In the Cloud, Our Buildings and We Can Fly — Toward a Smart, Green Life
Surprise! Most of our major buildings still run on paper, holding us back. Once they’re online, thanks to startups, we can zoom!
A special report from EraNova Institute
To reach the smart, green future life we want, we need smart cities, and to get smart cities, we need smart buildings. But making buildings smart isn’t easy.
Contrary to common assumptions, most existing buildings aren’t even online, the base requirement for getting smart.
It’s ironic in the age of electronic everything. The bulk of the buildings that run our world (industrial, governmental, medical, educational) still run their critical system offline … not in the cloud.
Their basic, functional systems, from power and plumbing to heating and air conditioning, still run manually for the most part — by reference to blueprints, diagrams, construction records, maintenance notes, and other paper documents … plus a scattering of spreadsheets and software tools.
So our buildings are digitally challenged — dumb and consequently bumbling, expensive to run, often dysfunctional, and danger-prone.
Once online, they can start smartening up — supercharging themselves, us, and everything we do indoors. A green supersociety and spectacular new life then become possible.
An industry leader describes the situation.
“Our major buildings have yet to enter the digital age. And that’s a problem,” says Craig Caryl, CEO of California startup SmartCSM, a supplier of building management technology, with clients ranging from American Airlines and Toyota to Salvation Army and University of Miami.
There’s a lot of talk about smart buildings, smart organizations, and smart cities, but substantial progress is limited, according to Caryl. We’re not quite ready for tomorrow’s smart society because we don’t yet have the foundation to support it.
“The majority of our buildings are managed from documents that are inaccurate, incomplete, disorganized, illegible, or worse, entirely missing,” says Caryl.
These legacy buildings are too backward to get smart except in bits and pieces.
Before they can really smarten up, Caryl asserts, they need to get their basic critical systems online — electricity, plumbing, heating, cooling, ventilation, and then sensor-control devices and networks (the emerging Internet of Things with artificial intelligence).
“Putting our buildings online is an essential first step toward a robust IoT based on AI, our next electronic revolution,” says Caryl.
Doing so is also important because it can boost national security, divert billions of wasted dollars to better uses, and help solve the climate crisis.
Daniel Scalisi, SmartCSM’s Chief Operating Officer, points out that commercial buildings accounted for 18% of all energy consumed in the United States in 2017, and that buildings contributed 11% of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions in 2016.
“Fortunately,” says Scalisi, “online facilities management offers a vast opportunity for saving both money and the environment.”
- “First, by implementing current energy efficiency measures, energy consumption may be reduced by 20% to 30% without significant alterations to building design,” he reports.
- “Second, through cloud-based data analysis, we can make a faster transition from electricity produced by coal or oil, to electricity produced by sun or wind.”
BIG PROBLEM, BIG OPPORTUNITY
Caryl and Scalisi point out that old-fashioned, offline management is costly and troublesome because paper is inherently inefficient. It —
- makes repairs harder to diagnose and slower to complete,
- inflates facility-department budgets,
- leaves little time for inspection and prevention, and
- provides scant data for problem analysis, making buildings more hazardous and less secure than necessary.
Perhaps most important, offline management compromises the quality of the building’s support functions, which in turn compromises the work, learning, and other good things people do in buildings.
All these drawbacks can be addressed by putting the critical systems of buildings online. The key benefits include:
(1) Saving time and money. With access to online records from any device anywhere, a power outage or plumbing issue may be diagnosed almost instantly and fixed right away. Among SmartCSM’s early adopters, labor savings of 10% to 40% are common.
(2) Making facility staff more proactive. Freed-up staff time may be invested in preventive maintenance, systems improvement, or avoiding costly shutdowns by predicting component failures before they happen.
(3) Increasing safety and security. When paper-managed buildings are challenged by bad weather, pollution, natural disasters, or dangerous people, recovery can be difficult and slow.
What if the document room is flooded, on fire, or inaccessible? Without access to the information they need, maintenance staff must wing it.
When, however, the data they need is online and available from anywhere, their response can be quicker and better, minimizing inconvenience, injury, or loss of life.
(4) Better supporting the activities of occupants. This may be the most important benefit. Buildings exist to support important thought and action: making decisions, solving problems, producing products, delivering services, creating the next new thing, learning new skills, protecting or curing people.
