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Cracking the code on high-tech green buildings

Making commercial buildings "smarter" to save energy may be a no-brainer but it will remain a niche area without better training and policies, say tech and building professionals.

WALTHAM, Mass.--There's loads of technology available to make commercial buildings smarter and more efficient, but getting beyond a small niche of trophy green buildings requires big changes to current real estate practices, not just a technology make-over.

Every year, many buildings are built or retrofitted to improve water and energy efficiency and offer a good interior space for occupants. But often owners and occupants don't take full advantage of advanced technologies, creating a situation where buildings don't perform up to the level they were designed for, industry experts say.

Click on photo for slideshow of high-tech and efficient Genzyme Center in Cambridge, Mass. Martin LaMonica

"What about Gus the janitor? The person maintaining a building may not have the technology and skills to run the building the way somebody designed it for," said Mark Nelson, deputy commissioner for the Massachusetts Division of Capital Asset Management, which manages the state's buildings. "You give (Gus) a really fancy stereo system but he just wants an on/off and volume and he won't play with other things unless you train him."

Nelson was on a panel of building and technology professionals earlier this week exploring the melding that's starting to occur between the IT and building industries. It was organized by design software company Autodesk in conjunction with the business association the Mass Technology Leadership Council.

Many forward-looking companies and government agencies tasked with reducing their environmental footprint have adopted many products, such as solar panels, efficient lighting, and on-site fuel cells or biomass boilers. The energy load of buildings can also be significantly reduced by tightening the building envelope and thick insulation.

Meanwhile, IT companies, including heavyweights IBM and Cisco and dozens of start-ups, see buildings as a fertile area to apply existing technology. Building management systems, which control indoor climate or lighting, can generate data that can be analyzed to optimize building performance. That means building equipment can now be administered by IT management applications, such as IBM's Tivoli.

Nibbling around the edges
Commercial buildings are attractive to many technology providers because businesses consume lots of energy and will often invest in efficiency projects to save money or as part of corporate sustainability programs.

But even as more technology becomes available, professionals in the field say that many people are still learning how to actively manage buildings using automated tools and software dashboards. Architects can even create commercial buildings that are net zero energy consumers, but it's often difficult to know whether a building performs that well over time, said Ellen Watts, an architect at Architerra, which has worked on numbers net-zero-energy or low-energy projects.

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"There are building standards that address net zero energy buildings but there are scant few good systems for measuring and monitoring building performance," she said.

On the technology side, IT and building management companies are increasingly teaming up. For example, Cisco and Johnson Controls, which makes equipment such as thermostats and heating and cooling controls, have a partnership geared at building IT.

One of the big challenges with using more sophisticated building management technology is the cultural problems inside companies, notably the gap between facilities people and IT people, said Brendon Buckley, development manager for networking equipment at Johnson Controls.

Putting both IT and building equipment on the same networking backbone allows businesses to better understand energy usage, even down to CO2 per square foot, or to prioritize maintenance projects across multiple buildings, Buckley said. "Getting an alert from a control on an air conditioning unit in the data center from Tivoli was unheard of just a few years ago," he said.

With so many companies entering the area, though, the market for products that give building managers a dashboard to monitor building operations and energy usage could become confusing. "No single company can deliver on the energy or water transformations or any other 'sustainability' opportunities. It will require an ecosystem...and new business models," said Richard Esker, the director of emerging solutions ecosystems in Cisco's Connected Real Estate group.

Changes in policy, such as updated building codes or mandates to improve building efficiency can have a very significant impact, panelists said. Without them, status quo buildings practices will continue.

"I believe that even with all this innovation, we are still nibbling around the edges," said Watts. "After 10 or more years of working in this (green building) field, energy use in the U.S. is going up."