These walls do talk

Intelligent building design keeps tabs on energy usage and maintenance issues

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David Crosby (left) and Stevens Sadler. Photo by Rick DeBerry

Sitting in his cubicle in his Chesterfield County office, David Crosby can monitor the real-time energy usage of nine office buildings as far away as Pennsylvania and Florida, not to mention the one he’s sitting in.

Crosby is an asset manager for Allegiancy, a Richmond-based commercial real estate management company overseeing more than $300 million in assets. Within the next year Allegiancy plans to spread energy monitoring to all office buildings in its portfolio.

“It sends me email alerts when it goes over certain thresholds,” Crosby explains as he switches the dashboard from displaying kilowatts per hour to kilowatts per day. It also shows the outdoor temperature at each building. In its headquarters building alone, Crosby says, the system has helped Allegiancy make adjustments that cut the power bill from $225,000 per year to $180,000 per year since the system, which cost around $12,000, was installed in 2012.

Built by Richmond-based Net Metering Inc., the energy monitoring system used by Allegiancy is one example of ways commercial property developers, owners and managers are creating a new generation of intelligent buildings designed to save money, improve safety and security, and produce a better overall experience for tenants and visitors.

“What we’re trying to do is take the real estate business and drag it into the present,” says Allegiancy CEO Stevens M. Sadler. “In the real estate business, particularly in the asset management business, we see companies that operate on pencil and paper technology. They rely on sticky notes and the human brain to get things done.”

Last year Allegiancy installed the Net Metering system in a building in Durham, N.C. Immediately the staff in the Richmond office began seeing regular spikes in the building’s energy consumption. Sadler was planning on visiting the building in a couple weeks so he made a note to investigate the spike while he was there. “I was walking through the building with an engineer … [and] we could hear this compressor bang. It would cycle on, shut down, cycle on, shut down … Everything else was normal.”

The engineer told him that he was aware of the problem but said that particular compressor just needed time to warm up. Sadler, however, hired another HVAC engineer who found a burnt contact in the compressor. The compressor was only about five years old. If the problem had gone on much longer, the unit would have been a complete loss, necessitating a $10,000 replacement. Instead, the repair was much less expensive.

Having a “synthetic presence” in buildings in other states means “I can now solve a problem in Charleston [S.C] almost as quickly as I can solve a problem in Richmond, and that’s a big deal,” says Sadler. For one thing, it means that he doesn’t have to have highly skilled staff on the payroll in each building. For another, by optimizing energy and HVAC usage, Allegiancy can extend the life of expensive equipment such as compressors by additional years, he says.

Allegiancy is using cloud computing and online dashboards for tracking project management and to communicate operating expenses and real-time energy usage statistics to building owners. It’s also using analytics on a database of tenant complaints in order to identify bigger problems and patterns in building operations.

Getting real-time energy statistics can be the difference between fixing a problem in two days versus 90 days, Sadler says. For companies not keeping track of energy usage patterns in real time, they won’t learn there’s a problem until at least a month later when they’ve gotten a higher energy bill. And by that point, they’re well into a second month of higher bills.

Monitoring energy consumption is the first goal for most real estate companies that are creating smart buildings, says Gina Anselmo, energy program engineer in the integrative design services group for Forest City Enterprises. “You have to start somewhere, and we want to start where we can save the most money,” Anselmo says. “There’s a lot of opportunity in having insights on how your business is using energy on an hourly basis. You can get a lot of savings right off the bat just in terms of getting your schedule … optimized as quickly as possible … We want to get smarter about how we’re managing our load.”

A $9 billion real estate management and development firm based in Cleveland, Forest City’s portfolio includes Short Pump Town Center mall in Henrico County, the mixed-use, renovated Tobacco Row warehouses in Richmond, and The Yards, a 5.5-million-square-foot, mixed-use pro­­­­­ject currently under development in Washington, D.C.

Forest City plans to begin installing energy monitoring systems in its buildings this year, Anselmo says; however, “the long-term vision of intelligent buildings … is integration.” The industry goal, she says, is to work toward a “single pane of glass,” a platform that has the ability not only to control and automate multiple systems such as lighting, security, HVAC, elevators, water and energy usage, but also to get those systems working in concert with one another.

“In the world we live in today, where there’s the cloud, where there’s big data, there’s so much that’s possible,” says Kelly Romano. She’s president of Intelligent Buildings Technologies, a division of the United Technologies Corp., a $62 billion Hartford, Conn.-based conglomerate specializing in aerospace and commercial building systems, including HVAC, elevators, and fire and security.

Romano’s group recently worked on a project at the Shanghai International Finance Centre in China, twin towers that are about 850 feet tall. Using a system based on algorithms, it was able to optimize several building system components and get them working together. It wound up reducing energy consumption by 27 percent, a savings of about $2 million per year.

“These systems in commercial buildings used to operate independently of each other,” Romano says. “If you take all of the systems in a building and start to connect them, there’s a lot that can happen that can make the building more efficient and reduce operating costs. That’s a real driver for the owner and developer, but it makes it better for the tenants as well … Tenant experience is becoming more and more important.”

Romano envisions a day not long from now when a building will identify occupants by credentials on their smart phones, summoning an elevator and taking them directly to their floor, turning on their office lights and air conditioning when the occupants enter and automatically turning off the lights when they leave a room.

An industry leader in intelligent building systems is New York City-based Rudin Management Co., which manages 15 million square feet of commercial and residential buildings in New York.

Working with Columbia University’s Center for Computational Learning Systems and Selex ES, a division of Italian aerospace and mechanical controls contractor Finmeccanica, Rudin developed its own proprietary system called Di-BOSS, or Digital Building Operating System.

Instead of just monitoring energy, it links all major building systems, including heating and cooling, elevators, water and energy consumption, building management systems, fire safety, security and occupancy tracking. Selex ES is marketing the system for Rudin worldwide, and Rudin also is launching a similar product aimed at residential buildings.

Rudin launched Di-BOSS in its own buildings in June 2013, and it’s now installed in eight buildings that total about 6 million square feet. The company plans to push it out to the rest of its portfolio over the next year. Rudin staff can access the Di-BOSS system with their computers or via iPhones and iPad mini tablets.

“In the first year of operation, Di-BOSS saved 345 Park Avenue just under a million dollars, roughly 50 cents a foot … and that was through the worst winter New York has had in a decade,” says Executive Vice President John J. Gilbert III. The system cost about $750,000 to install in the 345 Park Avenue building, which houses the headquarters of the National Football League and pharmaceutical firm Bristol-Myers Squibb.

Using Di-BOSS, Rudin’s operators have been able to optimize the times for starting and stopping HVAC systems, shortening the buildings’ operating days and increasing savings. The system’s greatest value, however, says Gilbert, is its ability to collect and store large amounts of data on how the buildings operate, so that Rudin can perform analytics and create opportunities for greater efficiencies and future savings.

“I used to say that we were a real estate company that dabbles in technology, but slowly and surely we’re becoming a technology company that happens to own a lot of real estate,” Gilbert says. “That’s a lesson for a lot of industries. When you really analyze data … it doesn’t matter if you’re a police department or a real estate company, if you’re able to create algorithms, and you’re able to see patterns of activity that are valuable to your bottom line, then why wouldn’t you be looking at that data? That is in fact the value proposition.”

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