4 min read

Nexus #7 (1/28/2020)

Two narratives on the future of smart buildings; customizing analytics software

Welcome to Nexus, a newsletter for people applying analytics and other smart building technology—written by James Dice.

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My latest ideas

There’s been insightful discussion on LinkedIn on last week’s essay Defining the Digital Twin for Buildings. Check it out and add your take in the original thread, or Nicolas’ thread, or Timo’s thread. This week, I'll post part two in this three part series: Why We Need Digital Twins for Buildings.

If you haven’t weighed in yet, I’d love your thoughts to contribute to part 2:

Add your take on LinkedIn

News worth knowing

1. Analytics

+ Customization is not always the holy grail—One final nugget (for now) from my recent conversations with KGS BuildingsNick and Alex is a realization:

Customization is not always the holy grail for analytics

Just like last week, Nick and Alex exposed a gap in my thinking. When it comes to analytics software, I thought more customization was always better.  When I was a consultant with a diverse client base (hospitals, universities, commercial office, K-12) this flexibility provided me with comfort: I could pick one platform (in my case it was SkySpark) and customize it to any client’s needs.

An update on this philosophy: there are actually two types of customization available in the analytics software market. Understanding both will help us navigate the murky waters of this broad and often-confusing industry:

  1. Customized analytics and visualizations—This type allows you to customize the types of issues you're looking for in the data and under what conditions. This is going to change based on the building owner, the business type, the types of systems in the building. However, this type of customization is valuable only up to a certain point. The limitations:

    • When it results in a cluttered user interface, inhibiting adoption and use of the software

    • When the software is already designed to discover the issues you’re looking for at scale, you don’t need to customize 

    • When the customized analytics extend beyond the data model. Analytics is a holistic system, and customization can break it.

  2. Customized ontology—This type allows you to customize the data model for any data in any system in any building. Standards like Project Haystack have come together around a specific ontology for the built world. However, the standards only get you so far. Customizable software allows you to build out a complete, custom ontology to match any system you come across and how you want to interpret it. That flexibility is great, but it’s also a double-edged sword. The limitations:

    • If I customize the standard by building on top of it, now I have a new, and essentially proprietary, version of the standard.

    • When the customized data model is friendly for humans to read but not machines, thus limiting interoperability and automation. This is what Brick Schema is attempting to solve for. I’ll have more on this in coming weeks.

2. Smart Buildings

+ The Next Story Up podcast is (still) excellent—As I slowly work my way through season 1 of Tyler Haak’s Schneider Electric podcast Next Story Up, I want to remind you of his entertaining storytelling and highlight two particularly great episodes:

  • Miraculous or Mundane—A story comparing Tyler's iPhone-enabled journey from New York City to Baltimore with the types of experience-guiding journeys we might have in buildings.
  • The Seamless Experience—A story about the similarities and differences between dumplings (random, I know) across the world and how this relates to the similarities and differences in the goals of building automation in different building types.

The common thread here is that the building automation system (BAS), and the smart building platform being built on top of it, is one tool to replace many—just like the iPhone was and is. It’s also one tool that can transform based on the unique culture, setting, owner, and business type of the building.

+ Troy Harvey, CEO of startup PassiveLogic, on replacing today’s BAS with a "deep digital twin”—This essay made me rethink the future of this industry.

Is the future, as Schneider Electric proposes above, to add intelligence on top of the traditional BAS as the foundation?

Or does the future hold a complete replacement of today's BAS as the weak link in the stack with a “Deep Digital Twin”? This is Troy’s perspective, and I’m very intrigued!

Here’s a teaser:

While artificial intelligence (AI) will play a large role in the next wave of automation systems, it cannot save us on its own. The foundations of the next automation revolution won’t be built on AI magically “un-dumbing” today’s dumb (BAS). It’s not fundamentally possible.


adding this new functionality, limited by the weak foundation, requires laborious effort — thus we call it “integration” not “installation!” The combination of a weak foundation with a low technology ceiling, together with laborious effort requirements, is a core source of so much dissatisfaction in the marketplace.

Check out the full essay here.

+ Smart Buildings Insight—Another good resource (along with Nexus of course), for navigating these types of questions is Joe Aamidor’s monthly newsletter, Smart Buildings Insight. He just sent out the January issue last week. Thanks Joe!

Add your take on LinkedIn