The Key Components of the New Deal for Buildings

The New Deal for Buildings brings together the building automation industry and commercial building professionals. It's built on the BACnet open standard, model-based analytics and service transparency.

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Two buildings on a colorful background
Illustration: © IoT For All

The New Deal for Buildings initiative facilitates a dialog between the building automation industry and commercial building professionals on how we collectively think about intelligent and smart systems in buildings. Initiated by Cimetrics, Inc., the New Deal addresses the challenges faced by both vendors and owners who plan for, procure, manage and maintain the building automation systems that lie at the heart of modern facilities. 

The New Deal is built on three critically important building blocks: the BACnet open standard, model-based analytics and service transparency.

Individually, these bring lots of value but delivered in combination they provide a powerful and compelling roadmap for getting the most from today’s and tomorrow’s buildings. More importantly, these attributes serve to improve the relationship between vendors and owners, as well as contribute to improving their respective businesses.

BACnet Open Standard

Because a building is made up of many different types of equipment, functions, and systems, the best solution for a particular building is likely going to be sourced from multiple vendors. By necessity, a critical element of building systems is how these devices communicate with each other. The answer to this interoperability problem is an openly defined standard for a building-wide control system network, one able to offer sufficient rigidity of standard to reliably connect everything together, and the flexibility to engineer the results required by clients.

This is where BACnet (Building Automation Control Network) comes in. An industry initiative started in 1987, housed in the highly respected ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) organization, BACnet was first with this vision and has continued its development work to this day. 

There are three key aspects of BACnet that fit the New Deal:

Firstly, BACnet is a network protocol for devices to communicate with each other. Initially using serial communication networks like RS-485 – popular in the ’80s and ’90s though still in wide use today – BACnet’s networking prowess has evolved. Having adopted TCP/IP as the Internet became widespread, BACnet now leverages Web Services, the very technology that powers much pf our digital world today. It’s worth noting that, after three decades, cybersecurity continues to be a critical consideration of the work in the BACnet community.

Secondly, BACnet provides a way for devices and supervisory equipment to interrogate the system to understand what BACnet devices are installed and what information they have. The information contained in BACnet devices includes data types expected in building systems such as temperature, binary switch status (On/Off), fan speeds (for fans and motors) and complex data structures such as calendars, event logs, door access profiles, etc. BACnet also allows vendors of specialized products to create non-standard information profiles that allow their devices to be responsible citizens of the BACnet network.

Finally, BACnet encapsulates a great deal of metadata about the devices on the network. Metadata is critical for devices to expose their context to others. As an example, information about the external building temperature is useful in isolation, but the temperature of the air after a heating element in a duct tells not only the temperature of the air but also the effectiveness of the heating element. In a typical building, there can be thousands of these relationships. BACnet metadata is the key to reducing the complexity of the inherently complex building control system.

Three decades on, BACnet is the foundation of the Industrial IoT (IIoT) for buildings. BACnet is today the best way to instrument the complexly engineered building system. Industry adoption of BACnet is broad and growing, from equipment manufacturers, control system vendors, contractors and system integrators. The BACnet ecosystem is a reliable and safe bet for the future of buildings.

Model-Based Cloud Analytics

One attribute of building systems is that they’re each unique, even though many of the devices that make up the system are common, standard and available off-the-shelf. Each system in a building is engineered specifically for that building, with requirements that are unique to the circumstances and needs of that building, as specified by the building owner and design team.

Implementing analytics on such a system requires a thorough understanding of this dynamic. Many traditional analytical techniques such as machine learning and statistical analysis can provide some value in analyzing buildings, but to truly extract value from these systems requires a model-based approach, which is what we prescribe in the New Deal.

Model-based analytics create a cloud-based digital twin of the building. Digital twins are created automatically by looking into the information from the building using the BACnet infrastructure, data models and metadata. The digital twin replicates the structure of the system, which, when combined with the continuous data flow from the building, allows continuous modeling of the building in the cloud. These models can quickly identify issues where the physical system isn’t operating correctly. As per the above simple temperature example, if we know the gas to the heater is on, and the temperature after the heater is the same as the air before the heater, then something must be wrong.

Not only does model-based analytics identify issues, but it can also often determine the cost of problems and can automatically know when the problem is fixed following corrective action. In other words, this approach not only monitors the system, but also oversees the resolution of issues identified, and thus monitors the service performed by service providers.

Another critical value of this approach is that we can rewind the system to analyze the building as it was operating at a past date. This attribute is useful as a forensic tool, for example, to investigate why the energy cost a few months back was abnormal. The tool can help explore what-if scenarios as part of problem-solving complex systemic issues.

The value of this approach for building owners and managers is significant as it brings accountability and transparency to the task of identifying and resolving issues. Equipment vendors are held accountable for their products, and service providers are held accountable for their services. Issues not caused by equipment or programming failures, such as building occupants’ behavior, floor plan changes and other external issues can be identified in a similar manner. When the appropriate changes are made, the analytics engine should automatically re-adjust the status quo to the new circumstances.

Service Transparency

We’ve already established that buildings are complex entities. Building owners (including managers and occupants) are the users of the building; they have their own issues to deal with and don’t have the bandwidth or expertise to manage every aspect of how their facility is serving them. At the core of what building owners must demand under the New Deal is transparency that the products and services they receive are doing what they’re intended to do – what the owners have paid for.

While the key components of the New Deal are the two technology approaches previously discussed, to truly deliver value to building owners, these technologies must be viewed as enablers for vendors to deliver their products and service, and to do so with transparency.

This level of transparency was previously impossible to achieve, and much of the inefficiencies of buildings today can be argued to be a result of this problem. While it’s easy to know when your HVAC equipment stops working, it’s difficult to know that a piece of equipment was performing 10 percent below nominal, and it’s not easy to prove that a fix was made to recover that lost 10 percent of performance. While 10 percent doesn’t sound much, multiple similar issues can compound into a material performance degradation of complex mechanical systems, costing the owner significantly, from energy usage and occupant productivity to negative business impact.

The adherence to the BACnet open standard removes a vendor’s ability to hide behind proprietary products, and it removes the lock-in vendors have traditionally used to secure additional projects and lucrative service contracts. The New Deal posits that, when a quality-focused vendor offers open products and service transparency, they will receive an increased level of business and the loyalty of the owners who appreciate the transparency.

This transparency is beneficial both to the vendor and the owner. The vendors can use it to analyze the problem in the first place and use any information gained to propose a solution. The owner can then see the rationale of the vendor’s proposal and subsequently, the result of the service work. Should the problem persist, both vendor and owner can openly review the data and their decisions, and, if necessary, escalate the issue. Most importantly, there’s no finger-pointing.

Service transparency isn’t a nice-to-have business model or a marketing slogan. One of the reasons for the success of the consumer internet is leveraging information technology to enable transparency. When you think of Yelp, Airbnb, TripAdvisor, Amazon or any of the many other online services, it’s transparency that contributes to the quality of products and services the customer receives. In the New Deal, providing service transparency is a core attribute of the successful relationship between vendors and owners.

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