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Connecting the Unconnected with Smart-Building Solutions

smart buildings

Bit by bit, one commute at a time, desk workers are shaking the moths from their blazers and A-line skirts and coming back to the office. But not necessarily every day, and not necessarily at the same time as all their coworkers. This new routine—the hybrid work pattern—has big implications for office buildings and the built environment. Having the lights and AC humming 9 to 5, if only a smattering of employees is on-site, is a worrisome waste of resources, from both a financial and an environmental point of view.

But can technology—and AI in particular—convert conventional, disconnected buildings into smart, sustainable buildings? Graeme Jarvis, Vice President of Digital Solutions at Johnson Controls, a smart-building solutions provider; and Sunita Shenoy, Senior Director of Technology Products within the Network and Edge Computing Group at Intel®, think it can. They talk about buildings that help businesses meet aggressive environmental goals; buildings that can leverage legacy infrastructure systems while getting connected; buildings that might actually compete with the ease and convenience of a home office.

How are businesses having to rethink their physical spaces today?

Graeme Jarvis: What does “hybrid work environment” actually mean? I think there are two key components. One is people—be they employees or guests or building owners. The other is the built environment itself, and how it needs to adapt to the new normal around sustainability, workplace experience, and safety and security. The pandemic proved that we can be productive from a home office or on the road, so now the challenge is on the employer’s side to create an appealing hybrid workplace. This gets into key enabling technologies, such as touchless technologies, and having a sense of control over them within the office environment.

We have a solution called OpenBlue Companion, which is an app that allows employees and guests to do hot desking, to book conference rooms, to pretreat those conference rooms based on the number of people expected. There’s also cafeteria integration and parking and transportation integration, so that when a person goes to the office, it’s actually a pleasant experience.

On the building side, the hybrid work environment is really a financial consideration: How do you optimize the footprint you already have? And what are you going to need moving forward to support your employees? That’s where we are right now—companies trying to rationalize what they have and what they will need. There are interdependencies around heating, ventilation, the air-conditioning system, the number of people that happen to be in a building—all of this is interconnected now. Companies are taking lessons learned and starting to apply them to realize their “building of the future”—be it a stadium, be it a port or airport, be it traditional office space.

At Johnson Controls we give clients an assessment around what they have and the efficiency of those solutions, based on the outcomes they’re trying to realize. Then they have an objective: They would like to be more productive. They would like to reduce expenses. They would like to have a safe and sustainable workplace.

“Buildings account for about 40% of the planet’s #CarbonFootprint. If we want to start talking about how to solve #sustainability challenges, the building—the built environment—is top of mind.” – Graeme Jarvis, @johnsoncontrols via @insightdottech

What are the implications of a hybrid work environment?

Sunita Shenoy: As companies ease their employees into hybrid work, they have to make it comfortable for people who are coming into an office by having things like frictionless access. They can do this by using data, AI, and wireless technology to make it easy to improve the quality of the workspace.

I hear stories of people saying, “My employees feel that their offices at home are more comfortable than their offices at work. So how do I make the environment at work as comfortable and safe for them as it is at home?” Technology can play a big role in implementing these solutions. But deployment is another key area that we need to focus on—how do we make the technology easily deployable using solutions, like the ones from Johnson Controls, with our technologies?

How can buildings become more energy efficient?

Graeme Jarvis: Most businesses have an ESG—environmental, social, and governance—plan or set of objectives. And this is used to communicate value-based management practices and social engagement to key stakeholders—employees, investors, customers, and even potential employees. Having a sustainability-footprint objective is the right thing to do—buildings account for about 40% of the planet’s carbon footprint. If we want to start talking about how to solve sustainability challenges, the building—the built environment—is top of mind. But the economics are also motivating businesses to act, because if you can be more efficient, you can save money. So how would one do that?

You’ve got certain equipment, such as heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems. You have multiple tenants within a building, and they all typically pay a fee for their energy consumption in the spaces they use. What if you could give those tenants insight into what their real usage is based on seasonality factors, based on how many people are in the building, based on when they’re in the building?

Some of our solutions through OpenBlue help clients understand what is actually going on in their environments, and where are the areas they can improve. As soon as they recognize that there’s a financial consequence or a financial reward, then behavior starts to change. And then you get into the hardware, the software, the compute and AI that Johnson Controls can help with and Intel can help with. But it really starts with that ESG charge, and the fact that buildings are a large opportunity from a sustainability-improvement standpoint.

What types of technologies go into improving sustainability?

Sunita Shenoy: It’s not just now—because of the pandemic and the advent of hybrid work— that we are realizing this; it’s a known fact that commercial and industrial buildings contribute to a vast amount of carbon emissions, as Graeme mentioned. So it is our corporate social responsibility to reduce that carbon footprint. AI is becoming more advanced through the advancement of sensors. So how do you collect the data? How do you bring that data into a compute environment where AI can be applied in order to analyze and learn from it so the whole process can be automated?

