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Building Matters: The Shape Of Things To Come for Cooling

As futuristic technologies take a grip on buildings, the cooling industry, together with the rest of building services, will have to find a new way of adding value to projects. Here David Frise considers the impact of the Internet of Things and other high-tech concepts.

Harvard University has just unveiled its ‘microbots,’ modelled on termites and capable of building a brick wall without any human interference. Meanwhile, the man who helped to develop the iPod has invented his own intelligent room thermostat. Make no mistake, the future is upon us.

Things that we might have considered to be science fiction, or at least just fanciful, just a few years ago are now fairly commonplace and some of the world’s most innovative technology companies are motivated by the opportunities in cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Almost by accident, tech leaders in hotbeds of innovation like Old Street’s Silicon Roundabout are developing systems that will contribute to the reduction in building energy demand. The so-called Internet of Things – originally coined to describe household appliances being connected to the internet and ‘communicating with their user, but now expanded to any technology which is controllable via the Web -  is already littered with clever new systems invented for a variety of reasons, but with the potential to make buildings much easier to control.

The implications for traditional building services engineering are both exciting and alarming in equal measure.
We cannot wait for politicians to put policies in place that create a market for innovative building control engineering. I have news for you. It’s not going to happen. Our future is being shaped by the profit-driven motives of the Amazons and WalMarts – retail behemoths who continually peer over the horizon to find better ways of reaching customers.

Google, Apple, Dyson and co are all becoming increasingly relevant to building engineers. The key question is how relevant building engineers will be to this new tech-driven world? Answer: Very, if they make themselves relevant, by recognising what is no longer valuable about what they do and where their expertise is uniquely placed to add value.

It is already possible to link millions of devices – including building thermostats – to the web and vastly improving access, control and the cost of upgrading and maintaining systems. Research by the consultant McKinsey showed that this increased level of connectivity will boost productivity to the tune of $33 trillion a year by 2015.

The medical profession has embraced this wholeheartedly, with heart monitors and other life critical systems hooked into the web. They are moving rapidly towards a situation where the ‘physical’ doctor could be replaced by a Cloud-based one, with access to unprecedented amounts of medical data and, therefore, far-better placed to deliver an accurate diagnosis of a patient’s condition.

If it is likely to be good enough for doctors – how much more so could it be for engineers? The battle for future relevance starts here.

As many of you will know by now, iPod pioneer Tony Fadell has already intervened in the building services market. He was amazed to discover that he could not control the temperature of his new home, and therefore his carbon footprint, from his mobile – so invented his own thermostat. This led to the foundation of Nest Labs, which was taken over by Google for a shed load of money.

His invention uses tiny sensors to monitor and learn about energy consumption in the home or office; it then shuts down systems that are not needed and starts them up again when they are. It is that simple and cheap because of the vast proliferation of web-based connectivity.

It is something building services engineers have been doing for years, but it takes the marriage of mechanical engineering and tech intelligence to deliver brilliant customer interfaces. It does, also, beg the question: Once the IT has the engineering data it needs, does it need the engineer?

Of course, we will still need traditional technologies at the end of the delivery process – air conditioning and refrigeration systems are not going away – but how they are connected, controlled and manufactured is changing fast.

The impact of 3D - and 4D - printing
3D printing will revolutionise development and manufacturing. The speed and ease of prototyping plus the low cost production of one-off replacement components will have a dramatic impact on the efficiency of our manufacturing sector. Design sketches can quickly be converted into physical prototypes for testing and visualisation.

For those getting their heads round that, I can bring you news that ‘4D’ printing is not that far behind – the added dimension is the ability to allow systems to self-repair. This ought to change the future for maintenance specialists and is particularly relevant to underground pipework systems, for example, which will have in-built properties allowing them to change shape and fix themselves.

In short, our world is being digitalised. This is not just about BIM (Building Information Modelling) either. BIM is simply a tool and a feature of a more data-rich environment with a need for better organisation of information. No, this about the world that engineers working in BIM inhabit.

Engineers are learning to interact with this digital environment and analyse the information it produces. The speed and flexibility of web-based activities means we can continue to look for better solutions – we are not waiting for a technical breakthrough – the availability of information and the connection to the product in use means we can be constantly tweaking to produce improvements.

Self-learning control systems, like those produced by Nest Labs, mean air conditioning systems will automatically adjust to their occupants’ behaviour patterns - as long as they have been commissioned and set up properly in the first place. That requires the input of expert engineering teams

Building services engineers will be focused on the integration of the control systems with the installed technologies. For example, they will be needed to ensure the air conditioning system works well in tandem with phase-change materials used in the fabric of the building that make it more responsive to changing outside temperatures. The availability of easily accessible performance data means engineers can monitor and adjust systems to ensure they work to their optimum.

This ability to influence systems in operation has long been the Holy Grail of building engineering and offers the prospect of finally closing the yawning performance gap that leaves our industry regularly embarrassed. It should allow us to make progress in the area of indoor air quality (IAQ), for example, as the systems will be constantly feeding back information about the state of filters and ductwork cleanliness, as well as the levels of diesel particulates and CO2.

Detailed knowledge about the conditions and forewarning about possible problems will allow the engineers to respond in a more proactive way.

It is in many ways a brave new world in that access to information is easier, but it is not radically different in engineering terms. Many of these things have been possible and, indeed, practised for years. The truly significant differences are in making information understandable.

It is radically different in terms of how the supply chain will have to be organised and in how information is shared. Our notoriously conservative and legally confrontational industry will have to learn to be open and transparent with information. This could, ultimately, have an impact on payment as everything will have to be disclosed about the project in the digital world and any reasons for withholding payment will be open to scrutiny. That has to be a good and progressive development for contractors.

It is an exciting ‘new world’ and not a little scary for engineers, but those firms with an appetite for change will not be intimidated. They, like Google and Amazon, will see the massive commercial opportunities that exist in the digital space and, ultimately for the building engineering sector, the fact that digitalisation offers the tantalising prospect of finally being able to make high performing buildings as standard.

  • David Frise is head of sustainability at the Building & Engineering Services Association (B&ES).
  • This article first appeared in the March issue of RAC Magazine. For magazine subscription offers, please see the ad on the home page.


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