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How can construction help us achieve smart buildings?

As a touch typist of many years I find it extremely frustrating to watch a two-finger keyboard amateur peck slowly at the keys while searching for the next letter as though they’ve never seen a QWERTY layout before. Honestly, it’s toe-curling.

I have a feeling that Katherine Farrington of Google may have had similar thoughts when she spoke to the construction industry about technology at the Smart Buildings Show in October.

Though she was of course far too polite to reveal any such thoughts – and she’s probably more patient than me.

But seeing the construction sector move ever-closer to the world of IT as controls technology advances does have moments of frustration and concern.

Construction is slow-moving and has found change difficult. The IT sector is the exact opposite.

Can the HVAC and construction sectors rise to these requirements?

Karen Fletcher Karen Fletcher Head of Content at Modern Building Services

Today’s smart versus tomorrow’s

Farrington has a global role in Google’s property management team to ensure that the building controls work in way that suits the company’s buildings IT strategy.

She is at the cutting edge of where HVAC meets IT. And from this position, she sees some challenges for our sector.

The first challenge is that the technology available to control buildings is developing very quickly. “What is a smart building to you?”, Farrington asked in her presentation (to a packed audience). “There are a lot of different answers. But we can say that five years from now a smart building will be different from what it is today.”

Expectations are also rising

Read the Product Review section of MBS in any month this year and you’ll find several products offering internet connection; online data collection; connected smart phone apps for commissioning and maintenance. Manufacturers are certainly embracing the potential of technology.

However, because of these advances in HVAC technology, the expectations placed on building services kit are also rising.

If it can do what IT equipment does (connect to the internet, collect data, send messages etc) then it should perform at the same level – that’s the thinking of a growing number of building managers.

The question is, can the HVAC and construction sectors rise to these requirements?

3 challenges

Farrington sees three major issues for today’s building controls sector:

* Cyber security – which is something that more controls specialists are talking about, but which is still not taken as seriously by end users as they do other aspects of corporate IT.

* Scale – for clients with more than one building or who work on a global scale (like Google), the need to apply standard approaches is very important, but currently very difficult.

* Insights – Farrington pointed out that it’s vital to be able to justify expenditure on technology, and to drive value. Being able to demonstrate that is vital for the industry if it is to thrive.


One of the biggest problems for end users continues to be proprietary systems. Farrington said: “A lot of devices are proprietary and manufactured in a proprietary way. We could have thousands of different devices and pieces of software. How do we update those devices?” Another issue is updating of software in the new smart HVAC kit.

“We need to think about the life cycle management of IoT devices and the next generation of these devices needs to work differently,” said Farrington.

She pointed out that many devices have software that is very out of date, simply because no one has really thought about how updates might work.

Upgrade your skillset

Professionals in the field of controls need to bear in mind that they are moving ever-closer to the world of IT, where performance expectations are different.

Security and software updating need to go on the list of product features.

And for specifiers and installers, the time is ripe to start upgrading your skills. Even clients need to start looking at their controls systems in a new way.

As Farrington said: “We need specifiers who can work across HVAC and IT.” As the two areas converge, there are opportunities and challenges to grasp.

Karen Fletcher is Head of Content at Modern Building Services