Dumb moves limit smart building potential

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Green technologies exist, but face human obstacles

The capabilities for smart buildings exist today, but most building managers and tenants are missing out on this opportunity to save energy and create more efficient living spaces, according to a panel of green building experts.

The potential for smarter buildings exists today.

Buildings accounted for roughly 40 percent of total U.S. energy consumption in 2010, according to the U.S. Energy Information Association. Each time a toilet is flushed, a thermostat mismanaged, a sprinkler left on in the rain, or a light left turned on, energy is being wasted. The proliferation of smart meters and building management systems have the potential to reduce energy consumption and improve conservation.

"The concept of smart, connected buildings is here today," said Dan Probst, chair of energy and sustainability services at Jones Lang LaSalle.

Probst spoke along with a number of green buidling professionals at the recent VERGE conference in Washington, D.C. The panelist agreed that while the technology needed for smarter buildings might be ready to go, it has yet to see widespread implementation.

"We are just doing a lot of dumb things in buildings," said David Bartlett, Vice President of Industry Solutions at IBM. "Every building has an opportunity to be managed more efficiently," he said.

Bartlett said that IBM has started using analytics in buildings, and has been able to achieve as much as 40 percent reductions in energy and 50 percent reductions in water use.

"When we start listening holistically, we begin to better understand what's happening across these buildings," Bartlett said.

And many utilities are now able to "listen" to buildings as frequently as every 15 minutes, which means a lot of data needs to be analyzed and understood.

"Utilities have never had that amount of data ever made available to them," said Saul Zambrano, part of PG&E's customer energy solutions team. Zambrano said the key now is to get third-party developers involved in making that data even more consumable.

Getting companies, employees on board

Although the technology needed to achieve smarter, greener buildings exists today, it's only part of the solution. Real reductions in energy use are also going to require cultural changes and a shift in the way people perceive conservation.

"We have enough technology," said Dave Pogue, Global Director of Sustainability at real estate company CBRE.

Pogue said that if building occupants aren't willing to participate and invest in energy conservation, progress will be much slower -- no matter how good a building's energy technology and management system may be.

"You need to get the attention and the cooperation of the people that are actually occupying these buildings," Pogue said, noting that real estate is a reactive business. When tenants begin to demand sustainable technology and buildings, "that's when the equation is flipped."

Getting employees and tenants to appreciate green buildings is a primary focus at Google, where an entire team is dedicated to making buildings more desirable and efficient.

"We want people to come to the office," said Anthony Ravitz who leads Google's Real Estate and Workplace Services Green Team.

So, as utilities and energy manufacturing companies continue to develop energy management technology systems, the key remains engaging the customer. Technological advances will keep coming, but without the participation of those people who will actually stand to benefit from the improved technology, its effectiveness and potential will be significantly reduced.