Smart buildings, data overload, information overload

The drive for greater sustainability is fuelling an explosion in smart tech in buildings – but this brings the challenge of coping with an ever-growing data flow. George Adams, director of energy and engineering at SPIE UK, looks at how to overcome information overload and extract genuine value from smart buildings

Smart buildings are not new; Kevin O’Donnell, in his book Connected Real Estate published in 2007, refers in detail to the concept and strategies. What is more recent is the globally declared climate emergency, which sets out targets of net-zero carbon.

With environmental and health goals spurring people into action, the technology market as it relates to smart buildings is expected to see dramatic growth in the use of new remediating controls and data capture products, encouraged by the recent introduction of BIM Level 3 funding, and the potential to create connectivity through IoT instrumentation.

In fact, over 80% of new builds now involve at least one aspect of smart technology such as smart security, lighting or controls, including new homes as well as commercial builds.

But with all this smart technology potential, building owners and users are now faced with other challenges: data overload, confusion about choices of which technology suits their needs and the decisions they need to make for their return on investment (ROI) over time.

So, if your team is embarking on a smart building project, or you simply want to improve how to collect and utilise data to the best effect, there are a few crucial steps that can be taken to help get the most out of any smart building investment and achieve best in class solutions.

Selecting the right data source

Firstly, it can be difficult to know which data sources are the best ones to use in order to improve the operations of the building. This decision should be driven by the objective you are trying to achieve, whether that be saving money via reducing expenditure on heating or to become greener by limiting the time that environmental control systems are in use throughout the operational periods. This must be determined at the very outset of a project – at what I like to call the “discovery stage”.

By conducting reviews of the existing facility, analysing the form and operating characteristics of the building, it is possible to get a better understanding of the facility’s requirements. In addition, carrying out a study or interviews with potential users or occupants to get insights into how they relate to the facility is key to creating effective solutions.

Complaints about existing buildings, absenteeism and the frequency of how they use the building can provide invaluable insights. This can then inform the underlying strategy for how to improve the building and the systems in use within it, to make it more economical to operate, as well as a more productive, pleasant and safe environment to work in.

Collating all this information can pinpoint where improvements or changes to the building or how it operates should be made. As a result, it is then possible to build up a picture of what the most important data to collect is to support any changes, as well as where and how it should be gathered.

For example, if the cost of operating air conditioning is out of control, temperature sensors, improved controls, and occupancy data should be the priority. It is also important to factor in economic parameters are such as ROI, but there are some relatively simple and affordable solutions on the market to carry out staged enhancements overtime to control expenditure.

Too much data

One question clients often ask me is, “how do I physically collect the data?”

The truth is, there are now so many ways to collect information about a building and its occupants to suit a range of budgets. From smart wearable devices and sensors to swiping into the building using an identity card or a tracker on mobile phones. It is now so easy to gather information without being invasive.

With all these solutions available, it is very easy to collect too much data. However, at the discovery stage, project owners should have already identified what data points are required to meet their targets. The next step is to “clean up” the data (getting rid of outliers and anomalies) and determine which information that has been collected is valuable and what can be discarded.

Verification is vital

This is where data verification is so important. It is imperative to substantiate data via a second means or collect hard data from two sources to have the ability to cross reference them.

Taking the example of energy saving, how can a building owner be sure that the temperature data measured from a single sensor is correct? They must use cross-referencing techniques as they analyse data from submeters from throughout the building to understand any discrepancies. This way, it is possible to show whether energy saving technology installed is matching the service level promised by the provider.

As costs are a concern, the good news is that verification doesn’t have to be ongoing. For example, if an organisation wants to find out how many people are in the building at any given time, it can set up additional monitoring systems temporarily, so it has a reasonable gauge that the permanent systems will be accurate.

Is privacy a problem?

Of course, when doing any sort of monitoring or tracking of individuals the issue of technical integration and privacy and security must be dealt with. Again, any qualms about privacy can be addressed at the discovery stage when interviewing occupants. Based on staff feedback, the client can decide if they are prepared to have data collected on their occupants.

Fortunately, it is possible to anonymise the data collected on each person and monitor occupants confidentially. The fact is that the facilities manager doesn’t need to view information about each individual. It is more important for them to understand the data as a whole to have a broad overview of how a building functions. It is also possible to desensitise data but still have the knowledge that a person is in the building; we don’t need to know the exact identity of every occupant to work out how the cohort uses a building.

Finally, it is important to feed any data into a unified data analytics platform. This provides building owners and managers with full visibility of all aspects of their building via a single interface that everyone can work from and make decisions. Experts then need to interpret the data into useable information for technology and house management.

The benefits of utilising data from smart buildings cannot be denied and will be crucial for improving the environmental impact of the built environment. However, right now, organisations are holding back from using data more to improve the workplace because fit-out is often too strongly contractor-led not design and technology-led. These teams simply don’t have the right understanding of the technology, ergonomics, neurology and operations of the building to make the right decisions.

The industry as a whole needs to improve its understanding of the use of data because the future of the built environment depends on it.



George Adams

George Adams

Director of energy and engineering


Tel: +44 (0)20 7105 2300

Twitter: SPIEUK

YouTube: SPIEkingtoU

LinkedIn: SPIE UK


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