The smart building evolution

Smart office building
In contrast to today's single domain applications controlled from Building Management System platforms, the future of smart building technology is moving towards integration of information flow from multiple systems and more comprehensive command. (metamorworks/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Over the past several decades, miniaturized electronics and networked communications have transformed the way people live, work and play. Now, a new stage in the evolution of the digitally connected world is gaining momentum: the move to smart buildings.

A smart building is more comfortable and intuitive for its occupants. At the same time, it has a much smaller environmental footprint. This results in clear benefits for suppliers of building equipment and management systems; property developers, owners and managers; workers and other users of commercial and public spaces; and the communities shaped by these structures. Developers and architects recognize that smart buildings create better value, property owners and managers realize lifetime savings in operating costs, and occupants benefit from better living and working environments.

Smart buildings are non-residential and high-density residential developed spaces – such as offices, shopping centers, restaurants, entertainment centers and apartment complexes – that are equipped with sensor technologies to gather data, analyze operating information and even control the use of resources. The wide variety of sensor technologies available to feed data to building information management systems makes it possible to monitor and control various domains such as lighting and HVAC, based on environmental conditions and user-defined parameters.

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Smart buildings also are secured from cyberattacks against their operating systems. Secure elements are implemented using hardware-based embedded security solutions  that safeguard the confidentiality, integrity and authenticity of information and devices, thus protecting the individual privacy of occupants.

The need for smart buildings

Changes in demographics, market dynamics and technological advancements are the root causes that catalyze the move towards smart buildings. This century will see a continued rapid increase in urbanization, with the United Nations forecasting that as much as 68% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. Workplaces, public facilities and high-density housing already represent 40% of energy use and 36% of CO2 emissions in EU countries. Without improved building efficiency, it may be impossible to meet goals for reductions in energy use and carbon dioxide emissions. This demand for higher efficiency, combined with advancements in technology for Industry 4.0 and smart homes, fuels the move towards smart buildings.

Building trends chart

Demographic changes, market dynamics and technology advancements fuel the move towards smart buildings.

More efficient building operations translate to lower operating costs. While there are many strategies to reduce energy use, including passive design elements and alternative energy sources, smart building technologies can be key in assuring that all elements of a structure’s design and functional systems are used to maximum efficiency, creating as much as a 30% improvement in energy efficiency while improving the comfort, convenience and safety of all occupants.

Building managers consider operations of a property in four traditional domains; mechanical systems, electrical systems, energy supply and infrastructure, and plumbing.

Smart building elements chart

Elements of a smart building.

In each of these domains, sensor technologies can collect and provide data for analysis and then action by management systems. By connecting sensors within domains and ultimately across domains, it becomes possible for managers, and even the system itself, to gain more comprehensive insight and make decisions to optimize operations.   

The underlying technology

Connectivity and control systems, paired with multiple types of sensor devices, comprise the underlying technology of smart buildings. These sensors are a key element of current and future systems that provide input about the in-building environment. Below are some examples:

  • Radar sensors determine the number of occupants in an area and even recognize gestures without the use of visual cameras that compromise privacy
  • High-resolution infrared Time-of-Flight (ToF) sensors for 3D object detection and face authentication and.
  • Pressure sensors determine airflow in HVAC equipment or room
  • Environmental sensors monitor air quality, such as CO2 level
  • Tiny MEMS microphones support  voice control of functions in a room, and arrays of the same type of microphone allow directional tracking of room occupants andpresence detection in a room Current sensors monitor electricity use  in building equipment such as motor drives, elevators, HVAC units.
  • Magnetic positioning sensors enable the precise control of motor drives in shutters

Smart sensor hubs that support sensor fusion – the integration of multiple sensor types and corresponding data flows – will enhance safety, security and convenience in smart buildings. For example, an integrated alarm system that combines microphones and pressure sensors more accurately detects glass breakage based on both sound and change in room air pressure, reducing the likelihood of false alarms.

Sensors in smart buildings are also the basis for a rapidly expanding number of room automation systems. For example, a radar sensor can detect someone entering a room, leading to a series of instructions to automatically turn on lights and adjust the temperature to a comfortable level. As occupancy changes, temperature adjustments can be made before a room becomes warm, or vice versa. Using environmental information about exterior light, fixtures can adjust lighting levels by changing the current delivered to LEDs.

Outside of the sight of building occupants, sensor hubs that monitor in-building system conditions improve comfort and occupant satisfaction by helping to prevent failures. Devices integrated into elevators and HVAC units can collect data on parameters that reflect operational status, detect deviations from optimal states and predict failures before they happen so maintenance can be conducted  promptly. Examples of predictive maintenance applications include airflow monitoring in HVAC devices using barometric air pressure sensors, current flow measurement in motor drives using current sensors, vibration monitoring using magnetic positioning sensors, as well as detection of sound anomalies using MEMS microphones.

In addition to sensors, Infineon provides device manufacturers with key components for the systems that act on sensor data. Power ICs are integral to motor control, metering and switching systems, and even light fixtures. Important elements of connectivity to in-building systems, the Internet and new 5G mobile networks are part of the company’s portfolio, as are powerful microcontrollers that are the computing “brains” of thousands of devices. Lastly, hardware and security ICs used to authenticate devices before they are allowed to access other parts of a building’s management system are a critical element in the design of secure systems protected from cyberattacks.

Addressing the challenge

Market forecasts project five-year growth in the overall market for connected equipment in smart buildings of 15.7% (2017-2022), primarily in the energy infrastructure domain. This is likely to accelerate in future years, as the ecosystem that supplies building automation systems gains experience in specific use cases and develops the expertise to integrate across multiple domain areas. 

Smart building tiers

Tiers of smart building integration.

Whereas today we see single domain applications controlled from Building Management System (BMS) platforms, the future is moving towards integration of information flow from multiple systems and more comprehensive command. 

As with other industries that have moved or are moving to digital automation, the value chain being built today involves suppliers of core technologies, device manufacturers, integrators and software specialists at multiple levels, building industry participants, as well as the providers of networked computing and cloud services. Network providers, whether traditional services or cloud architecture specialists, will offload the heavy-lift data processing of new systems. Existing partnerships between providers will grow, and many new partnerships will be created that both provide a level of standardization and best leverage the unique capabilities of expert providers.

In many ways, today’s smart building evolution mirrors earlier development seen in the industrial building (Industry 4.0) and Smart Home segments. There is a clear need, and thus enormous opportunity, to automate systems in a way that meets the demand for improved energy efficiency in a rapidly urbanizing world. At the same time, these automated systems reduces the overall cost of building operations and increase convenience and comfort for occupants. Similarly, as with automation in other building segments, successful projects will rely on approaches that drive integration across domains while rising to meet an ever-higher standard for cybersecurity.


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