Raising the IQ of Office Buildings

By Jim Rapoza  |  Posted 2007-06-11
Can something that is really stupid be converted into something intelligent?

With people, Im not so sure that can be done. The only example I can think of is in the television cartoon "Futurama," where the dimwitted Fry eats a bad sandwich and is infected by parasites that improve his bodily system, making him smarter.

In the real world, at least for people I know who arent the sharpest knives, getting smart can be a tough task. But what about in other areas, especially IT? Could something stupid be made intelligent? What about probably the dumbest things we deal with on a daily basis?

These stupid things Im talking about are the buildings in which we work. Of course, a building is stupid by nature since its an inanimate object. But theres much about our buildings that is even more idiotic than the simple concrete and steel, especially when it comes to dealing with IT.

First off, let me guess where your server room is—I bet its smack-dab in the middle of your office floor. What a great idea! Lets take a room that generates a ton of heat and wrap lots of offices and people around it. That way, we get to spend even more money and energy trying to keep it cool!

Click here to read more about the growing problems with heat in data centers.

If anyone had given even a second of thought to the structure of a building, he or she might have hit on the idea of putting the server room, I dont know, in a place thats easier to cool, such as underground.

This is just one example. For others, you need only walk through an office at night to see how many lights, fixtures and other appliances are needlessly running and wasting energy.

However, there has been a movement during the last few years to try and make these idiotic edifices just a little smarter. Like the helpful parasites in Frys system, the smart building proponents have been working on ways to use networked technology and sophisticated sensor systems to make buildings more intelligent about how power is used and heating and cooling resources are distributed.

In their most basic form, smart building initiatives strive to make managing building resources work in much the same way that managing network and server resources does. This means that instead of sending multiple facilities workers out to adjust thermostats and turn off lights, a single manager at a PC with a Web-based administrative tool can monitor and control heating and power resources.

However, in their more sophisticated mode, smart buildings become more proactive instead of re-active. For example, sensors in offices can detect when no one is there and adjust lighting and heating accordingly using simple motion detectors. Also, in the same way that a server farm can move resources from underutilized servers to help servers under stress, a smart building can lower power and cooling resources in one part of a building to help another area. Smart buildings can get even more sophisticated, with some architects discussing buildings that actually change their shape and configuration to react to different weather situations.

Still, there are some hurdles to smart building implementations. As in many other areas of IT, security is a big worry. No one wants to make it possible for a hacker to access a Web interface that provides access to everything from lighting to the front doors.

Also, inertia and government regulations can be another problem. I recently spoke to a CTO from a large building developer who discussed the problems he was having putting motion sensors on lights in stairwells, with others arguing that regulations require lighting for occupied stairwells. The CTO replied that, if there are motion sensors that react when a stairwell door is opened, then there will be lighting if the stairwell is occupied.

But right now, most buildings resemble that thoughtless teenager who never shuts off any lights, TVs or video games, leaves the refrigerator door open, and goes through other household resources like a swarm of locusts. The smart building people are hoping that they can reform and smarten up that lazy, wasteful lump.

So theres some hope for that big, stupid pile of concrete and steel in which you spend so much of your time. With a bit of work, it might just become an intelligent, efficient and contributing member of society rather than the power-guzzling loser it is now. And if we can pull off that change, it would be, well, smart.

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