When it’s too hot or cold or stuffy, concentration may suffer. When the restrooms spring a leak, a meeting may have to be postponed (along with its goal). When the electricity goes off or the network goes down, everything may stop.
It’s a different story once critical systems go online. Potential losses may be minimized or converted into gains. Little tracked, these gains may be great.
The “uptime” of building services may be significantly increased. According to a 1998 report from IBM Global Services (the latest report available), “unavailable systems” cost American businesses $4.54 billion in 1996, due to lost productivity and revenues. Today and globally, the loss is surely much higher; so is the potential gain. (We need more studies like IBM’s! Why nothing in two decades?)
It may be valuable to avoid even slight degradation of building services. Whenever the lights flicker, or the room gets a little uncomfortable, productivity may suffer a bit. Even the delayed installation of a single electrical outlet can throw a monkey wrench into someone’s day.
Avoiding such minor inconveniences can be more consequential than commonly realized. So can avoiding distractions or momentary glitches in building services. They can compromise vital thought and action, accumulating as their frequency mounts.
The most valuable commodity of building inhabitants may be their attention. Fortunately, “attention hijacking” is becoming a concern for building designers. (Attention hijacking happens through the beeps, flashes, feeds and environments that vie for our eyes, ears, and minds.)
Planners see a growing need for spaces that don’t rob people of the ability to focus, cooperate, discover, create, and get things done.
A constantly improving working environment, thanks to online facility management with IoT, could help spawn a renaissance in human productivity and creativity.
The better buildings get, the better they can support human needs. Our buildings may soon get smart enough to —
- Self-repair minor cracks or defects of their structural elements or system components,
- Put lighting systems into emergency mode so they point the way to safety during natural or man-made disasters,
- Admit only “safe” visitors, but do it discretely, without violating open-door policies,
- Improve productivity and health through emerging disciplines such as biophilic design (harmonizing nature and humanity).
- Answer questions visually or conversationally, through bots or wall screens, when people need building directions or help,
- Coordinate with self-driving vehicles, autonomous supply systems, and other “smart” entities that serve building inhabitants.
Thanks to smart facility management, which embraces artificial intelligence and IoT systems, buildings can become more than physical structures. They can transform into almost living organisms: sensitive, adaptable, self-improving, and ever better at empowering people.
This can only happen once our facilities, like electricity, are managed online at last.
WHY DOES THE PAPER PROBLEM EXIST?
Many of the activities that are performed within buildings went online years ago: email, proprietary company data, scheduling, and functions like payroll and human resources. “But the vitals of the building itself — electricity and so on — aren’t there yet,” says Caryl. “How come?”
The reason is simple, he explains:
An estimated 76% of America’s buildings were built more than 20 years ago, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That’s before cloud computing and mobile devices became the norm.
It takes a mature digital ecosystem to make online management feasible.
Today, new buildings may be constructed from the get-go with facility management capabilities included. But retrofitting older buildings, the vast majority of the total, is a pain.
“It’s hard to convert mountains of paper to digital equivalents,” Scalisi adds. “There may be thousands of blueprints, wiring diagrams, construction records, repair notes and other pieces of paper. Someone has to scan them and figure out how to get them up in the cloud and then access them efficiently. On their own, facility managers don’t know where to start.”
Whether neat or messy, paper is a pain to upload.
Some facility management teams make use of computer spreadsheets, digital files, and other non-paper management tools. “But that’s not the same as total online management,” says Scalisi. “There’s still the inefficiency of paper and the paper-based mentality.”
WHAT’S THE FIX?
“To really go online, you’ve got to get everything online, absolutely everything,” says Caryl. “And it’s got to be digitized, integrated, and accessible from any device, any time, anywhere. Only then can a building take full advantage of machine intelligence based on AI and IoT.”
That’s the principle behind SmartCSM’s software, mobile apps, and methods. “Our process makes the paper-to-online conversion doable,” he says.
Affordable too. In fact, SmartCSM’s services can cost less than nothing when operational savings are taken into account.
Basically the process involves scanning and uploading all the paper documents, ranging from blueprints and wiring diagrams to device instruction manuals and “as builds” (plans updated during construction so they reflect what was actually put in place).
