What IT Teams Bring To Green Building Efforts

Nov 13, 2009 (10:11 AM EST)

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Empire State Building
Due for an energy makeover
People get drawn into information technology work for a lot of reasons, but seldom because they have a passion for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems. However, the extreme power and cooling demands of modern data centers have forced IT pros to build expertise in facilities management, and in some cases that's helping them move their companies toward greener, smarter buildings.

A smart building is one that uses networked sensors and controls and centralized monitoring and management to improve the efficiency of its operation. Even amid an economic downturn that has been particularly hard on commercial construction, the market for such facilities is being spurred by high energy costs and carbon footprint concerns, reinforced by federal stimulus dollars.

While some of that money is being spent on passive improvements such as better insulated windows, smart technologies can go further by specifically adjusting heating, cooling, and lighting depending on factors such as whether a given space is crowded or vacant. Lights can be dimmed when natural lighting peaks, and natural cooling can be used in place of air conditioning when temperatures drop outside. Done right, these facilities can be more comfortable and productive for the people inside, in addition to being more efficient.

So what's IT's role? When IT executives are tapped to play a role in such projects, it's because of their experience with data center energy efficiency and also the networked nature of these systems, says Gartner's Rakesh Kumar. IT also brings a deep understanding of how to stick to standards and secure networks. "The central point of control has to be either with the IT department or very closely aligned with the IT department," Kumar contends. And that demands organizational changes. More on that later.

But there also are technology reasons why a combined IT-facilities approach isn't always natural. Building systems usually run on a parallel network to IT's. Sometimes that's of necessity because security cameras or temperature sensors must be deployed in locations that the IT network doesn't reach, so they send signals over dedicated cabling, or electrical wiring. They use application-specific protocols that IT isn't experienced with, though the industry is converging on two standards: LonWorks, created by Echelon, and BACnet, which has the backing of groups including the International Standards Organization.

As IT teams get more involved, they tend to push for compatibility with standards such as the Simple Network Management Protocol that IT systems management software uses, so the status of building devices can be monitored with the same tool as IT, Kumar says. At that point, a network operations center can become an operations center for facilities as well.

Projects Under Way

There are some huge smart-building projects under way, such as a $20 million retrofit of the Empire State Building that aims to reduce the building's energy use by an estimated 38% and save $4.4 million annually. The federal government plans to spend $4.3 billion for energy improvements in federal buildings, and it's encouraging private investment with tax credits.

BGP Properties, a commercial real estate firm, got its first taste of the potential when it converted a former hotel on New York's Upper East Side into Barbizon 63, a high-end condominium complex. The building's systems are wired to detect when an electrical or mechanical system is malfunctioning, triggering a work order and an e-mail to the tenant to expect a service call, says Stephen Shanahan, BGP's senior VP for development. "Our long-term goal would be to have a network operations center for our entire portfolio," he says.

Shanahan is starting to see CIOs involved with large build-to-order projects such as one that BGP is now trying to win from for a major food company. "They're saying, 'If you're going to do the entire building for us, then we'd also like you to light the building in a sustainable way and take advantage of these other capabilities,'" he says.

Bryan Mehaffey says IT leaders have opportunity in such projects. The VP for technology systems engineering at Ave Maria University, Mehaffey had the luxury of helping design the new Catholic campus' systems from scratch, putting almost every building system over IP. Even if he hadn't, though, he says there's middleware to translate between building system and IT standards. "Don't let technology be your roadblock," Mehaffey says "Everything we're talking about is doable in terms of technology."

The bigger roadblocks tend to be organizational, but those can be overcome if the CEO sees the value in integration, he says. Mehaffey got involved as planning for the campus began in 2003. He wound up with responsibility for facilities and IT. Readings on equipment such as heaters, air conditioners, and thermostats feed into a network operations center, where staff can adjust most energy and environmental parameters.

It's still the exception, however, for IT to have such a direct role in facilities. Marc Petock, marketing VP for Tridium, a division of Honeywell that makes software for building systems integration, sees "just the beginning of a trend toward the facilities group being part of the IT group, either directly or at least in some kind of matrix reporting." Terry Hoffmann, marketing director for building automation systems at Johnson Controls, says "information people should be in charge of information and buildings people should be in charge of buildings," but the ties must be tight because the CEO and CFO want to gauge energy and carbon footprint levels.

Barbizon 63 detects power problems and e-mails tenants that help is coming
Barbizon 63 detects power problems and e-mails tenants that help is coming.
Most CIOs are so focused on their data centers that they don't look outside--but they should, says Florence Hudson, IBM's corporate strategy executive for energy and the environment. As IT's under pressure to find creative ways to cut costs, this is an area that can deliver measurable savings.

Given the chance, IT can instill more scientific, tightly managed processes around facilities functions, much as it did with other departments using ERP, CRM, and supply chain software. "There's an opportunity to do the exact same thing with building systems," says Paul Ehrlich, founder of the Building Intelligence Group. Facilities management has traditionally been a craft guided by practitioners' instincts. With more precise tracking and control of building systems, Ehrlich says, "you can start to apply some business rules to it and make it into a process flow."

David F. Carr is a veteran technology writer and Web developer.