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Building - Energy

Teaching Old Buildings New Tricks

Retrofitting buildings starts with what you already have

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The buildings turning heads these days are brand new and look as futuristic as they perform. These buildings are expensive to design, pricey to build, and incorporate all the fancy gizmos and gadgets that one would expect. But these structures don’t just look advanced, they’re made for high performance from the materials used in construction to the hardware installed throughout the walls, floors, furniture, and elevators. With entrance signs proudly showing certifications like LEED, WELL or Fitwel, those who enter these buildings instantly have high expectations of comfort, operational excellence, and even assumptions about how the building’s occupants and owners take responsibility towards meeting climate goals.

But, we cannot build our way to meet our sustainability goals. In 2050, approximately two-thirds of the commercial real estate buildings that exist today will still be standing. While there is a global focus on codes, standards, and green building certifications, what are we doing to do about the buildings we already have? It’s expensive and unnecessary to replace functional existing equipment. Besides, the greenest building is the one already built.

Fortunately, there is a growing number of tools to help refurbish and renew existing buildings and cities are paying attention to this. “Take a building in central London as an example, retrofitting can be up to 40 percent cheaper than knocking it down and starting again. Unless there is a very good reason for knocking a building down, it will always make commercial sense to retrofit rather than rebuild,” said Oliver Bayliss, Director of London architecture studio Buckley Gray Yeoman.

Teaching these new tricks to make old buildings smarter and more efficient in order to meet global climate goals as well as localized energy efficiency goals isn’t an easy task. Every building is unique which requires a detailed analysis for retrofit measures and understanding facility energy use properly can be challenging. Plus, with so many possible products to use, it can be hard to choose the most appropriate solution for the unique building or buildings across a portfolio. Retrofitting can be expensive and today’s budgets are especially tight with so many companies and buildings questioning what is going to happen with their space needs and usage.

Building operators feel stuck. They have these legacy systems that they can’t afford to replace, but they’re still trying to meet new requirements for energy efficiency.

Reza Alaghehband, CEO of Envio Systems

Retrofitted buildings have improved energy efficiency, lower operational costs, and higher redundancy for failure which are considerable competitive advantages against buildings using legacy systems. The appeal of bringing older buildings to the 21st century is clear but finding a place to start without large CapEx investment and then scaling it can be intimidating. “Building operators feel stuck. They have these legacy systems that they can’t afford to replace, but they’re still trying to meet new requirements for energy efficiency. There’s an intensified focus on health and safety following the pandemic, too, but their existing tools don’t provide the data they need,” explained Reza Alaghehband, CEO of Envio Systems, a company specializing in retrofitting commercial buildings with IoT. “We built our platform to be a translator, to bring data out of legacy systems and transform it into a language shared with other systems.”

If buildings continue to operate on a catch-up strategy, they will never be ahead of the game. Even the newest buildings, like Amazon’s proposed HQ2 building in Virginia, USA, will become outdated in just a few years with the current speed of technology innovation. The answer is empowering building networks with intelligent software that is always updated with the latest and great improvements, like a Tesla. With a software backbone to optimize performance operations within a building, operators can be connected and utilize systems of all types from one dashboard.

The single pane of glass approach isn’t new but it also isn’t widely implemented. The right IoT platform can connect all kinds of systems from the ever-important indoor air quality (IAQ) sensors to energy and sustainability, real-time utility information, work order management, lighting control, HVAC, and more. This ubiquitous set-up enables building operators to keep an eye on things remotely while still having full control over automations and If This Then That (or IFTTT) sequences.

Consolidating data from older buildings is a task in itself, but the real evolution into a smart building is done when technology can take action based on the data. Listening and watching are only useful if you can do something about it. “Operators have to be able to bring all the data in and then answer the question of what’s next?” said Alaghehband. “Do you need someone to interact with it or is it done automatically? Do we need a controls contractor to come in and redo a set point for us? Or can you simply hit ‘yes?’”

When owners and operators look to retrofit their buildings, there is, fortunately, already extensive data being created nonstop by various building systems. Tapping into this existing data is the first step in teaching older buildings new tricks. Platforms like Envio Systems can talk to any system through their Cube Controller which instantly turns legacy systems into IoT while also understanding LORA, Zigbee, Sigfox, Bluetooth LE, Thread, and others. Buildings with a scalable and capable operational backbone can be updated relatively easily as technology evolves and improves. Platforms that agnostically talk to all systems are not only good for bringing together existing systems but integrate seamlessly with new additions down the road. 

We cannot predict what will be a priority next but buildings can be ready through an IoT platform that easily connects to new sensors, systems, and other data sources. No one could have expected IAQ to be at the top of our minds before the pandemic or the prevalence of occupancy sensors but now they’re priorities in indoor spaces. As we evolve, refurbish, repurpose and retrofit buildings, let’s do it in a way that prevents buildings from becoming outdated again. Our older buildings are important, they’re part of our culture and our history and they are the majority of building stock. It’s smarter to find ways to take advantage of what we have than to just focus on new developments. As we’re teaching our old building new tricks, let’s plan for the long road and use technology that grows with us.

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