12 February 2014
BSRIA has always been in the business of measuring, whether it is a physical quantity such as temperature or pressure, a market assessment such as volume of product imported to a given country or a softer, more management-oriented value such as a benchmark.
Measuring is a fundamental characteristic of our industry's operations. The need for accurate and more comprehensive measurement has been increasing in response to the low carbon agenda revolution. Revolution is no idle description either. In a little over 10 years, the carbon signatures of new buildings have been required to fall to "nearly zero".
Yet few owners were even aware of their building's operational carbon use at the start. I think BSRIA can be proud of its role over the past few years in promoting the increased use of through-life measurement embedded in processes such as Soft Landings and the associated building performance evaluations.
This growing awareness of the importance of measurement, control and feedback has not gone unnoticed by the manufacturers either. Fully integrated building management systems have been available for decades, but we are now seeing their introduction into smaller and smaller buildings. In fact, applications designed primarily for dwellings are finding a market in smaller commercial premises.
Integration is the key word here. With proper open standards now penetrating more deeply, sensors intended for one use can be shared among a variety of applications. For example, passive infrared sensor intruder detectors can become occupancy sensors for energy control.
Focus and stability
There is another BSRIA process that is associated with the collection of measurements. This is the process that turns detailed, often randomly accumulated and frequently disconnected data and information into documents that can be used by our members to guide them in their work.
Twenty years ago this process was greatly enhanced by the availability of a managed construction research programme that not only contributed funds from central government but, more importantly, brought focus and long-term stability to the accumulation of knowledge. This stability was crucial because it enabled people to establish research skills and careers with enduring value to the sector they served. Loss of this programme has also resulted in a loss of cohesion between frontline firms willing to collaborate within the longer-term research process.
There is, however, a new kid on the block that may be about to revolutionise the traditional measure/analyse/publish process that has dominated research and guidance in our sector.
As disruptive technologies go, big data has managed to remain under the public radar until the recent disclosures of the US government's Prism project. Under Prism, colossal quantities of data harvested from both open and private sources are analysed to identify supposed threats to homeland security.
It's the use of automatic analytics software combined with large arrays of sophisticated new sensing technologies that makes big data techniques so intriguing for the built environment sector. For example, consider the problem of maintaining comfortable temperatures.
Traditionally, we have used laboratory research on volunteers to establish what "comfort" requires. The late Professor Povl Ole Fanger - an international expert on thermal comfort and perception of indoor environments - took years to generate his widely used algorithms, but they still do not cover all the possible variables that affect perceived comfort.
We now use a thermostat, with a setpoint guided by Fanger, and assume that all is well with our occupants. In the new paradigm, cameras using facial recognition software will be capable of spotting yawning (too hot, too much carbon dioxide) or sluggish activity (too cold). This data is available for each worker in a given space and a voting system used to optimise comfort over the group.
Mining the data
This data could be available from many sources in a Prism-type environment. There would now be the potential to mine the data to establish new benchmarks feeding back to the design process that can be tailored to activity types. Schools, offices, homes and shops can each be analysed not only to establish a single setpoint value, but to understand in great detail the envelope or distribution of responses.
At last, proper large-scale data sets can aid our work - and most of what we need to do this is already available through installed building energy management systems. Traditional academic research leading to refereed papers and then to institutional guidance can take half a working lifetime to complete. Big data results can be achieved very quickly.
Take the case of adverts on Google; these are tailored specifically to you based on purchase decisions you may have only made through unconnected sites a few hours earlier. Scary but true.
Big data is where BIM, smart cities, performance contracting and responsive design meet. It challenges the preconceptions of professional codes, cuts swathes through the notion of privacy and opens up our market for knowledge to an entirely new set of competitive players.
Andrew Eastwell is the chief executive of BSRIA