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Tina Casey headshot

What is a Smart Building?

The phrase "smart building" conjures up images of sleek new structures incorporating all the latest energy-saving bells and whistles, but that's only part of the story. The fact is, any number of "smart" elements can apply to older, existing buildings. In addition to cutting energy costs, upgrading an older building can also result in a more comfortable and healthy environment for employees and customers, it can contribute to the quality of life in its community, and it can provide businesses with a green marketing tool that boosts their public profile.

The challenge for property owners is to find the right type and combination of smart elements that provide them with the greatest return on their investment.

Buildings and energy conservation

Because there are so many older, inefficient buildings in the U.S., the potential for energy savings goes beyond benefits to individual property owners. It's a matter of national energy policy, too, and the Department of Energy (DOE) has a long history of working with the building industry and related sectors to make improvements.

One good example, is the industry's response to stepped-up efficiency standards for HVACR (heat, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration systems), which lead to the development and widespread use of more advanced compressors.

As for the numbers, according to DOE there are about 4.8 million commercial buildings and 350,000 industrial facilities in the U.S., which together account for about half of the country's total energy use.

The annual energy costs for those buildings add up to a total of about $202.3 billion, and DOE estimates that a good 30 percent of that energy is used "inefficiently or unnecessarily."

In other words, despite past improvements there is still plenty of wiggle room to make older buildings operate more efficiently and save money for their owners and tenants.

So, what is a smart building?

A smart building is one that achieves significant energy savings by taking advantage of improved technology and materials in terms of structure, appliances, electrical systems, plumbing, and HVACR.

There is a good deal of overlap with LEED standards for green buildings, but LEED covers more ground and deals with some issues that are not directly related to the building's energy consumption.

Some elements of smart buildings are tried and true, weatherization being one familiar example. Others involve new lighting technologies and other systems that are just beginning to break into the market. Still others can depend on access to renewable energy, and on top of that, the habits and behaviors of the people who use any particular building can have a great influence on efficiency.

To round out the picture, a smart building could also incorporate landscaping elements including green roofs and green walls.

Ideally, a smart building also includes advanced control systems that connect some of these elements to optimize savings.

One example is offered up by auto manufacturer GM, which found that it could save a significant amount of electricity at one factory by using its assembly line schedule to coordinate turning the lights on and off.

Help for the smart building owners of the future

What all this adds up to is many more opportunities for building owners, but it also means that building owners have to analyze and sort many more forms of information when deciding on an energy efficiency upgrade.

Companies in the building sector and related industries are already beginning to respond to the need for more information.

Missouri-based Emerson, for example, has just launched a new website called ac-heatingconnect.com. Rather than endorsing particular products, it is designed to help homeowners and facility managers make sense of their climate control systems in terms of efficiency and energy costs.

Frank Landwehr, vice president of marketing at Emerson Climate Technologies, sums up the problem that ac-heatingconnect.com hopes to address:

"There are other sites that provide information on HVAC systems, but our research shows that homeowners need a better way to make sense of the complex terminology and regulation changes facing them today. There are other resources for contractors, but we found they want help connecting with homeowners and building that level of trust and understanding which comes from sharing the common information found on a single site.”

The site is particularly focused on assisting homeowners who are under pressure to make a quick decision, due to a failed heating or cooling system (Emerson cites a Census Bureau estimate that more than 3 million HVAC systems fail each year).

President Obama and smart buildings

Climate change action is now a fully acknowledged priority for the Obama administration's second term, but the President already launched a number of key initiatives during his first term that provide important resources for building owners and managers.

In February 2011, the administration launched the Better Buildings Initiative, a national public-private partnership that aims to develop and share new energy saving technologies and strategies.

The administration followed that up by launching a related public-private partnership last year called Green Button. Focusing on utility companies and their customers, Green Button is designed to contribute to more efficient buildings by making energy use data available in a standard, user-friendly format that enables owners and managers to set benchmarks and goals.

[Image: Buildings by Willem van Bergen]

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Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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