If (My Building) Only Had a Brain

by Erika Eskenazi

Pause for a second and think about all of the buildings you were in yesterday, this week, and this month. Were you in an office building? Restaurant? Retail store? Theater? Hotel? Museum? Grocery store?

Now consider all of the other people (each of whom is a moving heat generator, oxygen consumer and carbon dioxide emitter*) that entered and exited those buildings yesterday, this week, and this month. How about this year? Consider the varied outdoor conditions of all four seasons. Or even the varied conditions throughout a single day - with the sun, clouds, wind, humidity, precipitation, all constantly changing. Additionally, consider the things - apart from people - that affect the indoor environment: heat load from computers or other equipment, heat transfer between walls, pressure changes from opening and closing doors and windows, water use, lights… the list goes on.

In an attempt to keep you, the building occupant, physically comfortable with a minimum supply of fresh air to breathe, building systems made up of various equipment work hard to heat, cool, and properly humidify rooms with an appropriate amount of airflow for ventilation. This has historically been done with very few temperature, pressure, humidity, and flow sensors, and little to no communication between various components of the larger system.

Let’s consider the human body - what would happen if it operated under these conditions? Imagine the temperature outside rose to 100 F and your anatomic nervous system did not sense the change in state - therefore failing to signal your sweat glands to begin releasing fluid to cool your skin. Your body would dangerously overheat. Or, imagine you went up a flight of stairs, prompting your heart to beat faster to supply more oxygen to your muscles, but then it failed to slow down again when your body was at rest.

The human mind and body have evolved to seamlessly maintain homeostasis under an incredible number of changing conditions. Integral to the elegant functional flow is the nervous system - or the sensing and communication network. With today’s advanced sensing and communication technologies, building systems now have the capacity to operate as deftly as the human body does - continually reacting to changing stimuli to maintain a constant state of equilibrium. However, there is a key component of the human nervous system processing the sensory information that is missing in the nervous system of the built environment today - and that is the brain. The utilization of a powerful analytics platform can transform buildings from robotic, brute force machines, to balanced entities -- breathing, pumping, and adapting to changing loads and conditions effortlessly. This “building with a brain” does not need to run on set schedules, or have an operator attempting to calculate proper start-up and shutdown times. It detects when equipment performance is abnormal in any way, and immediately responds by tuning the necessary parameters, similar to the human response when you get dizzy and your body prods you to slow down and take deep breaths.

Maintaining the level of homeostasis described would already be a vast improvement in the built environment today. But now let’s imagine that we could design, construct, and operate buildings to the physical performance of an Olympic athlete. Continuous practice and training of the body leads these select few to not only go beyond their previously realized potential, but also to maintain peak performance throughout their career. In a similar way, buildings with a brain can continue to push boundaries, optimizing over their lifetime - perpetually modifying their behavior based on changing utility prices, space use, and equipment performance over time.

Now, isn’t that a nice vision?

*This is how you’re viewed from a building’s perspective - however, we think you really should get props for your great personality and good looks!