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Sun 18 May 2008 04:00 AM

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Get Smart

Intelligent buildings have long been a staple of science fiction - but now advancements in IT have made them a reality. Imthishan Giado reports on how smart buildings are making an impact on regional construction.

Intelligent buildings have long been a staple of science fiction - but now advancements in IT have made them a reality. Imthishan Giado reports on how smart buildings are making an impact on regional construction.

The term ‘smart building' is fraught with connotations of science-fiction.

Hearing the term, more than one person is likely to think back fondly to Saturday morning space operas, where computers weren't IT tools but disembodied voices directing single-uniformed humans around sterile facilities, with chores like opening doors consigned to the dustbin of history.

Craig Doyle, UAE country manager for networking infrastructure vendor CommScope, says that current consumer and commercial properties are in no danger of reaching that level of sophistication yet - and enterprises should regard smart buildings in an entirely different light.

"One person might say: ‘I look at Star Trek-type things where I walk up to a door and it whooshes open or the lights come on when I speak.'

That's beyond smart buildings, which are really about intelligent control of the building services - it's taking an intelligent or smart approach to how you coordinate the management of your building.

The approach we're seeing now is much more focused on taking the infrastructure and making it common across all the different building services," he explains.

While the term ‘smart building' has been bandied around the construction and IT sectors for some time, it has yet to reach critical mass in terms of actual implementations. Michael Habib, urban planner for real estate developer Nakheel's design group says that the required outlay remains prohibitive.

"It's still at a high cost to introduce it in all buildings and is seen as a luxury item or plug-in to a house - it's not part and parcel of a house design per se. When a market shift occurs, then it will probably become part of business as usual, but currently that is not the case," he says.

Doyle agrees, adding that few developers want to take the risk of integrating untested technology into expensive developments: "The construction industry is historically conservative because it is dealing with large investment capital expenditures which cannot fail.

If you have a tried and tested way of manufacturing, building and deploying a building, you will stick to that until there is a critical reason to change.

Not all firms in the region agree that smart buildings are too expensive to construct. Dilip Rahulan, chairman and CEO of building automation specialist Pacific Controls Systems, built the Dubai headquarters of his firm as a sustainable smart building, and believes that exorbitant costs are becoming a thing of the past.

"More than anything else, it's a mindset that it's expensive, when in reality, it's not. If you compare the cost of automation in a building, it's less than 2% of the total value of the job - which is if you automate to the hilt, making your building a Rolls-Royce in automation.

If you are able to spend even a little amount of money, which forms less then half a percent of the building's value, you're able to get an intelligent building," he states.

After deciding to go smart for the next new property, many enterprises are faced with a bewildering array of systems and possibilities - no doubt leading to many an overwhelmed CIO exclaiming: "Where do I begin?"

Mohammed Shah, CTO of Saudi Arabia's Al Madinah Knowledge Economic City (KEC) has vast experience in this regard, being responsible for the infrastructure design of more than nine million square kilometres of property, and provides some suggestions.

"My advice for developers is first to take a step back and really identify what it is they want to do, and what they need in terms of traditional IT requirements. Secondly, I try to reach out and engage with prominent international vendors.

When you design buildings, you might be looking at a three year horizon.

When I design the infrastructure for a city, I'm looking at decades, which is why it's important to go to an industry leader that has that capability and is going to be there for the long term," states Shah.

Another key concern of enterprise CIOs and IT managers is determining what options exist for their existing commercial property. CommScope's Doyle says old buildings need not be left out of the smart building revolution.

"Internationally, a building lifecycle is 40 years, in which 20 years could be a refurbishment time period for the actual structure of the building.

The super-smart buildingDilip Rahulan, chairman and CEO of building automation specialists Pacific Controls Systems has built his company headquarters as a showcase of what's possible in the smart building space.

He details the process by which he gathered experts to design and build the US$10 million structure.

"We had a vision and limited resources. If you compare us to the automation companies of the world, we are an infant - and to be honest with you, really in the beginning our knowledge was limited.

We had never been exposed to a green building and I had never visited one," he says.

Realising that information was freely available, Rahulan turned to the internet: "I Googled and found that it was possible to identify consultants and benchmarks.

We then identified a consultant from India who was affordable and could give us the same service that was required by the US green building council.

"Then we engaged a contractor - who actually had no clue about green buildings - but who was willing to co-operate and learn how to achieve this.

