February 28, 2011, 11:44 AM — For almost 100 years, the lightbulb was simply a lighting device: when a current passed through it, photons came out. Over the last few decades, that has changed. The electronic ballast in a modern fluorescent fixture has almost as many power electronics in it as your cell phone. And, with the emergence of L.E.D.'s, the lightbulb will make the leap to full-fledged I.T. appliance, capable of intelligent automated control and energy management. That transformation is a microcosm of changes in all machines that we use to live our lives: cars are more CPU than engines; HVAC systems have more computing power than an old-fashioned IBM mainframe; and your television set has morphed into another access point for the Internet.
When we began the task of researching the emerging field of Smart Building Systems, I expected that we would be covering I.T. systems that turn dumb building systems smart. There is certainly an element of that: most of these technologies require a server (usually operating from the cloud) and advanced software for data retention, transmittance and analysis.
What surprised me is the increasing intelligence of the "things" in the building. An HVAC system is filled with actuators, each with its own chip, just waiting to be used to advance the energy efficiency of the device. The newest sensors combine photo-diodes, motion awareness and even CO2 meters to observe the environment around them. And then there's the lightbulb. When Thomas Edison invented it, the device was a mere tungsten filament that glowed. Today, there's a company called Redwood Systems that is building a complete lighting network based on L.E.D.'s that sips so little energy that a 2500 square foot room full of them can be powered by an Ethernet cable. And the system can be loaded with dozens of sensors that feed data back to the controller about exactly what is happening inside that room. Lighting can be dimmed in response to high real-time energy prices or in response to a weather forecast of a sunny day. The system is expensive today, but its price should drop dramatically in the next 24 months as L.E.D. production costs fall. Even at today's costs, some companies can install the system and pay it off with energy savings in just three to four years.
Lighting is just one element of this new intelligence in buildings. Every other system, from the heating to the elevators to the plumbing, is turning from a set of machines controlled by a computer into a computer with machines built into it. As Sun Microsystems once revolutionized the computer industry by pronouncing "The network is the computer", we are quietly entering an age of computerized building systems. It's not about plopping computers into buildings. The building, it turns out, is the computer.