How an architecture firm is integrating smart-building technology from block one

Smart-building technology is often an afterthought—but what if it's integrated from the beginning? One Toronto architecture firm is tackling this question with innovative prefab R&D.

smart building technology wzmh intelligent structural panel

Zach Mortice

November 19, 2019

min read
WZMH smart-building technology floor sensors (video: 0:32)

As smart-building technology filters down to the consumer level, it generally comes in the form of technology that’s grafted into buildings piecemeal: a thermostat that adjusts temperatures based on which rooms are being used, or a washing machine that lets you start and stop cycles while you’re away.

But one architecture firm is looking for ways to better integrate innovative technology systems into modular-building processes from the start—and to smarten existing structures. Based in Toronto, WZMH Architects is a well-established firm that’s developing a smart modular-panel system called the Intelligent Structural Panel (ISP). This work has earned WZMH the 2018 UPPlift True Disruptor Award from the France Canada Chamber of Commerce, and earned WZMH R&D head Hiram Boujaoude a nomination for Innovator of the Year in Autodesk’s 2019 AEC Excellence Awards.

The ISP system, currently in the prototype phase, is designed to integrate smart-building devices and network them with flexible hardware and a consumer-facing app. These panels are just two inches thick and have standard dimensions of 10-by-30 feet or 10-by-45 feet. Each panel is made of two steel plates and a perimeter, within which lies an intelligent highway. The panels, which were designed in Autodesk Revit, work as structural members. As a resident at the Autodesk Technology Center in Toronto, WZMH is gearing up to construct room-scaled functional prototypes by early next year.

“If you’re going to do a floor panel off an assembly line,” says WZMH partner and principal Zenon Radewych, who spearheaded the firm’s smart-building research, “let’s see what else we can put in the floor panel.”

The smart devices compatible with the panel system include sensors (for motion, occupancy, temperature, and lighting) and mechanical and electrical devices (HVAC, window-shade rollers, cameras, and light fixtures)—with many combinations possible. The ISP is a cloud-based system that allows users to program and monitor their smart devices through an app, using real-time analytics on both a local and cloud level.

Once sensors and devices are plugged into the system via a standard Ethernet connection that also supplies power, the individual elements are designed to react as a unified network. “That’s where you can create a true intelligent building: by having the different connected devices talk to each other because they’re going through this common intelligent highway,” Radewych says. A light sensor could trigger a window-shade roller to lower, for example. Train stations could use the ISP to tell passengers on a platform which approaching train cars are full. In a hospital, these systems could offer deeper levels of automated patient monitoring.

Maximizing material efficiency and sustainability

smart building technology building a prototype in the lab
Building a prototype in the lab Image courtesy of WZMH.

An effective shift to modular construction promises higher material efficiency, and ISPs offer similar gains. “This started with technology and prefab, but we’re seeing lots of benefits on the sustainability side,” Radewych says. “Not only do you get the benefits of the smarts, you get the benefits of less material used.”

Early studies indicate that a smart-panel system could reduce total building materials by 10%. By relying on power-over-Ethernet systems, ISPs can eliminate standard junction boxes and electrical conduits. “When you build a prefab component and include other materials and systems inside of it, you actually reduce the amount of materials you need compared to conventional work,” Radewych says. The ISP will also be able to harness waste energy generated by its smart components and dissipate it gradually as part of HVAC heating systems.

While the panel system is intended for new construction, WZMH envisions using small black boxes (each measuring just a few inches) for retrofits and renovations that could be completed in just a few months. For example, standard light fixtures could be plugged into the ISP systems and interact with the network. These units act as both power converters (devices can be powered through Ethernet cables) and networked switches that can tie each device’s essential functionality to the wider network. (WZMH is collaborating with Quasar Consulting Group, Stephenson Engineering, and C3PoE on the ISP and with Argentum Electronics for the black boxes.)

Transforming existing buildings into smart structures

smart building technology black box wzmh
This “black box” will allow off-the-shelf, low-voltage devices to be powered by Ethernet and talk to other devices. Image courtesy of WZMH.

“Overnight, you basically have a smart building,” Radewych says. “Yes, we are building a lot of brand-new buildings every single day, but it doesn’t mean we’re tearing down the old buildings. They’re still going to be around for 50, 60, 70 years or longer. The market potential is to convert existing buildings to make them smart. The black box is totally aligned with that idea.”

Whether they’re installed into new buildings or retrofitted into existing ones, the black boxes can supply building owners and tenants with actionable data on how the building is used. “Even if you plug in dumb devices, you can actually measure the amount of energy that is being used floor by floor and have spot renovations after that,” Boujaoude says.

“Whatever you can pull from a device, the ISP will pull,” Radewych says. “The really wonderful thing about this is that if you retrofit an older building, you suddenly have data on your day-to-day operations.” To manage this data, WZMH is using Autodesk’s Forge to create a BIM twin of the panels and their devices.

The hope is that building owners and tenants can gather this data for machine-learning routines or other artificial-intelligence applications to make buildings maximally efficient. (The WZMH team is also using machine learning to teach computers about humans’ thermal-comfort thresholds.) This data can be mined for ways to trim energy expenditures, dynamically shutting off systems, rooms, and floors that aren’t being used.

It could also be used to increase operational and maintenance efficiency. Occupancy and motion sensors could detect areas of the building that get the most traffic, which could be used to refine maintenance procedures and schedules accordingly. If it’s a building type or program that will be repeated in a similar context, this data can be used to select more durable materials for the heavily trafficked areas.

In addition to significant material-efficiency savings, perhaps the greatest value of an off-the-shelf panel system that enables smart-building technology is that it can plug into a continual feedback loop for the steady refinement of the built environment.

Zach Mortice

About Zach Mortice

Zach Mortice is an architectural journalist based in Chicago.

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