Microsoft moves from smart to smarter buildings

Darrell Smith's focus throughout his career has been finding ways for companies around the world to get smart - smart about managing their buildings that is.

“Smart buildings will become smart cities and smart cities will change everything,” Microsoft’s director of facilities and energy explains.

Smith and his team have developed software that entwines thousands of data sensors that track everything from heaters and air conditioners to fans and lights.

But this is no ordinary system, Smith’s network of sensors gather billions of data metrics, enabling the team vast insights into consumption, pushing big data to the next level.

Built at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Seattle, the team collects 500 million data transactions every 24 hours, and the smart buildings software presents engineers with prioritised lists of dysfunctional equipment.

According to Microsoft, algorithms can balance out the cost of a fix in terms of money and energy being wasted with other factors such as how much impact fixing it will have on employees who work in that particular building.

Because of this in-depth analysis, a lower-cost problem in a research lab with critical operations may rank higher priority than a higher-cost fix that directly affects few. Smith says “almost half of the issues the system identifies can be corrected in under a minute”.

Costing $60m (£36m), the system has applied an “Internet of Things meets Big Data” approach to the 500-acre headquarters, helping generate the company massive energy savings and other efficiency gains, such as water.

The software solution is cutting the cost of operating the campus’ 125 buildings and has been “so successful” that the company is now helping building managers across the world deploy the same solution.

With commercial buildings consuming an estimated 40% of the world’s total energy, Smith’s creation is being hailed a potential game-changer. A market transition is taking place, says Smith, with businesses adopting and investing in the latest sustainable approaches to managing their buildings.

Smith plans to take Microsoft’s smart buildings software worldwide. His team developed the software, with the help of vendors, exclusively with off-the-shelf Microsoft software such as Windows Azure, SQL Server and Microsoft Office.

Smith says these partners and vendors are eager to help all businesses take their buildings from “piles of bricks to data-driven brains”.

“The business case and how I sold this to my manager is Microsoft retro-commissions or ‘tunes up’ our campus once every five years. So we still do a preventative maintenance every quarter but we did not come back to a building and go deep except once every five years. Having all this analytics allows us to scale that. Instead of doing two hundred assets a year, which was our typical standard, we can now do 35,000 assets a year”.

Smith says it’s the scalability that makes this such an appealing business proposition.

“As soon as a piece of equipment starts to run out of spec we can correct it there and then. When equipment starts running out of tune I can also tell you how much its costing us and we can prioritise our work based on those principles”.

Smith says that big data has the potential to change society and business on a “monumental scale” but “in a fundamental way that helps people and the planet”.

Leigh Stringer is edie energy and sustainability editor

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