Guest Column: The Path to Smarter Buildings

Reducing dependence on polluting fuels over the next quarter century is a goal that many industries today are pursuing — from auto makers investing in electric vehicles to startups and mature companies exploring alternative energy sources in wind, wave and solar power.

But one major area that often gets overlooked is closer to home–or, should I say, where you work and live. In the U.S., buildings account for 40 percent of our total energy use, and up to which 50 percent is wasted. By 2025, buildings worldwide will become the top consumers of energy.

The potential to cut energy usage while improving our buildings’ performance is tremendous. When IT and communication technology is wired into building management systems, organizations can manage energy usage scientifically by tapping analytics, sensor technologies and automation.

For instance, using predictive analytics, tied to things like badge readers or elevator usage, facilities managers can tell which percentage of floor space will be occupied on any given day, and adjust lights and heating to correspond to what is really needed at the moment. Sensors can flag when a heater and air conditioning unit are concurrently running—wasting undue energy. Smarter building technologies can help organizations save up to 30 percent of water usage along with lower energy costs resulting from reductions in the amount of energy used to pump and heat water.

By using these kinds of technology in IBM’s (s IBM) Rochester, Minnesota manufacturing facility, we were able to cut energy use by 8 percent, on top of the 6 percent reduction already being driven through aggressive energy improvement programs. That resulted in 14 percent total year-over-year reduction.

IBM is not alone. When organizations come together to tackle our building problem, we’ve seen amazing outcomes. At Bryant University in Rhode Island,
what began as an IT initiative to create an energy-efficient data center has resulted in a unique partnership between the IT and facilities teams to reduce the university’s carbon footprint across the campus buildings. The results are astounding—Bryant University has reduced operational expenses by 21 percent and reduced the number of physical servers in its data center almost in half, enabling staff to turn nearly 50 percent of its IT floor space back into classrooms.

This example underscores the point that technology innovation is not enough. We also need leadership that requires a new set of skills to bring together groups that have operated independently. This kind of big thinking requires a cultural leap—in this case bringing IT and facilities managers together.

Opportunities for these new skills and new roles are already being embraced by top universities as they create new cross-discipline majors. Tulane University is a great example as they work to rebuild not only the campus and city that was devastated by hurricane Katrina, but also degree programs that will be relevant as we move forward. Tulane is working to combine engineering and life sciences in new ways and rise to the challenge of reinventing their school of architecture to include smarter building management.

Making our new and existing buildings smarter is a befitting ambition not only to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels but also to drive business results. More efficient buildings are also more profitable, giving those organizations a competitive advantage.

The challenge is clear but the good news is so is the path. We can get started today to rebuild our cities and communities, one smarter building at a time. We can accelerate this with new skills and roles for our workforce and become a more sustainable society.

Dave Bartlett is Vice President of Industry Solutions for IBM’s Software Group. Based in Somers, New York, Dave leads IBM’s Smarter Buildings efforts.

Image courtesy of NREL.