If you're going to build, build smart

By Steven Hipwell
28 Apr 2011 View Comments
Steven Hipwell is ICT principal project manager at Birmingham City University

When Birmingham City University (BCU) got the go-ahead to build a state-of-the-art building to re-house its prestigious Birmingham Institute of Art and Design facilities there were plenty of opportunities to re-think technology delivery.

Primarily, how could we integrate the building's management and environmental systems controlling such services as heating, lighting and air-conditioning with the university's business systems to get all of the advantages that we'd heard about from a "smart" building.

Further reading

Smart buildings save on life-cycle costs and help mitigate the environmental effects of construction. Important issues when you consider that according to IBM by 2025 buildings will use more energy than any other category of consumer.

Technology has moved on greatly from when the university embarked on its last campus building project at Millennium Point in the centre of Birmingham in the late 1990s. Back then IBM's Smart Planet and Cisco's Connected Real Estate weren't in the market. Nowadays with all of the necessary pieces of infrastructure connectivity, open-architectures and powerful mobile- computing devices convergent and interoperable so much is achievable; and maybe there is more reason to achieve.

With environmental concerns and spending cuts at the forefront of the social conscience, innovative ways of using technology to help are as welcome within universities as elsewhere. For BCU that means getting our systems talking to each other to enable clearer more accurate visibility across the enterprise and reaping the resulting benefits. A good example of this is allowing our access-control system to interoperate with our student records system so that students' attendance can be monitored. This way we can offer targeted services to improve the students' experience at university and offer help if attendance drops off.

On the building systems side we will closely monitor our energy and utilities usage with smart sensors and controllers that can communicate with the university's middleware, Microsoft BizTalk. The opportunity to get building systems talking through an intelligent bridge like BizTalk means that we can do clever things at the software layer. As the building management system industry moves more towards incorporating web-services into their products those lines of communication become a whole lot easier to establish.

As the physical and virtual worlds converge there are opportunities to place a virtual-skin over the physical. Using augmented reality software like Layar you can overlay a physical space with additional information from building information to local businesses and available services.

For our current project the university is using a virtual platform called a building information model (BIM). Our BIM allows each of the construction design team disciplines to develop the building design in a private cloud. What's more there is potential to use the finished BIM in tandem with a building management system to bring the building to life with dynamic information.

As a university we are always looking to make the way we do things more intelligent so it makes sense to weave the latest technology into our physical estates where practicable. Turning networks of dumb standalone nodes into connected orchestrated smart systems has to bring advantages. In this way we can manage the resources we use and supply more sustainably and responsibly. As tuition fees change in 2012 and government constricts spending turning to smarter technology can only help. As institutions created for learning and best practice it's fitting that universities should try to break new ground and innovate when it comes to our buildings.

Steven Hipwell is ICT principal project manager at Birmingham City University

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