There’s no denying that the building industry is in the midst of transforming into a modern, technology-enabled, and data-driven business ecosystem, but it sure is taking its sweet time getting there.
All industries at some point and usually at multiple points in their existence go through transformations, almost all of which are significant, driven by the introduction and mass adoption of some form of “game-changing” technological advancement that improves on the existing model in some meaningful way to satisfy some compelling need.
Transformations such as this always fall into one of two categories—revolutionary or evolutionary. Revolutionary industry transformations typically occur over a number of years while evolutionary change can last decades. In terms of the former, consider the transportation industry in the early 1900s, which witnessed the centuries-old predominant mode of personal transportation—the good-old horse—almost completely replaced by the automobile in less than a decade.
Conversely, a good example of evolutionary change is the building industry, which has been on a glacial-paced, technology-driven transformative journey for well over a century, ever since the very first building control—the thermostat—was created in 1883 by Warren Johnson, who later went on to found Johnson Controls. This technological advancement—a simple device that activated light in the boiler room when temperatures began to fall, informing janitors it was time to shovel more coal into the furnace—marked the beginning of smart-building automation. That’s right, smart buildings were around for 25 years before the Model T even began rolling off the assembly line. Since that time, however, the auto industry—as well as just about every other industry—has raced past the building industry in the use of smart technologies to improve operations and/or to deliver enhanced value to the market. Let’s face it, my refrigerator is smarter than many of today’s commercial buildings while, comparatively speaking, my cell phone is a chip-enabled Rhodes Scholar. Frankly, at the pace things are going, flying cars will litter the skies, and fully automated, humanoid robots will be cooking up breakfast in the morning before buildings, in general, are simply able to effectively monitor and efficiently manage the energy they use, despite the technology to do so already being available.
My intent here isn’t to be critical of the building industry. After all, I’m part of the industry as well and proud to be so. Buildings are an incredibly important part of human existence and, regardless of how many stay-at-home orders are issued, they always will be. Rather, my point is that now is the time for the building industry to fully embrace the smart-technology revolution (yeah, the one we started but now trail in its use to the likes of children’s toys and home appliances) and kick-start this transformation into high gear. It’s time to begin enjoying en masse the tremendous economical, ecological, and social benefits associated with being connected, data-driven, and automated.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying that we haven’t made progress along this path. We absolutely have. Investment in the development and use of building automation systems and digital controls, sensor technology, and IoT connectivity grows annually, and this trend is expected to continue well into the future. By 2030, billions of dollars are expected to be invested across the industry to upgrade and retrofit building equipment and building automation systems. This is encouraging news, but we’ve heard these types of massive investment estimates into “green-building” technologies before; however, they never quite seem to materialize as projected. Will this time be different? And, if so, is billions enough to get the job done? Should we be talking about “illions” with a “tr?”
The reality is that one way or another transformative change is coming to our industry, particularly in the United States, and probably sooner rather than later. With a highly environmentally-conscious administration now in control of all branches of the federal government, you can bet new and stringent regulations related to energy efficiency and “green” initiatives are on their way, which will almost certainly result in rapidly escalating energy prices and significant monetary penalties for those failing to meet new federal energy efficiency mandates.
But energy concerns are just the beginning. Other factors such as growing societal demands for improved sustainability, rising occupant expectations concerning comfort and indoor air quality, a precipitously shrinking facilities management workforce, and a slew of others will also put incredible operational demands on the building industry as a whole—demands our current mode of operation simply can’t satisfy. Consequently, implementing a new way of doing business and operating our buildings are no longer arbitrary options; they are urgent imperatives. The good news is that with the rapid proliferation of smart-building technologies and advancements in automation and data-analytics capabilities, all the core pieces are currently in place to make this transition a reality today. It’s now a matter of choosing to act.
As an industry, the question we need to ask and answer at this moment is this: Do we reactively allow circumstance and outside elements to force us into concerted action, or do we proactively, completely, and urgently commit to a path we’re already on? Do we do right now what we know must be done and control our own future, or do we continue to wait, sit on our hands, and have that future dictated to us?
I think you know my answer—The time is now. I would love to hear your perspective on the topic.