Ambient Intelligence in Buildings – Is it Achievable While Saving Energy? – BuildingIQ


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Ambient Intelligence in Buildings – Is it Achievable While Saving Energy?

Ambient computing

Ambient Intelligence: “Electronic environments that are sensitive and responsive to the presence of people.” — Wikipedia

Technology advancements and the mass customization of applications have created an interesting conundrum in the building management industry. Specifically, whether we have reached a point where the personalization of the built environment could be hurting the bottom line. I would argue that if we’re not there, we’re about to be.

There is no technological reason that prevents us from modifying the air conditioning system and lighting, within a building, to conform to the momentary needs of the occupants. We have the capabilities to add instruments to a building’s sensors and actuators and add local logic and controls to the point of individual climate control —in real-time. Even more than that, we’re in a technological position of being able to create a state of comfort that follows us from room to room.

Sounds great? Not so fast. Such scenarios would be a nightmare for building operators. Imagine the chaos created when people —with widely different definitions of comfort— move through a building. One hour it’s 68°F, and the next is 74°F. Or better yet, adjoining zones that lack a wall between them are heating or cooling their respective spaces six degrees apart. Maintenance costs due to wear and tear on equipment would skyrocket. Predictive maintenance would be impossible. And let’s not forget that air is a liquid so the back pressure within the air vents would be not only noisy, but it would have pressure spikes and turbulence that would make zones breezy one minute and a sea of calm the next.

Obviously, I’ve painted an extreme portrait of ambient intelligence in buildings gone wild. Still, the lesson is clear, where do we draw the line between personalized comfort and generalized comfort in commercial buildings?

At BuildingIQ, we treat buildings as a whole because, in a commercial building environment, the system is more important than any single zone –leaving the server room aside. Our promise to customers is to provide predictable, and reliable savings in the form of energy reductions (cost- or kW-based), tenant comfort, and operational efficiency (fixing stuff and correcting processes).

For us, achieving ambient intelligence begins with user feedback. Whether app-based direct feedback, monitoring thermostat changes/overrides, or hot/cold complaints, we tie all back to the status of the HVAC system, e.g., setpoint at the zone level, outside air temp/humidity, supply air temperature, supply air pressure, and other factors. This will allow us, over time, to find correlations between perceived comfort and actual conditions. This knowledge will help us predict when people will be comfortable in any given zone based on intrinsic and extrinsic factors.

Our system, when utilized for optimization, does so using comfort bands that define the lowest and highest comfortable temperature for any given zone. Rather than have individuals control temperature —wreaking havoc with the energy bill, creating conflict within adjacent zones and operational parameters of a building— we convert the feedback into algorithms that define the range for any given comfort band at the zone level. Doing so delivers ambient intelligence in a smarter way.

First, we can predict energy consumption based on comfort models. This, in turn, is a guide for the overall optimization strategy for the buildings. The optimization strategy guides the HVAC system hour-by-hour. Adding a comfort model to our thermal model allows us to use our optimization engine to guide the building based on how people perceive and interact with the space. This is a far better indicator of performance than, say, savings across a baseline alone.

The day of ambient intelligence is coming for commercial buildings. In fact, it’s sort of already here, but not the most beneficial type. We’re working on it.


Steve Nguyen is VP of Product and Marketing at BuildingIQ. He loves products and ideas that transform markets or society. Whether they are transformative in and of themselves, or because they are enablers, he’s driven by creating the stories, teams, and strategy that make these agents successful.