Smart Buildings may be the best defense against climate change

Health, safety and occupant wellbeing are more important than ever.

At the intersection of electrification and automation, ABB sees change everywhere. Often it appears in the commercial and industrial operations of our customers in industries like EV charging, advanced manufacturing, robotics, and power systems. Increasingly, it’s more out front, facing the consumer where they live, work, and gather.

Buildings, specifically commercial buildings, have a lot to do with that because we interact with them every day, whether we notice it or not. The term “smart buildings” was coined some years ago to describe a future in which all of the building’s operating systems were integrated and responded automatically to the demands of its occupants. Today, we’re getting close to that vision with buildings that produce more energy than they use, minimize emissions, and offer occupants new levels of comfort, health, safety, and usability. But while building technology has advanced tremendously in the past twenty years, most buildings have not.

Sizing up the challenge

It may come as a surprise to those outside the industry, but buildings are among the least-digitalized sectors today. That also means they have the biggest potential for energy savings and CO2 reduction. Buildings account for a significant portion of annual CO2 emissions (approximately 16% in the US according to a 2021 University of Michigan study). Commercial buildings alone consumed 18% of all the energy used in the US in 2020.

Meanwhile, 40% of the world’s projected CO2 reduction will need to come from buildings, either in the construction or operation phase. To meet this challenge, we have to keep in mind that 80 to 90 percent of the energy a building uses over its lifetime is consumed in its day-to-day operations. So, while solutions that mitigate emissions during construction (and maintenance) are certainly worthwhile, those that influence running costs will deliver the most value. It’s important, then, to take a holistic approach to designing building systems.

New rules for a changing game

After more than two years, the global pandemic has re-written where and how people work. We talk about things now like air quality, security, and wellbeing when we talk about returning to the office, especially in commercial buildings. Workers will now expect the building they work in to support their productivity and their wellbeing, especially in environments with elevated risk.

For the building operator, investing in occupant wellbeing is especially relevant now given the challenge to hire and retain talent.

So, what does that look like? At ABB, we believe it comes down to digitalization, optimization, and efficiency. To begin with, a building must be able to manage its space and occupancy, like scheduling meetings in conference rooms and adjusting lighting, air temperature, and in-room facilities. Access control is another element that’s taken on greater importance since the pandemic – managing how people come and go without having a difficult check-in process with lots of manual work and interaction with others.

Digitalization starts with integration

In older buildings you regularly find a wide range of technologies, systems, and sensors installed at various times. Often, they merely coexist, operating independently of one another rather than working together. It’s important to understand that these systems need not be abandoned. What’s more important is harnessing the data they generate to help optimize the building’s performance. 

The key is ensuring that the various technologies talk to each other, which is one of the biggest challenges facing our industry today. The installed base is made up of isolated systems that manage different domains, mostly independent of one another. Through digitalization, we can optimize the building’s systems with respect to sustainability and energy efficiency as well as occupant comfort, wellbeing, and security. In this way, integration also allows us to extract value from legacy systems, reducing the strain on investments made in previous years.

While building systems continue to evolve, everything around them is being optimized through electrification, which puts even more importance on achieving higher levels of energy efficiency. Artificial intelligence can help because it can look at how buildings are being used over a longer period of time and learn from the behavior of the people in the building. All of the systems that ABB is developing now in the smart building space will have cloud-based AI components to facilitate the use of technology on a broader scale.

Efficiency drives savings

Our customers are already investing in the efficiency of their facilities. According to a recent survey of facility management professionals commissioned by ABB, 54% of respondents named facilities as their top priority for efficiency investments over operations (34%) and transportation (12%).

Efficiency gains almost always come with cost savings, but while the ABB survey showed that saving money was the top reason given for investing in efficiency, it was also cited as the top barrier to investing in efficiency. This indicates a persistent bias toward first cost that remains a hurdle for suppliers and building owners alike.

As smart building owners and operators navigate the intersection of electrification and automation, they will find more and more reasons to invest in automation. Broader thinking brought about by the effects of the pandemic on workers will lead to digitization, optimization, and increased efficiency, ultimately positioning them to realize not only cost savings but an environment that is more productive and more attractive to workers.

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About the author

Mike Plaster

Mike Plaster is Executive Vice President and Lead Business Manager within ABB's Electrification business in the US.
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