Smart Building Systems

Every system in buildings is being made intelligent. HVAC, lighting, security, fire detectors, plug loads, appliances, you name it.

Right now many of these systems are being made intelligent separately from each other. But that won't remain the case. Sensors and intelligence will converge into fewer devices and systems. This will likely happen at first for cost-saving reasons -- fewer redundant independently "smart" devices lowers cost per node. And later it will happen because the more nodes attached to the same network, the more value can be derived from that network.

What this means is that now-familiar devices will start to disappear in our buildings, as their functions are combined into other more necessary multi-functional devices. Light switches will disappear -- the lights themselves will be intelligent enough to know when light is needed, or controllable through other multifunctional devices when absolutely necessary to do so. Thermostats, smoke detectors, security cameras will also disappear, at least as independent devices -- their functions will be combined into other devices. My guess is that lights will become one of the remaining centralized nodes -- we will still need light-producing devices indoors, and they're going to be increasingly intelligent anyway for daylight harvesting, etc. purposes. HVAC systems are another irreplaceable set of devices, but they tend to be more centralized than lighting, and decentralized networks of intelligent devices will be able to provide the granular data necessary for optimization. Of course, these systems will also become more integrated as well, as HVAC and lighting controls team up.

So in the future, we may see buildings with many fewer devices, with intelligence and sensors built into the lighting system, some intelligence built into simpler devices like air handling equipment, plug loads/appliances, and smart windows. All wirelessly networked and real-time optimized. And likely integrated into onsite DG and energy storage as well...

A couple of caveats, of course:

1. This convergence will happen more in new buildings than in retrofits, because of the costs involved. And thus, this convergence will take a fair amount of time to be fully implemented in the field. I believe the convergence of technologies will happen sooner than many people think, because I can see the systems coming together and the existing building controls and industrial controls companies getting more and more serious about this. But even after the systems begin to converge the roll-out will take decades.

2. While the core systems will converge around common intelligence platforms, the idiosyncratic nature of device purposes means that they will continue to maintain their own level of intelligence as well. Your refrigerator may be set up to link to a common energy intelligence platform for monitoring and some control (for instance, for demand response), but it will still have its own refrigerator-specific intelligent functions (you left the door open!). Just as with many other intelligent decentralized networks that have evolved, there will be core intelligence that is central (albeit not necessarily centralized), but also there will be intelligent function-specific nodes as well. This isn't a zero-sum game of "who's got intelligence". To a certain extent it'll be "more of all of the above", albeit more integrated, and with some devices and controls disappearing.

One major implication of this convergence is that the markets and channels will need to converge as well. Right now building energy intelligence is sold completely separately from lighting, etc. The lighting value chain is largely distinct from other building devices'. But obviously, that can't continue if the converged vision is to be sold effectively. We'll need to see more nimble ESCO type players, and more broad distributors, with knowledge of how this convergence works. 

And this convergence will need to happen in financing solutions as well. Someone recently asked me if I've been looking for lighting-specific project finance plays. I told him I think I've already made one such investment, in Noesis Energy. It's not a lighting-specific channel platform. But as they've become a more important first-mover in energy efficiency finance, that's naturally pulled them into lighting retrofit work, alongside HVAC retrofits, building envelope work, etc. In commercial / industrial buildings, they source the financing for all of these and more -- a prime example of how the old siloed channels for these various categories are being rapidly broken down and made obsolete. 

So because of convergence of intelligent systems in buildings, I think we're on the cusp of radical changes to the buildings systems, lighting, etc. value chains. 

Photo Credit: Smart Tech and Efficient Buildings/shutterstock