Smart buildings. Big data. The Internet of Things. Humans can be easily lured by the terminology surrounding promising new technologies. A building that basically runs itself—who doesn’t want to drink some of that Kool-Aid? The problem is, they’re often less than happy with the aftereffects. In other words, that expensive software fails to be a magic elixir of building efficiency.

It’s time for straight talk. People need to understand what building automation systems can really do for business operations and bottom lines. Just as importantly, they need to know what it takes to achieve these benefits.

So-called smart technologies aren’t actually smart. While it’s true that complex pieces of equipment are collecting and sharing data like never before, no software on earth is going to automatically repair a mechanical failure. 

Buildings aren’t smart, either. Most are not built to run well throughout their life cycle, but rather to meet a budget, look a certain way or meet a specific organization’s needs at some fixed point in time. Building concepts such as lifetime operating costs or flexibility to meet evolving needs are typically low priorities.

Nevertheless, automating building functions is a crucial pursuit. In today’s competitive atmosphere, the potential of better-performing buildings—and, by extension, better-performing organizations—is just too great to ignore. That’s the case for retail, manufacturing, health care, education, corporate real estate and government organizations. 

However, tapping into this potential isn’t as simple as installing the latest control platform, no matter how fancy its name or marketing materials may make it sound. Ultimately, every smart technology still relies on smart people to use its data and make informed decisions about how to operate it.

Making informed decisions requires getting down to the details and grasping the realities. Additionally, success in building automation requires the management of complex relationships among buildings, systems and people. These relationships break down into five realities that must be addressed comprehensively to prevent the headache of a failed solution.

1. Building Complexity
No two buildings are alike. They come from different eras, run different systems and fulfill different purposes. And even within individual buildings, multiple systems and functions must be coordinated.

Moreover, buildings evolve over time. They function differently depending on age, location, environment, purpose, occupancy and a host of other variables. It’s no small feat to connect all these factors in a way that supports the success of each structure and the organization as a whole.

2. Technology Evolution
Gadgets and software become more advanced every day. The concept of the Internet of Things—as well as the implications of the data sharing it enables—is enticing.

But in many cases, such promise and progress can be daunting for people trying to implement the latest technologies. The system the company upgraded just a few years ago already may be outdated. It might not get along so well with the new software.

Then there’s the big data being generated by today’s interconnected equipment. What exactly should be done with all that information? What numbers should be analyzed, and how should the company respond? The good news is that it’s possible to leverage and analyze data more effectively and find savings that previously went uncovered, but only with the right tools and expertise.

3. Human Impact
Intelligent buildings begin with intelligent and cooperative teams, often comprised of people who haven’t had to work together much in the past. People at all levels and across a wide spectrum of functions (IT and facilities in particular) are going to need to embrace the strategic importance of building automation systems as well as their role in success. They each have their own goals, needs and perspectives. Uniting them all behind a common vision and mission is a significant challenge. Some reorganization may even be required to do so.

4. Supplier Disparity
Product vendors are everywhere in this industry, touting a dizzying array of products. Meanwhile, large manufacturers are promoting supposedly plug-and-play software platforms.

They’re all geared to sell stuff, not to solve the unique problems that organizations face.

Delivering on the promise of building automation requires a rare combination of flexible technology, sophisticated expertise and an intimate understanding of the challenges involved in each building.

5. Industry Noise
An intelligent building sounds cool, but what does it really mean? The buzzwords being tossed around at trade shows make it all sound so simple, but it’s not. Fully realizing the underlying potential requires a deeper dig.

After all, many companies already have implemented the most straightforward building efficiency improvements, whether through a new HVAC system, upgraded lighting or something else. After these achievements, getting to the next levels of ROI will be a lot harder. The industry has moved past the “low hanging fruit” to looking for the “change in the couch.”

No magic potion will solve everything for a given set of circumstances and result in a spectacular, self-managing building. There’s only the intelligent, ongoing management of relationships among buildings, systems and people. That approach, more than any buzzworthy terminology, is what will make a positive impact on buildings, businesses and all the people they serve.  


Paul Oswald is managing director of CBRE | ESI, Brookfield, Wis. For more information, call (262) 832-1313, email paul.oswald@cbre.com, or visit cbre.com or thinkesi.com.