Hardly anyone is in the office these days – most people are working from home. The coronavirus crisis and social distancing rules have transformed the world of work almost overnight. Desks and conference rooms in office buildings are deserted; communication is now taking place virtually through online meetings, video chats and e-mail. But many buildings are running as normal despite being unoccupied. “Heating and ventilation systems are still operating, and lifts use power even in stand-by mode,” says Klaus Dederichs, head of ICT at consulting and planning company Drees & Sommer. This means valuable resources are being wasted.
The problem can be remedied by intelligent buildings fitted with sensors. These so-called “customised smart buildings” are controlled automatically and adapt to changing usage. “Tracking sensors identify which parts of a building are not being used and automatically reduce energy consumption in those areas,” explains Dederichs. “They know exactly where it makes sense for facilities to be turned off.” For example, ventilation systems would simply be turned down to the level necessary for ensuring a minimum air exchange rate. Air conditioning systems and lifts, on the other hand, could be switched off completely.
The good news is that buildings like these are more than just a vision. They already exist, albeit in very small numbers, in the form of pilot projects. Currently the most high-profile example is the “cube berlin” office building. “The building is equipped with a wide range of sensors for monitoring everything from air conditioning to occupancy. Workspaces can be flexibly adapted to meet the needs of users,” explains Matthias Kramer, a director at building automation specialists Raumgold. The flagship smart office recently opened by Commerz Real in Wiesbaden is on a smaller scale, but no less interesting. Here too, sensors have been installed to automatically control the lighting and air conditioning. “Full-spectrum light bulbs simulate natural daylight in all parts of the building and can even replicate outdoor lighting conditions in real time,” says Kramer. “Sophisticated occupancy sensors for statistically analysing individual clusters of desks and meeting rooms are an additional highlight.” Unlike cube berlin, this smart building in Wiesbaden is already occupied and has been in full use for several months.
The Internet of Things and smart control systems are fundamentally changing the way buildings are managed. This trend is not going to go away, and is likely to gain momentum from the coronavirus pandemic. “Sensors and digital data collection make it possible to create detailed usage profiles of buildings and facilities in real time,” says Nils Lueken, director at facility management company RGM. “These profiles can be used to formulate plans for maintenance and cleaning, and to devise algorithms for optimising building operation.”
Artificial intelligence is able to connect all the technical plant, sensors and data relating to planning, operation and users. By doing this, it can manage the processes within a building in the most effective and efficient way.
For example, CO2 sensors and conventional motion sensors provide information on how frequently various rooms are used. “Heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems can all be adapted to meet actual needs depending on how a particular space is used,” explains Leuken. “This helps to boost both energy efficiency and occupant comfort.” Data sources could also be combined so that problems are flagged up at an early stage and displayed on dashboards or via other intuitive visualisation options – perhaps even before a malfunction actually occurs. “This means maintenance can be managed more effectively, which in turn helps to reduce downtime and the need for repairs,” says Leuken.
Many newer buildings are already at least partly equipped with some form of automation technology, such as a building management system. “With such a system, sensor readings are collected and analysed and areas of a building are managed automatically,” says Raumgold director Kramer. “The control technology is reliant on a combination of sensor data and manual input by facility managers.”
However, the majority of office buildings, schools and nurseries still lack modern building management systems. Retrofit solutions that can be installed without major structural interventions are therefore needed. Accordingly, many sensors are now battery operated and can be easily attached to surfaces using an adhesive pad, explains Kramer. “Once these sensors are installed in a room, they transmit data via radio waves to a gateway within the building so it can be analysed centrally. The appropriate building management decisions are then made.” This makes work easier for facility managers because the system can actively alert them to faults such as heating system failures, thereby making regular inspections unnecessary.
Their agreement is needed to install sensors in rental areas and capture their data. In addition, particularly during the early stages of a pilot project, it’s important to have some flexibility and be able to run tests because the systems learn continuously.
But installing a building management system is just one step on the way to creating a genuine smart building. The building of the future can do more than simply collect data – it will think intelligently, learn from its users and adapt to user needs. “We’re talking about a building with brains,” says Drees & Sommer expert Dederichs. “Artificial intelligence is able to connect all the technical plant, sensors and data relating to planning, operation and users. By doing this, it can manage the processes within a building in the most effective and efficient way.” AI thus helps to deliver savings in energy consumption, repair and maintenance costs and administration expenses. “For example, building owners can use the data collected by motion and occupancy sensors to regulate air conditioning and lighting in real time,” says Dederichs.
“This requires close collaboration with tenants,” adds Jan von Mallinckrodt, Head of Sustainability at Union Investment Real Estate. “Their agreement is needed to install sensors in rental areas and capture their data. In addition, particularly during the early stages of a pilot project, it’s important to have some flexibility and be able to run tests because the systems learn continuously.”
Raumgold director Kramer believes that some applications can play a major role during the coronavirus crisis: “Sensors are able to detect whether a room is occupied. So while social distancing measures are in place, they can help to ensure that not too many people congregate in the same place at the same time.”
Data protection in smart buildings
Smart buildings rely on collecting data, which obviously raises legal concerns. Data protection regulations in Germany are particularly strict. “Data protection is a top priority when it comes to smart buildings. It must be integrated into any digitisation strategy right from the start,” says Klaus Dederichs, head of ICT at consulting and planning company Drees & Sommer.
Data collected in smart buildings can be divided into two types: personal data and non-personal data. Personal data enables individual patterns of behaviour to be identified. It is therefore specially protected under the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and German legislation. The situation is different for non-personal data, which includes information about energy consumption, technical data and room occupancy plans.
From the early planning phase, it’s important to consider how data will be handled so that it cannot be used to identify specific individuals. “Where personal data needs to be collected – such as for access control purposes – pseudonymisation is an appropriate way of protecting the personal rights of individuals,” says Dederichs. It is also advisable, he adds, to appoint a data protection officer to oversee proper implementation of all data processing programs.