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Smart buildings stand on good data

Smart Buildings

Smart buildings stand on good data

By Mike Paciero, VDC Manager, VIATechnik | VIATechnik | October 1, 2020
Smart buildings stand on good data
Smart buildings stand on good data

Technology has always been about being smarter, but it wasn’t until 1995 that the word “smart” was seamlessly attached to an individual piece of technology - the smartphone. (And we do mean seamlessly – today, “smartphone” is almost always written as one word.) From there, it took less than 15 years for smartphones to replace traditional analog cell phones as the communication method of choice.

Today it seems every industry from appliances to cars are putting the word “smart” in front of their names. Similarly, inside and outside the built environment people have begun talking about smart buildings. With the growing sophistication of technology forward tenants, smart buildings and a digital user experience become key differentiators to in-demand facilities. We see a future where tenants see smart buildings as a necessary amenity, akin to high speed internet access. 

But for smart buildings to be more than a marketing term, buildings must be able to incorporate a digital foundation like never before to detect and process information in real-time and use it to complement human decision-making. This information must then be easily accessed through a mobile device or tablet. 


Realtime building lifecycle data insights, through VIATechnik’s Mercator Data Dashboard. Photo Credit: VIATechnik



The process of designing and constructing a building is inherently complex, they are a grander scale than most things, and the AEC industry is slow to change and adopt new technology. Thus, actually producing a smart building amongst the challenges the industry already faces may sound lofty, but it’s the same disruptive concept that allowed Netflix, Uber, and Amazon to disrupt long-established industries. And if you’re wondering whether investments in smart buildings will really pay off, the alternative risks becoming the next Blockbuster, taxi company, or brick and mortar retailer.

What then would it take to arrive at a state of true smart buildings? There are more than a few hurdles to overcome, but the single most important is data. Without the proper data, smart buildings have no foundation to stand on. 

So what data comprises the foundation of a smart building? It needs to be data on how the building is constructed and intended to work. Consequently, it’s no secret that the AEC industry today is producing more data through the design and construction process than ever before. In fact, thanks to the growing number of construction technologies on the market, there’s an estimated 2.5 million terabytes of new data generated daily. Yet up to 95% of that data can be lost or effectively unusable by the time the building is handed over to the owner.  Capturing even a small percentage of this newly available data with the intent to leverage it for maintenance and operations can be the first step toward enhancing your building’s performance, improving the user experience, and managing total cost of ownership (after all, 70% of a building’s total costs over its lifespan are incurred after construction is complete.), all the while laying the foundation for a smart building.

Additionally, today this data is almost always associated with some kind of digital 3D model, a Building Information Model (BIM). This is where the growing idea of the BIM for Operations concept represents a real enabler in terms of smart buildings, and can solve the problem of the data loss during design and construction. BIM has been mainstream in the industry for approximately 15 years (the same amount of time it took smartphones to become widely accepted), but it hasn’t been until recently that owners have started to more consciously look to BIM to aid their long-term efforts. The idea of utilizing the BIM for Operations enhances the traditional maintenance and operations workflow by pairing the visual aspect of the BIM with proper collection and organization of data. In other words, it is possible to have a digital 3D model, i.e. digital twin, of the physical space you just built that is embedded with all the data you need to seamlessly operate the facility over its lifetime. Add IOT sensors to the mix and you can more visually access real time information about the building’s performance down to the individual asset, improving existing BMS systems. No more plan rooms filled with paper, or antiquated file storage and database systems where access is limited to only a few people. This level of integration and accessibility then opens the door for a multitude of stakeholders and users to monitor, operate, and experience the space like never before. 


VIATechnik’s Built Environment Software Stack. Photo Credit: VIATechnik



While the gateway for Smart Buildings might be through using BIM for facility management or operations, it too has struggled to gain widespread implementation despite the high level of interest from owners. The explanation of this goes back to two common prevailing myths in the industry regarding data.

Myth #1: Owner: “I’m buying a BIM from the Design and Construction team, so I’ll have everything I need to implement this at the end of the process”

This is false. Contractually, neither the design or construction team is obligated to provide you with 1) an accurate and true digital twin or 2) organized, coherent data consistent with what was actually designed and installed in order to be useful. The truth is, the industry’s contracts have not evolved enough to leverage the full power of BIM. After all, we are producing complex, smart, three-dimensional models only to export out two-dimensional, static drawings as the main contractual document; often going through that 3D to 2D process multiple times as the responsible party changes hands from the designers to the builders.

But this is not as detrimental to the facilities management process as the loss and mistranslation of data is across the many parties involved in getting a project through to completion. While much data is generated, little is captured and, if it is captured, not very well updated through the process. The data that is typically received comes through back end commissioning and thousands of pages of submittals, O&M manuals, and other antiquated documentation. 

At best, unless specific and detailed requirements were written into the contracts in the beginning, there is little that can be done to trust it enough in the end for owners to leverage.  This is the difference between obtaining data and GOOD data. Only good data can fully be trusted, but how to collect good data is typically not well defined within the industry. 

Myth #2: Owner: “Good data is too expensive to collect. We know data received from the design and construction teams is questionable at best. As a result, we collect limited data.” 

It’s true that building data has always been collected to some level, and traditional asset management systems have proven their worth as the ability of databases progressed over the last few decades. But the data that’s routinely collected and stored today using existing software just isn’t enough. It comprises a little more than work orders and tracking of large assets with some financial assessment. Today we live in the Information Age and, with all the talk of Smart Buildings and continually increasing global connectivity, the current standard for building performance data is not flexible, visual, or updatable enough to keep pace with what is coming in the future. 

Many things get expensive when there is no plan or something is unexpected. Having an overall strategy at the beginning of a project can make the cost of good data cheap. Today’s BIM capabilities make this especially possible and realistic for owners more than ever before. When executed properly, not only does BIM enhance the workflow of traditional building operations, it facilitates proper collection and organization of GOOD data. 


Data Strategy to Drive from Digitization to Real Action

So what is the solution? How does this get carried out? The answer starts with building a data strategy that connects the smart building future with the details required for GOOD data.  While this involves tying a facilities data contract in addition to the traditional design and construction agreements, there is a real benefit to defining a process to get data early and often to build the smart building foundation.  Once we can trust the foundation, we can then build applications, generate analytics, gain insight, and facilitate action with our facilities - the alternative of course is garbage in-garbage out.

Smart buildings will become the standard in the not-too-distant future. Owners, tenants, and end-users will demand no less, in the same way you wouldn’t buy a phone today without a large touchscreen and a data plan. Of course, due to the sheer scale of buildings it may take longer for their smart versions to emerge. But the growth curve is exponential, and that means the future of smart buildings may well be closer than it seems. But it has to start with data – good data.

About the Author
Mike Paciero is a VDC Manager in VIATechnik’s New York City office with robust experience in advancing and implementing BIM for Operations. In addition to a focus on BIM for Operations, his work as a VDC professional has included BIM coordination and strategic technology implementation in each stage of the design and construction process on multiple professional sports facilities and New York City projects. With a strong belief in leveraging the emerging technology in the industry today, Mike is committed to combining that with people and process to align with the client’s goals and create workflows that provide benefit to all project stakeholders. He has an MS degree in Architectural Engineering from Lawrence Technological University.

About VIATechnik
VIATechnik is the global leader in virtual design and construction on a mission to transform the analog world of design and construction into a digital platform, enabling efficient design, industrialized construction, and a digital real estate service model. Through this transformation, we believe we can solve the world’s housing and infrastructure challenges, deliver spaces that nurture life, commerce, and relationships.

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