We need to realise this, because most of the time building occupants couldn’t care less about a building’s sustainability or low energy credentials. They aren’t as enthusiastic about maintaining set points to meet a BREEAM Excellent objective, they just want to do their job and be comfortable without the building getting in the way. It’s not that they act wantonly and selfishly, it’s that the building’s systems aren’t on their radar most of the time. Smart systems that impose themselves on occupants will alienate, fall into disuse, or worse get vandalised.
Is this a case for central automation? It might be, but that’s not the point. You can have systems controlled centrally or you can devolve control to the occupants. Either way, it needs to be done well, and the interfaces have to be intelligible, responsive, intuitive and logical. In other words, systems need to be usable. A smart building is one that doesn’t make its users look stupid, as Adrian Leaman memorably put it.
We sell dreams but install nightmares
The sophistication of smart technologies needs to be matched by the sophistication of the installation, commissioning, user training, and system fine-tuning after handover. Often it’s nowhere near what it needs to be for the technologies to deliver their promise. Building performance studies are littered with automated lighting that either turns off lights when they’re needed, or prevents them from being turned off.
A study of recent schools and academies revealed that reasonable lighting energy consumption of 15 kWh/m2 per annum is achievable in schools below about 2000 m2, but scale up over 8000 m2 and that same lighting will double its consumption or more. The complexity of the control systems are outstripping our ability to set them up properly and manage them in operation.
Automatic window actuators are another example. They are usually noisy, and open and close seemingly at random times.
They also become a maintenance burden and a financial drain, evidenced by a primary school that found itself saddled with paying high annual maintenance fees in perpetuity. Had this not been pointed out they would never have challenged it.
Controls designed for what they could do, not for what’s needed
As has been said many times before, unmanageable complexity is the enemy of good performance. And nowhere is this more obvious than in air-conditioning control devices with so many features that they defeat everyone but the system provider. And in schools, carbon dioxide monitors designed to inform teachers when to open the windows are usually tucked out of sight on a power rail somewhere, and in any case impossible to read without a magnifying glass. Usually these systems come with irritating warning sounds – usually the first thing to be disabled by a teacher trying to concentrate.
Failures to communicate
Even after nearly two decades promise of interoperable communication protocols, systems that fail to communicate to each other are rife. Again, BPE studies reveal underfloor heating and passive stack ventilation systems that are intended to be controlled centrally by the building management system, but are actually controlled by the vendors’ standalone software that the BMS can only monitor. And if it tries to intervene it can’t, because of incompatible software. Similarly, automated lighting systems that can only be adjusted post-handover by the vendor coming to site with a laptop for a £1000 fee become a financial headache.
Just because the Engineering Performance Specification requires centralised, open, or interlocked control between, say, an air-conditioning system and a heating system doesn’t mean it will be provided under the packaged sub-contract route, which leads to the next truism.
Packaged sub-contracts with vendor controls will usually lead to performance penalties
What the designers intend and what ends up being specified under a design and build contract is often another. Packaged solutions are packaged technologically, contractually, and staggered throughout the construction stage. In the absence of a commissioning engineer appointed early, and/or a talented experienced facilities manager to oversee it all come together, it’s too much for the design team to keep tabs on, even if the terms of their appointment endow them with that authority. They may have the responsibility, but sensibly they’ll run a mile afterwards rather than take the rap for resolving performance problems caused by packaged sub-contracts whose systems should be interlocked, but aren’t. Someone needs to manage this all the way through. Commissioning starts at design.
Keep it simple, do it well, and finish it off properly
Those of us working in the field of Soft Landings have been saying this for years. But it doesn’t seem to slow the bandwagon of over-complicated, poorly thought-through, inadequately commissioned and ultimately occupant-alienating systems from being specified. In many building performance studies there’s a fundamentally sound building struggling to escape the limitations placed on it by over-ambitious technical specification.
Often the difference between success and failure is a fine one, and the clue to that is the buck-passing one hears from various parties to the project, along the lines of, “oh well, if they’d only installed it properly”, or “if only they’d not value-engineered and put in a cheaper system”, or worse, “it’s not our fault if they don’t employ someone with the right skills to run it”. All of which might be true, if only for the likelihood that there was probably a much simpler way to have done it in the first place. Which leads, ultimately, to the most fundamental question of all: What comprises occupant comfort?
What comprises occupant comfort?
Studies of the human condition in enclosed spaces – the very purpose of which is to release the latent potential of human beings that can’t be achieved sitting in muddy field – show that there are about 50 comfort factors that need to be considered, and sometimes more depending on the context. Most of those cannot be met through the greater application of smart technologies, whatever they are. They can only be satisfied by more careful and thorough consideration of the needs and expectations of building occupants. And that, itself, demands that the assumptions under which designers and the controls specialists work need to get deeper attention and scrutiny.
The supply chain needs to get far smarter, not the technology