These uploads may be supplemented by photographs and service notes entered by technicians. Contingency plans and action data may also be entered. For example, email addresses and phone numbers of building occupants may be linked to occupancy or evacuation contingencies, so people may be instantly alerted to issues affecting their location.
Existing digital files or spreadsheet routines may also be entered into the system and integrated with the now-digitized paper documents. “Everything you need to manage your electrical or other critical systems is now up there and under your control,” says Caryl “including AI and IoT innovations as they emerge.”
By managing their work online instead of on paper, facilities personnel might turn out to be heroes of our time. Without their initiative and hard work, we could fail in our quest for a mature, sustainable information age.
EARLY ADOPTERS SHOW THE POTENTIAL
A handful of organizations have already implemented SmartCSM’s software and are seeing results. They may lead the way for hundreds of others, then thousands, then (maybe) millions.
“First, there’s a benefit in cost of labor and time and materials,” says Facilities Manager Duane Munro, pointing to the efficiencies of complete, accurate information that’s instantly available for better decisions.
Then there’s risk avoidance, very important to United. With the online system, Munro foresees less danger due to guesswork. “We’re going to get the right panel shut off and work on it safely.”
SmartCitiesWorld reports that California’s Manhattan Beach is the first city in America to utilize SmartCSM’s software, which enables more streamlined, organized management of the city’s electrical infrastructure.
The digital transition has begun with the police and fire departments, with other municipal buildings to follow.
Why the transition? SmartCitiesWorld quotes Sean Roberts, Manhattan Beach’s supervisor of facilities:
“We have an incredible volume of paper data to manage and, as a progressive city, we are looking to the future by instituting changes and embracing technologies that will save us time and money, and keep our employees safe.”
Thanks to streamlined access to electrical documentation, technicians complete repairs faster, spending 30% to 40% less time in the field. And there’s a domino effect throughout the whole city that’s hard to quantify but very real.
Better performing city services help Manhattan Beach’s 36,000 residents perform better too.
After going online with SmartCSM, The Salvation Army reported a 15% reduction in labor costs for its facilities staff. That’s partly due to electronic efficiency and partly due to preservation of valuable specialized knowledge.
In the heyday of management by paper, organizations relied on old-timers with hard-won knowledge and good memories to keep things working. That’s problematic today, because specifications change faster than memory can master, and people move on sooner.
Facility Manager Andrew Brown tells of a master electrician who has been with Salvation Army for about 15 years. His knowledge would be lost when he leaves, but it won’t be, because everything’s going online.
“We’ll be able to use what he knows because it will be recorded in the software,” says Brown.
Toyota is considered one of the world’s best-managed companies. And its factories are models of efficiency. But the managers of their Georgetown, KY, plant figured they could do better.
Their electrical systems were managed by computer to a large extent, through what they called a “glorified Excel spreadsheet.” They used this to organize their building data and electrical panel schedules. It worked well, but with issues.
For example, in one incident, when a circuit needed to be shut down, a technician turned off the wrong breaker. This was a small mistake, but there were many like it that could be avoided through online access to up-to-date panel schedules.
To resolve this and other issues, the Toyota plant implemented SmartCSM’s cloud-based facilities management system. Among the results:
- Saving as much as 40% of a technician’s day, spent going back-and-forth to coordinate with colleagues over different versions of the same documentation on the old spreadsheet system..
- Achieving “a huge improvement in efficiency,” by mapping the facility’s entire electrical infrastructure online.
- Facilitating repair or other maintenance work, by accessing all pertinent data on the cloud before arriving at the scene, bringing data about necessary tools or parts, to avoid confusion or wasted time.
Toyota is also working with SmartCSM on an ambitious program to prevent catastrophic shutdown. It will deliver critical equipment/system alerts based on a complete tracing of the plant’s electrical infrastructure. This will allow fixing small problems before they escalate to critical proportions.
Other early adopters include Raytheon, Children’s Hospital OC, University of Miami, Berg Electric, Los Angeles World Airports (LAX) and others within four main categories: manufacturing, medical, university, and government.
GLOBAL ROLLOUT CALLED FOR
A crash program could put millions of the world’s most important buildings online and under control by 2030, in line with other ambitious goals for a new life of sustainability and global prosperity.
