The HVACR industry is not new to technological advancements. Systems are always getting better, with upgrades such as increased efficiency and the addition of smart diagnostics. Tools, too, have gone from basic analog dials to digital devices that can be viewed remotely in the home office. And as technology increasingly impacts what building operation looks like holistically, contractors will need to keep those advancements top of mind going into the next decade.
Controls-Con, presented by Cochrane Supply on May 5-7, 2021, discussed just that: the impact of smart controls on the building industry.
Building Automation Trends
“The pandemic has taken twenty to thirty years of digital transformation and thrown gasoline on it,” said Jim Young, founder and CEO, Realcomm, speaking in a general session at Controls-Con. “It has accelerated thinking over the past 12-14 months in ways that I’ve never seen in my entire career.”
Young discussed trends in building technology, saying that as digitalization works its way into buildings, the purpose of spaces will change. The pandemic has challenged the traditional ideas of needing to go to certain places to accomplish certain goals. Jobs have been carried out remotely, shopping can be conducted online, and doctors can be visited virtually. So some of the first questions that need answering with reopening buildings is “will all of this space still be used?” and “is the space going to be allocated in the same way?”
Young believes that digital technology will continue to drive change in the building industry. Companies may offer space as a service (such as co-working and flexspace), but since work can now be done remotely, they will be looking to add amenities to bring people in, such as technology that an at-home office will not have (3-D virtual conferencing, for example). Those in buildings will be looking to control their spaces via their phones, including air conditioning and air quality.
“The relationship between your mobile phone and your occupant and that building is going to be bigger and greater and better than ever,” said Young. This includes HVAC, but can also be as simple as the ability to call an elevator using a phone.
As systems and buildings get more complex, that advancement will lead to the collection and analysis of data. Smart controls in an office building or home will detect patterns in occupancy levels, and the need to heat/cool certain areas at different points of the day. This pushes cybersecurity and data privacy to the utmost importance, so that hackers cannot infiltrate a building’s digital framework or collect data on its inhabitants/users. One building’s system in Israel, according to Young, was accidentally infected with malware, and three months later, the owners have still been unable to get the elevators to run or the HVAC to operate properly.
“The capacity to shut down buildings and infrastructure is probably one of the biggest issues that’s going to impact [the building automation industry] in the next 10-15 years,” said Young.
COVID-19 has brought up a number of trends to the forefront of building tech and has restarted the conversation surrounding sustainable buildings. The pandemic revealed how technology can be used to significantly reduce the current spending on buildings, such as a hotel that automatically shuts off electricity to a room when its occupant leaves (as opposed to allowing occupants to leave all of the lights on).
“We need technology to understand true occupancy and utilization,” said Young.
Technology can lead real estate owners to see how their buildings are being used, where money is being lost, and how a property portfolio could be managed better or rearranged. In an era when so much can be done remotely, buildings will need to offer new experiences that cannot be replicated in the home to draw users to them.
Investing In More Than Just Energy
Martin Villeneuve is the president of Distech Controls and senior vice president of distributed building technology at Acuity brands. In his session, he worked to show exactly how much the building management system paradigm has shifted.
“The investment you make in your buildings today impacts a lot more than just the energy budget,” he said. For building owners, investing in building management systems has benefits for every stakeholder: Energy costs can be saved, renters can control operating costs and boost revenue, occupants have an improved well-being, and companies using the space can increase employee collaboration and work efficiency.
Energy performance of buildings is definitely important, but it is not the only critical value in building operation. Devices that face the end user should be centered around the occupant so they are aesthetic, intuitive to use, and secure.