Marseille: Making ‘Smart’ Building Choices

Smart building technology is providing greater potential for environmental efficiency, comfort and convenience – but one of the big challenges is making sure occupants and owners are maximizing those benefits.

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Tom Marseille, managing director of the U.S. buildings group in Seattle and director of sustainability, addressed the challenge of balancing smart building technology with the people who use the building in an article for the U.S. Green Building Council website earlier this month, “Occupant-aware Buildings or Building-aware Occupants?

“More than ever, occupants and tenants are being asked to play a bigger role in achieving high-performance outcomes for their buildings by reducing their own personal consumption, making informed choices that lower energy and water use,” Marseille wrote. “Customizing building information, and making it accessible via individual workstations or smartphones, is a reality today. But it remains to be seen whether occupant interest and active engagement can be sustained in the long term.”

The building technology systems group at WSP USA provides clients with opportunities to integrate smart technology design into their projects, including telecommunications, audio visual, security and network systems. But once systems are installed, it’s up to the owners and occupants to effectively integrate that technology into their lives.

“Occupants and building operators can make or break whether a building operates at peak performance or not,” Marseille said. “The goal is for smart building technology to make things better – to be more energy efficient, more comfortable, to use space more efficiently, or to provide more convenient access to resources or services – and to do it in a way that doesn’t add additional burden in terms of things occupants and owners need to understand, interface with, or maintain. The more seamless the system, the more likely it will be successful.”

Intuitive vs. Educated

While education about the many benefits of a smart building is important for owners and occupants, Marseille said it is equally important that many of those benefits can be attained with little knowledge about what makes them work.

“The best apps on phones don’t require education; they are intuitive,” Marseille said. “My hope would be that smart building technology that interfaces with occupants would be the same. The user interface is the key.”

Tools like on-line learning are effective at helping people understand the benefits and consequences of their actions and inactions, but the best and lasting results are achieved when those interactions are aligned with what people are used to doing, such as interfacing with a smartphone.

However, Marseille added that not every “smart” feature has to be reliant on technology to make a difference. “A building that I would call ‘smart’ – and is certainly inherently resilient – effectively incorporates passive features that require user action. These buildings may also require some education or training.”

He said that the best system is one that can strike a balance between an intuitive system that pushes the benefits to occupants, and one where the occupant must make decisions that require them to make choices.

“Think of it as an energy dashboard that is meant to inspire people to take actions that benefit themselves, or for the benefit of a greater good, such as the environment,” Marseille said.

Today and Tomorrow

WSP helps its clients by serving as advisors and consultants early in the design process to inform them about what is possible today and what is coming in the future.

“Informing the clients on what they can do to make buildings future ready, and to exploit emerging opportunities that provide value to them and their tenants, is key,” Marseille said. “If we can help clients make a smart choice for a platform that provides immediate value but is extensible – and where we can continue to serve as advisors to them in the future – that lowers their risk and provides us with a valuable long-term relationship.”

Other disciplines at WSP also contribute to successful smart buildings. Built ecology is playing an increasing role on the data analytics side of operational energy and water performance, creating actionable information for owners and occupants. The architectural lighting design practice is designing lighting control systems and introducing technology that enables light optimization and individual preferences down to the individual fixture, improving health and productivity while lowering energy costs.

“The list goes on, and these roles will be increasing in the future,” Marseille said.

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