We hired other consultants who had never done a green building but were willing to adapt to the guidelines laid down by the green building consultant.

We all went through a learning process and that is the key," he concludes.

That's a perfect time to retrofit things like your heating, ventilation and access control. If you put in a structured process now for how you design all the systems and management that they require, put it onto one infrastructure, you have an ROI that's going to last you 20 years," he says.

When it comes to the actual design of a smart building, Nakheel's Habib is a strong advocate of early planning: "It has to be a design objective at the conceptual level.

Even before drawing up concepts, it has to be the basis of design that we want to go smart in a particular building that will help facilitate and inform the architecture of a building. Architecture and being smart are not mutually exclusive.

A better smart building has to also be an architecturally smart building," notes Habib.

No discussion of the potential benefits of smart buildings, argues Shah, is complete without the realisation that automation can deliver major cost savings: "Twenty years ago, banking was an extremely expensive operation because many things were manual.

Today, banking is one of the most automated environments in any industry, because banks deployed and pioneered the use of technology.

If you look at yourself today and ten years ago, the number of times today that you have to physically go into a branch and see a person and stand a queue is very minimal. And more importantly, it's saved the bank money.

"You might have maintenance and engineering staff on a particular building - if you put in a facilities management system, you are able to monitor and manage many buildings.

You can then identify when the air-conditioning is going down, when the lift is beginning to give you problems - you go into more of a preventative mode.

Your costs then reduce because you're better able to utilise your skills and maintenance workforce and leverage them on multiple buildings," he explains.

Doyle adds that when discussing costs, both the building developers and eventual owners should understand what the business drivers will be for getting returns on the building: "They need to ask: ‘If we're going to own it for 15 to 20 years, how do we manage that asset over a period of time?'

The person investing that money or capital needs to understand what their operational expenditure is going to be over ten to 20 years. Having a coordinated approach to how you manage, control and maintain the building has huge operational cost savings."

Rahulan's experience on the bleeding edge of smart building development has also provided him with insight into some of the issues unique to the region.

"These environmental conditions are really the challenge. For example, one of the most important things in our building is the dust that settles on the solar panels. If I am not able to clean that on a daily basis, my generation reduces by 20%.

The dust storms also affect the performance of all the HVAC equipment. So, it's a commitment to ensure that you have service and preventative maintenance as a continuous requirement.

In order to have a breakdown-free environment, you need to automate it and know the conditions of each piece of equipment - and the only way you could know that is to make sure that they're all networked and that you can actually see it on a dashboard or it can send you an alarm," he says.

Managing alerts is obviously a key part of smart building management, but Doyle says redundancies should still exist: "No matter how integrated you make the system, it still has the basic controls, switches and manual overrides underneath it, so the safety and security that you require is still maintained in a smart building approach.

The key difference from the historical approach to building controls is that now there is access to control and to monitor what is happening on those systems.

Shah concludes by suggesting further integration is the future of smart buildings: "I see a future where devices are personalised around you, I see significant productivity gains through the availability of very high bandwidth.

The philosophy I work on is of infinite capacity - I see a world where the buildings and cities of the future will have what I call ‘infinite bandwidth'. It's bandwidth that will give you the above the ground innovation capability.

At the moment, bandwidth is a limitation in innovation - many new services and solutions will become available from a home entertainment or office environment perspective. There is much more to come."

Slicing the smart building cakeDr Osman Ahmed, head of global research and innovation for Siemens Building Technologies explains the various layers that comprise a typical ‘smart building' and reveals some of the emerging trends.

The first layer of components is building infrastructure.

You've got to have sensors, actuation and controllers and communication between all these different pieces.

What we are seeing is that essentially everything is becoming wireless. People want to use wireless from the cost advantage point of view, but it also gives them more redundancy and flexibility and adaptability.

"Then you have the second layer, which is known as knowledge extraction, where you talk about software, data mining and artificial intelligence.

A new emergent is building information modeling. It means that the way the building looks to us visually is the way it is represented within the computer itself," he continues.

"The third layer is visualisation of knowledge.

There you have to think about a new kind of paradigm - rather than watching how a building is performing in terms of points or data value, you have to create some kind of knowledge of this building, depending upon who the audience is.

It could be a financial buyer who is looking at the performance of the building and might help him to make his buying decisions, as compared to someone who is managing the facility, or even the occupants," concludes Ahmed.

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