Being smart is not so simple


17 April 2019
With predictions that the European smart HVAC market will double by 2023, Andrew Slater looks at the challenges of increasing automation to reduce environmental impact.

I started to write this piece around the drive for smart buildings across Europe and the legislative factors that would enforce automatic intelligence through the Internet of Things. But then a whole range of questions began to unfold and I began to feel sympathy for the people who were going to have to provide a framework for this vast sector.
There is much emphasis on developing smart buildings, with one of the fundamental views being that environmental impact will be lessened the more efficient the built environment becomes. But what are smart buildings and how far do we take the concept?

Intelligent, automated, smart, whatever the description may be; a building that is using interconnected technologies to improve its performance is by definition ‘smart’. But since the advent of building management systems, you could argue that we already have automated buildings, especially across the HVAC sector.

Human intervention
A controls engineer would create a script to follow a base set of instructions from a consultant’s specification or design. In terms of thermal comfort, a room would have a design temperature of 21°C, then energy efficiency controls would be taken into account. For example, If the temperature outside is cold, open the fresh air dampers and turn off the cooling. If CO2 levels are low, lower the ventilation fan speeds. A little dated, but smart nonetheless.
The technology of mechanical and electrical devices is forever improving along with the methods in which they network together, but it appears that the next step is to apply an artificial intelligence into building management systems. Create systems that can think and learn for themselves. Most of us know that unless stringent focus is placed on the commissioning of a building, most of the services that are installed do not operate to specification for one reason or another, especially when they are networked to collaborate with each other. You could say that human intervention is the main cause of this, but how is it possible for a control engineer to know the millions of possible causes and effects that could occur on each project and understand each product's reaction to an event?

Appropriate technologies
To operate artificial intelligence or ‘machine learning’ a base framework of commands would still be required. A multitude of key design variables would need to be generated, such as temperatures and CO2 levels, with the main target of maximising efficiency also set in the machine’s algorithms. Hit the run button and you have a machine that is learning the cause and effect of each of its actions over time, ultimately achieving a near-perfect solution to every eventuality! But what about you and I? Is it monitoring our feelings, our wellbeing, our comfort? Does the BMS know that I like my office a little cooler than you do, and who dictates the priority of comfort and wellbeing over efficiency? Surely not the person who pays the bill?

In reality, then, smart buildings have existed for a number of years, with the appropriate technologies of the time, and this is just a small segment of the holistic approach that needs to be adopted across a multitude of economic, social and environmental platforms. 

Buildings will become more automated and self learning. The goal should always be to strive towards perfection, but are we simply automating and modernising the ways of restricting a temperature range on an air conditioning controller? 
  • Andrew Slater is managing director of HVAC Communications.
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