Caryl, Scalisi, and their company help make that possible by offering their paper-to-cloud conversion services to all comers, starting with organizations in the United States. They also encourage other tech suppliers, including fresh startups, to join the effort.
Can millions of buildings be online by 2030? Seems unlikely, but what’s the harm in trying? Especially when other tough goals also have to be met … if we’re to survive climate change and other existential threats?
The move toward a smart, green future is starting to happen in many industries and regions; but it’s only a start.
Hundreds of other good examples could also be cited.
The scope of the global rollout
Many millions of older buildings need basic retrofitting in jig time … if they’re to do their part in reaching 2030 goals for growth and sustainability. The prospect is daunting. Click below for a quick look at what and where the buildings are:
Here’s the drill:
- Put most of our commercial and public buildings online, those that still run on paper (about 5.6 million in the U.S., easily 10 to 20 times that number globally),
- Make new buildings smart from the start. Include online management capability in new construction (maybe about 100,000 new commercial buildings per year for the next 10 years, based on industry estimates),
- Also, as a second but also important priority, put single-family residences online (about 74 million detached single-family homes in the U.S. alone, plus millions of multi-family residential buildings).
It’s a big challenge, but …
Individual facilities managers may start small
Once they’ve decided to go online, the first step is simple. Just upload a picture of the building or campus in question. For example:
The facilities managers may pause there, if they like, then when ready, upload pictures of sub-areas of the complex. Then they may drill down with more pictures until they get to the control level, with visuals such as these:
“It’s a mapping process,” says Caryl, “like MapQuest or Google Maps, except it’s mapping the functional insides of places instead of the outside environment and how to get to places.” An important difference is that the inside mapping is strictly private, for authorized eyes only. (There are security concerns, of course, that are being addressed.)
SmartCSM staff members guide the process and may do some or all of the initial uploading.
Relevant paper documents are also uploaded, along with any digital data, until all the building’s critical systems are “up there” and may be managed efficiently from any device, anywhere, any time.
Beyond SmartCSM, who will supply the tech?
“We can’t do it alone,” says Scalisi. “There are way too many buildings. But we can do our share; and we can cheer-lead our industry.”
In addition to SmartCSM, tech companies also focusing on the problem include Site1001, Akitabox, and PlanGrid. Dozens of new suppliers may blossom between now and 2030. And giants like Google, Microsoft, and IBM will almost surely get into the act at some point, probably through acquisition of successful startups.
AutoDesk has already signed an agreement to acquire PlanGrid, for $875 million. (PlanGrid specializes in new construction but also retrofits existing buildings.)
All four companies offer online demos to building owners and managers; and welcome inquiries from potential business partners.
In time, hundreds of architectural, engineering, and contracting firms may bundle paper-to-cloud services with their regular services. An example is Berg Electric, which offers SmartCSM’s tech to their electrical contracting clients.
As the number of facility management suppliers, like SmartCSM, increases over the decade, some of them will court a global market, while others will focus on a single country such as the United States. Some will target larger buildings in key industries, while others will court the consumer market.
All together these suppliers will deliver the tools we need to transform the entire built environment.
But tools are useless without skillful professionals who wield them. The outcome depends on those with the foresight and guts to abandon old ways and go all-digital, all-human, and all-green: building owners and executives, facility managers, engineers and architects, electricians, plumbers, HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) technicians, AI and IoT specialists, contractors, and other building specialists.
Once they do their part, the sky’s the limit.
Our tech-based war against nature may end.
Buildings will become better support systems for people as well as the environment.
“Inside” and “outside” will evolve in tandem and blend, becoming friendlier and more productive places to be.
Buildings will change from mere enclosures to sensitive instruments of human-enhancement, increasing our health, happiness, and productivity.
In addition, our transformed buildings will blend with transformed people-movers (ranging from self-driving cars to self-guided air and space vehicles). Fixed and mobile “enclosures” will become more unified as both forms support many of the same functions and seamlessly hand off their passengers/inhabitants to the other form.
With the right smart technology, buildings and other “people containers” might become essential tools for preserving society and creating the stellar future we yearn for.
Through a smarter, cleaner, greener built environment (and connected mobile environment), we could enter a long period of perfecting our garden while extending it.
A special report from EraNova Institute