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Intelligent buildings will make us healthier, more productive and greener, according to Concordia researcher

Hashem Akbari says the technology exists but policies need to catch up
October 27, 2020
A winter photo of a residential building with large windows taken from the exterior, looking into the brightly-lit interior.
Smart buildings are a complex puzzle of ever-changing variables that include temperatures, energy prices, occupant density and their behaviours. | Photo by Stephan Bechert on Unsplash

As cities evolve and global energy demands surge, planners, developers, utilities and governments are looking to make new buildings operate better. With this comes a move toward so-called “intelligent buildings.” And the people responsible for designing them are prioritizing both the structure’s energy efficiency and maintaining high levels of occupants’ control as well as their comfort and productivity.

It’s a complex puzzle involving the interplay of ever-changing variables that include indoor and outdoor temperatures, energy prices, occupant density and their preferences and behaviours.

This topic is the focus of a paper recently published in the journal Energy and Buildings by Hashem Akbari, professor of building, civil and environmental engineering at the Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science. It reviews the current software and hardware technologies that integrate and optimize productivity and comfort with a building’s energy use. Farhad Mofidi, Akbari’s former PhD student now at the University of Tehran, co-authored the paper.

They look at how intelligent, automated buildings can use technology to regulate thermal comfort (indoor temperature, air flow and humidity), visual comfort (clutter, sight lines, daylight access and glare) and indoor air quality (ventilation to reduce indoor air pollution). Together, these conditions can have significant impact on occupant health, comfort and productivity.

An older, smiling man with spectacles and a red knit sweater. Hashem Akbari, professor of building, civil and environmental engineering. | Photo by David Ward

Learning to read people

In order for an intelligent building to function to its full potential, it needs data: outdoor air temperature, the temperature around its occupants, data about lighting, air flow, air quality, noise and much more.

Once this data is collected, the building’s control mechanisms can learn to predict and model occupant behaviour. This depends on equipping the building with advanced sensors that can pick up and communicate signals from occupants (with appropriate privacy guarantees in place). Once absorbed, these input points can lead to significant improvements toward productivity and energy-saving objectives.

An intelligent building will also include advanced energy-saving technologies linked to the local energy grid. Built-in solar panels and wind turbines can ease overall demand on an aging electrical system, as can the integration of consumption-regulating smart metres. As Akbari says, these can turn the building from an energy drain into a self-sustaining spinning reserve.

All these technologies exist and are in operation in one form or another across the developed countries, Akbari adds. What is all too often lacking is the vision to integrate the separate components of an intelligent building into a whole.

Vision needed

He says political and industry leaders need to implement the policies and codes for intelligent building design and operations.

“Currently, considerations of a building’s energy performance are secondary,” Akbari notes. “You see elements such as properly insulating walls and roofs or double-paning windows, but the existing codes do not really address advanced controls at all.”

Intelligent building designers will also no doubt learn some lessons from the current pandemic. While more research into the field is needed, Akbari says studies linking ultraviolet light exposure to virus inactivation are promising, so there may be ways to neutralize harmful viruses in HVAC systems without exposing humans to harmful rays. Ending the existing practice of recycling air in favour of importing fresh air from outside would be another way to improve overall air quality.

The idea of people working in a communal space on a daily basis may be a quaint one these days, but Akbari is confident that someday, we will be back at work with our colleagues. And when that day arrives, finding a way to ensure maximum comfort for all will be a workplace priority.

Read the cited paper: “
Intelligent buildings: An overview.”



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