homenews and insights smart buildings ambx interview with rob mitchell

amBX interview with Rob Mitchell

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By Rob Mitchell
17 November 2021

Project Sales Director

This is a transcript of an interview between amBX and Project Sales Director Rob Mitchell

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Rob works within SSE Energy Solutions, in the business unit that is focused on smart building technologies. They cover a wide portfolio of activities within the built environment, but their main focus is the decarbonisation of buildings. They are delivering smart ready buildings using feature-rich building management systems.

Energy-saving and decarbonising buildings are huge topics, and it is something that needs to be addressed soon as most current buildings are classed as inefficient. What are your thoughts?

A lot needs to change; I am very passionate about this topic. 80% of buildings that will be in use in 2050 have already been built. The industry has some good standards, but there is more that could be done or more incentives/legislation that could be in place for non-domestic buildings. Specifically, around maintaining the standards they were built for, they should be maintained over time, but there's a lag; they often aren't maintained properly. If you take any reasonably sized building constructed over the last 10 years, they will have been constructed to some very exact standards, and generally, large buildings do have good automated central control systems, but the problem is, users and owners don't often realise what they have and as the building progresses out of the construction stage, through the warranty stage and becomes a 'used building' there's an approach to facility management that is low cost, low hassle and this, therefore, means that often buildings aren't optimised to their full potential and are invariably running inefficiently.
I regularly go into buildings that have great operating systems, but they're either turned off, or no one has any idea how to use them. There is a real reticence to upgrade building management systems, which I find really odd. We build buildings to last, and we upgrade all of our other technology, e.g., our phones, laptops, TVs, or at least upgrade their software annually, but yet we expect BMS to last forever. We don't expect our cars to run properly and maintain their value without being properly maintained, and yet we expect that from our buildings.

Is one of the biggest challenges for smart buildings how we procure technology? The traditional process is very set in stone with the aim of minimising risk, but this also stifles innovation.

I've considered this throughout my career. Technology is the easy bit. There are loads of well designed, scaled and scalable technology out there. The challenge is getting that tech into buildings. The new build process is a bit easier, but when it comes to retrofit, it is tough. Also, increasingly in buildings, it's the services that make the building work, e.g. having the best lighting, air quality, networks etc. however, there is still a culture that the steal, brick and concrete are the big-ticket items, and that's where the value is, but I think that needs to change. The industry remains in a place where everything is packaged and placed into purchasing silos; this means bringing technology together is very difficult, especially if that technology spans the different networks. The way we specify, design, and procure buildings today makes that difficult, and if it's a challenge, then typically contractors and clients view that as risk and therefore avoid it, so this definitely does stifle innovation.

Do the age-old ways we design, specify, price and install technology in buildings really allow us to get the best out of them? Can we truly create smart buildings with this method? What other options do we have? What do you think needs to change?

We shouldn't do the industry a disservice; over the last 10 years, we have been putting some reasonably good technology into buildings. I wouldn't say it was future-proofed, but you can upgrade and optimise the building based on what people have today, but they don't. So, I think at the very least, if we were to take those existing operating systems and upgrade them, that would be a start. But I think without a doubt the change will come, especially in new build projects. There is a focus on taking carbon out of the construction process; the skilled labour shortage is having a big effect - there is a drive for more offsite fabrication, modular buildings etc. Then when you take digital technologies such as BIM, digital twinning and then the horsepower we have with systems to take the data and overlay AI, that is radically changing the industry. So, I think the old ways will change. I think more will be done through AI and ML, and less skilled labour will be required. I say, let's embrace it! It is so exciting seeing this digital transformation. At first, it's easy steps; let's get ready for smart by having a smart-ready infrastructure. Get buildings reliably connected, start to extract the data and then share that data. Allow tech companies, like SSE, to access it and see what we can do to optimise the building further. Aftercare can be something that is neglected and overlooked, so it's important to have a specialist who can get the best out of it. Over the last 10-15 years, every building has been bespoke. We have this issue where everything is inconsistent, there is a constant issue with tagging and accessing data from multiple sources, but we have to start somewhere. There will be a lot more collaboration across companies going forward. We're going to have to have systems that are optimised but are open so that the data can be shared with other things. We're already doing this with lighting, for instance. We are installing a quality lighting control solution, we're not trying to control it from the BMS, but the data is available to share. This creates a much more unified system that allows the building to react and understand what's going on. In due course, we can start sending information back and forth, so it can become a 2-way dialogue.

