March 5, 2010

Column | Korky Koroluk

Net architecture a building model

The Internet is a seemingly bottomless pool of information, and many of us dabble in it every day. Now, though, a select few are looking not for the information the net holds, but for information about its structure so that we can copy its architecture to produce building systems that will save energy.

A generation ago much was made of “smart” buildings. Suddenly, we could flush stale air automatically, we could deploy sunshades on a hot day automatically, we could allow or deny entry to various parts of the building automatically. And everything could be controlled from a central control room.

Now we’re hearing about “smart” power grids, that will save energy by allowing utilities to manage loads by turning off air conditioners during periods of peak demand. There seems little doubt that this is part of the wave of the future as we seek to conserve energy in a world where, in the long term, energy prices have no way to go but up.

Construction Corner

Korky Koroluk

But there are now people in the energy research community that think we should be devising intelligent infrastructure for buildings that would mimic, in some important ways, the architecture used to build the Internet. It’s an emerging technology known as intelligent infrastructure for energy efficiency, or I2E, and it incorporates numerous sensors, each networked together and connected to each other through the building’s wiring system similar to the way the Internet works.

A team of scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, discussed the concept in an “engineering perspective” published in Science magazine last week.

Noting that buildings currently use more than 70 per cent of all generated electricity, mostly for heating, cooling and lighting. The scientists then suggested that as much as 30 to 40 per cent of that energy could be saved. Simply fixing faults and ending unnecessary operation would be part of it, of course, but significant savings could be achieved with advanced control systems now being developed.

But actually achieving those savings will require building intelligence into the building’s infrastructure.

Modifying a building is costly, the researchers say. It can cost $1,000 to add a control point containing a $1 sensor to a building, requiring a skilled installer to connect it to a central controller which must then be reconfigured.

That, they say, is the way computing and communications worked before the days of the Internet, when terminals and telephones were connected to mainframe computers and central office switches.

“The Internet allows applications to reside where information is created and consumed, from reading e-mail to viewing virtual worlds. In this way, its applications are independent of how the network connecting them is constructed.”

The same idea could be made to work in building infrastructure, so sensors and actuators can “compute and communicate to solve problems locally rather than having functions fixed by a central controller.”

The building’s electronic devices would not need to communicate as fast as would happen on the net, nor would they need to transmit as much data. That means implementation would be simpler and could run at much lower power.

Centralized control which was so prized in the first generation of building system controls has become a bottleneck as we work our way toward smart grids.

When they’re built, modern smart buildings must be in a position to react intelligently to the smart grids that would be sending requests for setting changes. Lacking that capability would cripple the smart grid.

“A grid cannot be smart,” the researchers say, “if it is connected to dumb devices.”

Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to

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