In the past, a building would use manual processes, where from 8 in the morning to 5 in the evening the HVAC would be running and the lights would be running, regardless of how that building was being utilized. But since IoT has become a reality over the past seven or eight years, we’ve started to put in sensors—to utilize daylight, for example. We’ve automated the process of using AI to see the utilization of the building, and based on the utilization, the lights turn on or off as needed. And that reduces the amount of energy used in the building.

So, small steps first. First, connect the unconnected. Then assess the data in the building, and analyze where you can drive the energy-consumption optimization. And it’s not just about today and the pandemic and hybrid work; this has always been the process ever since IoT became a reality, and it is very feasible.

How do you connect systems that may not have touched each other before?

Graeme Jarvis: That’s a great word, “system.” I like to use a swimming pool analogy in which, historically, the security manager was in a lane, the facility manager was in a lane, and the building manager was in another lane. And products were sold to each manager to address each responsibility. But the way to look at this problem is really as an integrated system—we talk about smart, connected, sustainable buildings.

And now you’ve got all of this data from the edge—from security, heating, ventilation, air conditioning, the building-management system, smart parking, smart elevators, etc. When you pull all of this together, the benefit is that you can start to figure out patterns, and you can optimize around the heartbeat of what that building should be, given what it’s capable of doing with the equipment that’s in place and the systems that are in place. The first step is to assess what you have.

The next step is to look at where you would like to be three or four years from now, from an ESG perspective. And then you have to build a plan to get there. That’s the journey that most of our customers are on today. Then you can use AI and modeling to build twins. We have OpenBlue Twin, for example, to do “what if” scenarios: If I change this parameter, what might that do to the overall efficiency of the building?

Sunita Shenoy: From a technology standpoint, in any given building there are a number of disparate systems—it could be an elevator system, a water system, an HVAC system, a lighting system—and they all come from different solutions, different companies. Our advocacy is focused on using open standards. If everyone is building on open-standard protocols, then you are working off the same standards. So when you plug and play these different systems, they are able to collaborate, however disparate they are.

Graeme Jarvis: Right in the name “OpenBlue” is the word “open.” We are open because no single company can do this alone. Hence our great partnership with Intel. With open standards we can push information to third-party systems, and we can ingest information from third-party systems—all to the advantage of the customer.

Talk to us about the value of your partnership with Intel.

Graeme Jarvis: First of all, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say a little more—before I get into the technology—about the value Intel brings to our relationship. It’s all about the people. Intel has a great employee base and a great culture. They’re a pleasure to work with, from their executive leaders to their field teams.

There’s also the depth of expertise that they bring to a client’s environment, especially on the IT side. This complements our world at Johnson Controls, because we’re more on the OT side, and the IT and OT worlds are converging because of this connected, sustainable model that is a business reality.

Between the two of us we can solve a lot of customer challenges and address a lot of outcomes customers are looking to realize that neither of us could do independently. Intel silicon hardware, their compute, their edge and AI capabilities really help us bring relevant solutions—either from a product standpoint, because they are embedded with Intel compute and capability; or by enabling some of the edge capability that we bring to our clients’ environments through OpenBlue. Clients are looking for an end-to-end solution, and so that’s another area where we’re better together, and we’re better for our clients together.

Are there any final thoughts you’d like to leave us with?

Sunita Shenoy: The barrier to adoption for deploying a smart building is generally not the technology, because the technology exists, right? The solutions exist. The barrier is the people, those who need to make the decision to employ the smart-building solutions. I think the mindset of people needs to shift, and the IT and OT worlds need to collaborate by bringing the best practices of both together to solve these deployment challenges. Look at these challenges as opportunities.

Graeme Jarvis: There’s a tremendous opportunity before us as we address sustainability challenges. Those challenges are global in nature, and it will require global leadership at all levels to solve them. It can be hard to find work that is meaningful—work that provides a good economic benefit while also doing good for our planet. This call to action around the built environment is, I think, one of those kinds of work.

Related Content

To learn more about smart buildings, listen to the podcast Smart and Sustainable Buildings: With Johnson Controls. For the latest innovations from Johnson Controls, follow it on Twitter at @johnsoncontrols and LinkedIn.


This article was edited by Erin Noble, copy editor.

About the Author

Christina Cardoza is an Editorial Director for Previously, she was the News Editor of the software development magazine SD Times and IT operations online publication ITOps Times. She received her bachelor’s degree in journalism from Stony Brook University, and has been writing about software development and technology throughout her entire career.

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