Embassies around the world gain valuable data from smart building technology, says the State Department’s Landon Van Dyke

Feb 28 2020

How Smart Building Tech Makes the State Department More Energy Efficient

Smart building technologies help agencies to trim costs, reduce waste and improve operations.

After the State Department deployed advanced energy metering at its domestic buildings to meet a 2012 federal deadline, agency officials were startled by how quickly they were able to achieve a positive return on their initial investment.

“At one of our facilities, we turned on our smart meters, and over the course of a couple of weeks, we realized an $8 thermometer on the roof was defective,” recalls Landon Van Dyke, the acting deputy of the Center for Analytics, who led a team to scale the program globally.

“It affected the way air handlers were turning on and off, and it turned out that we were spending an extra $50,000 per month — just because the system didn’t know what to do and kept turning itself on and off,” he says. “We fixed the issue, and we saved about half a million dollars in just a few months.”

The department’s experience with that inexpensive thermometer turned out to be transformative. “That indicated to us that we should expand this initiative to all of our facilities around the world,” Van Dyke says.

State did just that, rolling out sensors and software solutions at its buildings to help officials better understand — and, ultimately, improve — the performance of the department’s facilities. And the agency is far from alone.

For instance, the General Services Administration, which manages more than 8,000 federal buildings across the country, has established a program to improve energy efficiency and save money in both existing and new buildings. 

Smart Buildings Start to Take Off 

Although smart building technologies have been around for years, they’re still far from achieving the level of penetration of many other IT or operational technology solutions. But Dennis Shelden, associate professor and ­director of the Digital Building Laboratory at Georgia Tech, believes that smart buildings are poised to have their moment.

“There’s an increasing convergence among all these different smart systems that allows people to add more and more layers of intelligence and understanding about how buildings are operating and how to improve their performance,” Shelden says. “The costs of these sensors are coming down dramatically, and the systems are becoming open — I feel like we’re at the beginning of a revolution around smart buildings.”

The GSA itself has implemented smart building technologies not only at its agency headquarters, built in 1917, but also at more than 200 of the facilities it manages across the country. 

A Government Accountability Office report in 2018 outlined details of the program, including advanced utility meters that measure use in real time (about 675 of them are installed in the agency’s 1,600 federally owned buildings). 

Another detail: computer software that collects and analyzes data from the advanced meters, and can let facilities managers know about problems that humans may not be able to detect.

Installing the meters and software costs between $48,000 and $155,000, the GSA reported, but those costs were expected to fall.

IoT Sensors Help Boost Efficiency for Feds

GSA was also able to use data collected by its network to uncover unused space in its headquarters building — enough to fit the 1,000 workers in its National Capital Region office. That freed up the NCR’s original, federally owned building to make room for an agency now using expensive leased space.

“We asked how often do people scan in, how often do they check out desks, and how do they want to use space? We found even on our busiest day, we had over 1,000 vacant desks, which meant we could consolidate folks out of the NCR building,” GSA Administrator Emily Murphy said last fall at Imagine Nation ELC 2019.

Improving building operations is one of three main goals that drive organizations to implement smart building solutions, Shelden says. The others are increasing energy performance (the original goal) and ultimately, enhancing human outcomes such as work performance.


The reduction in operating costs that can be achieved by using smart building technologies to manage energy use in unoccupied rooms

Source: Siemens Financial Services, “Smart Start for Smart Buildings,” October 2018

“We have actual ways of measuring the performance of a building and the performance of people in buildings, and correlating that with organizational improvement,” Shelden says. “That’s still on the horizon, but it’s becoming less of a speculative thing.”

The State Department is using smart building solutions to save money not only by decreasing water and energy use, but also by optimizing equipment utilization to expand its life span.

Addison “Tad” Davis IV, director of the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations, envisions leveraging data from the smart metering network to make overseas department facilities more resilient and sustainable. 

“By understanding how our buildings are functioning over time, we can increase the efficiency of our operations and building designs, and ensure we’re deploying the right equipment to prepare for risks from natural disasters or political disruptions.”

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Find out more about the tech behind smart buildings. 

APIs Help Agencies Get Smart Building Data 

Argonne National Laboratory, one of the Energy Department’s research labs, is one of the labs testing smart building solutions for GSA’s Green Proving Ground, which evaluates whether technologies will live up to manufacturers’ promises in real-world settings, as well as the security of the devices.

Ralph Muehleisen, principal building scientist and group leader at Argonne, says that smart lighting systems, which automatically adjust in response to daylight sensors, have proved effective.

Window coatings that reflect ­infrared light to prevent heat gain, plus low-cost smart control systems that can be ­integrated with existing building ­systems, also showed good performance.

“The technology all works. The question always comes down to, how much does it really cost to install?” says Muehleisen. “If the bids are somewhat plausible, those seem to have really good rates of return on the investment.”

Ralph Muehleisen, Principal Building Scientist/Group Leader at Argonne National Laboratory
The question always comes down to, how much does it really cost to install? If the bids are somewhat plausible, those seem to have really good rates of return on the investment.”

Ralph Muehleisen Principal Building Scientist/Group Leader, Argonne National Laboratory

The State Department is using technology to enable its smart buildings program — smart meters, but also “dumb” meters and sensors that simply gather and transmit information. 

The department utilizes application programming interface gateways to move this data in and out of serverless applications currently hosted in Microsoft Azure’s public cloud environment. 

By utilizing APIs, Van Dyke says, the department can rapidly evaluate potential new tools. “We had an energy company come to us and say, ‘We have a really good interface for energy monitoring, but we would have to do a back-end infrastructure install,’” he recalls. 

“We said, ‘No, we’ll give you an API, and you can visualize it to us.’ Within a week, they were able to say, ‘Here’s what we’re able to do with your information.’ A few years ago, it would have been a six-month process.”

READ MORE: The Army is exploring smart city Internet of Things tools.

Feds Separate Operational and IT Networks for Security

Muehleisen says that the primary goal of smart building systems is usually to reduce energy costs, but he notes that agencies are also trying to improve their employees’ work experience.

“The hope with a lot of the new systems is that you’ll be improving thermal comfort,” he says.

With smart building solutions, the State Department is hoping to optimize operations and improve the users’ experience.

“You would hope for a little bit of both,” says Van Dyke. “In the summers, for example, the HVAC system might ramp up at 5 a.m. until 6 or 7, when people start coming in. Then, throughout the day, you might not run it, and people will just be starting to leave as the building is becoming less comfortable.

“If you time it right, you’ll have fewer complaints, while also running the system as little as possible and mostly during nonpeak hours.”

The State Department keeps operational and IT networks separate for security reasons. But rather than being a vulnerability, Van Dyke says, building sensors can provide additional physical security; smart building tools can act as alarms to let building operators know when something is amiss.

“By identifying what is normal, and knowing when things aren’t, that allows us to be a little more prompt in our ­reactions,” he says.

Photography by Ryan Donnell

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