through the building to get where it is needed.

"In essence, it is three-dimensional. It is a self-creating, self-healing network that can frequency hop and physically reroute itself, which is a particular feature of its robustness."

Typical wired control system

A typical wired control system comprises a line of devices often wired in parallel or in series. When a cable breaks, you tend to lose everything after the break. With ZigBee acting as a communication arbiter between two devices, "it can go down a floor and then up again, or left and right, irrelevant of the type of device you have." Existing buildings that traditionally lack any sort of modern technology such as occupancy sensors cannot be retrofitted with smart controls without incurring major expense and disruption.

However, Rotary Humm can deploy ZigBee-enabled devices like a proverbial magic wand and retrofit such a building "in a matter of days" once a building analysis has been completed, claims Leith.

"For example, a ZigBee-enabled battery-operated occupancy sensor can be placed freely in a room. Should the room usage change in future, it is easy to reposition devices, which offers great flexibility, while also allowing for systems to be fine-tuned, ensuring optimum placement and efficiency.

"The same goes for HVAC controls or thermostats. For example, we can take window-box air-conditioners, add a ZigBee module to make them ‘smart', and have them controlled as a building-wide control system."

Leith foresees this system being particularly beneficial in Dubai, where commercial and residential property owners and tenants who failed to take energy-saving measures a year ago will have seen their monthly electricity bills soar by up to 66% since March 2008.

"Such a system can give you a very advanced view as to what is happening inside an existing building. For example, the building's HVAC system will now be able to self-optimise, based on real-time occupancy, down to an individual room level. This leads to increased comfort for the occupants, while providing humidity/heat protection to the building fabric, and maximising the efficiency of the previously limited capacity of the HVAC system."

An example of the added benefits from an FM point of view is that a standard ZigBee-enabled thermostat can ‘learn' the heat profile of every individually-controlled room. It learns how long it typically takes the air-conditioning to get the room to the required temperature.

If there is a temperature fluctuation greater than 10% either way during the cooling operation, it will generate a maintenance SMS or e-mail automatically to alert staff to a problem. In a new build scenario, ZigBee resolves many of the common snagging, cabling, containment and interface issues, and also speeds up the entire MEP installation works, is Leith's concluding remark.

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Hal-Luke 10 years ago

I found this article well timed and placed and I hope many readers have read it. ZigBee and RFID, IELVS etc would indeed become the bywords for most MEP work, yet it would have been clearer if we had included PERVASIVE COMPUTING into the equation as in essence this is a crucial element of smart buildings for future (or even for existing ones!) Happy Space Odyssey MEPing !! Hal-Luke Savas MBA FCIM MBIFM ICIOB aff.CIBSE londonmanagement@aol.com