Can interoperability and integration truly be achieved across projects? Smart Building Consultants and System Integrators aren't standard on every project, so what needs to change?

It is a bit of a moment in time because there haven't been standards, and these silos have developed over time due to the specification and procurement process, but I actually think that technology will be the answer.
We can very easily create smart homes ourselves now. We can walk into Curry's or go on Amazon and buy this technology and integrate it within 10 minutes using an app, and everything works together. Yet, when we go back to work on Monday, we have all of these complex integration issues. The technology is there, but our commercial buildings are so complex and difficult because of all of these historical silos. I think what will happen is technology will become easier to specify. I'm not sure we will see lots more Smart Building Consultants and System Integrators, but I think technology will integrate in a much more straightforward way. Someone will have to play the part of pulling all of the data into one place; that will be an interesting role.

In your view, how do we effectively meet the need for net zero carbon buildings but also prioritise flexibility, connectivity, and occupant comfort?

We have no choice here. The world is on fire; we have got to decarbonise buildings and our daily lives. We have to do this now. We can affect things quickly if we use things we have got already. Generally, we have found that within moments of walking into an existing building, we can come up with a plan to reduce their impact on the environment. This is often a win-win because it means lower energy consumption too, which results in cost savings. Maybe there is an argument that occupants will have to feel a little bit warmer on those hot summer days and a bit cooler in the winter if it means they're in a more energy-efficient building. The primary cost in any business is the people, but maybe if we do our bit, the people will be happy that the corporate is doing the right thing for the environment, even if that means they have to wear a jumper on a cold day. I think in the end, with the right tech, you can score all of these points. The tech is there to provide fabulous experiences within a building. Attitudes are changing a lot in general; people would be more willing to compromise because they're a lot more environmentally aware. However, building owners should still provide comfortable, safe buildings with clean air etc., that is not a ‘nice to have’; that should be a given. It's exciting times; this urgency will really drive innovation. It's there; we've just got to get on with it. We've got to be brave; we need to find brave clients and show others what is possible.

Are there any buildings that you think are achieving operational and sustainable excellence as well as combining all of the additional requirements for health and wellbeing, connectivity, flexibility, data insight, etc.? In your view, are there any examples of buildings that demonstrate what we should be striving towards?

There are some that are pretty close. There are clients that see the benefit and are fully on board. However, it probably isn't scaled, and not all services and solutions are currently installed and utilised in any one building. At SSE Smart Buildings, we are in a great position because we have some great partnerships with the likes of Siemens, Trend and Tridonic. We have the opportunity to look at the market and bring new technologies in and work with new partners, and we can take that into existing clients with who we've worked for years and have built up a great level of trust. So, we are delivering this 'excellence' in pockets and pilot projects, but we are at the start of the journey. In a way, that is quite sad because the technology has been around quite a while, but I think that clients have cottoned onto it now and are ready to embrace it. We're one of the primary sponsors at COP26, and there is a lot of people looking at this now. Is there going to be some top-down pressure? There is certainly budget being pushed for decarbonisation, so it's definitely happening, but more needs to happen and quicker. We keep focusing far out, thinking about where we need to be in 10 years' time but without just making those first steps. So, I think as an industry, let’s start connecting to buildings, analysing the data that's already there, and using the technology that is already installed. You could take any building that is 10 years old or newer and could probably shave 20% off of their exposure without hardly doing a thing other than optimising what they already have. We would welcome that, and I think the industry would too!