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IBM's 'building whisperer' sees retrofit boom

Wed, 05/09/2012 - 12:27pm
Nick Zieminski, Reuters

(Reuters) - America's skyscrapers, many built before World War Two, are showing their age. IBM's "building whisperer," Dave Bartlett, believes many of these buildings could use a diet.

Bartlett, who leads IBM's smarter building initiative, is known as the "building whisperer" because he views buildings as living organisms, an approach that can help identify problems and suggest cost-effective ways of making buildings healthier and more energy-efficient.

Bartlett is bullish about demand for building retrofits, a market that electrical service companies and other participants see growing by double-digits for several years.

"In New York City, we're definitely in the depths of middle age, trying to get a second lease on life," Bartlett said. "I'm very gung-ho about the outlook for retrofits."

Getting a building in shape is a lot like eating right. Under this approach, dubbed "the physiology of buildings," a heating and cooling system is akin to the respiratory system; elevators and corridors are a circulatory system; and a building's smart sensors with sophisticated computer monitoring are the nervous system.

Each system affects others: water meters in bathrooms work together with security systems to analyze occupancy, affecting how quickly the building breathes in fresh air. Lighting, by heating a space, affects how much power is used for cooling. With the right data, an owner can decide whether replacing air conditioners makes better sense than a new roof.

The interaction of those systems adds up to an ecosystem that can be measured and improved, like a visit to the doctor or a gym membership. Bartlett, who studied biology, eventually sees buildings forming part of a wider ecosystem that brings nature into cities, making them more literally "green."

IBM is in the early stages of greening New York's massive convention hall, the Jacob Javits Center, looking at ways to turn its sprawling roof into an animal habitat.

"We think we can create one of the largest green spaces in Manhattan," Bartlett said.

FAST-GROWING MARKET

Technology giant IBM competes in a market for building automation software that is forecast to reach $36 billion by 2015. The global market for energy efficiency in buildings will reach $103.5 billion by 2017, up more than 50 percent from 2011, according to Pike Research, a consultancy.

The high-profile retrofit of the Empire State Building is becoming a rallying point for advocates who say building retrofits could lift the U.S. economy and create jobs.

"The savings are so significant," Bartlett said. "It's a building everyone knows and everyone appreciates."

Engineers Johnson Controls Inc and its partners on the Empire State retrofit said Monday energy savings are ahead of projections.

Not all retrofits require a lot of capital, according to IBM. Some call for only minor modifications to control systems or the way people operate the building.

Recent upgrades to lighting, security and other systems have led to a proliferation of sensors. The next step is tap the vast data being generated to look for patterns and potential savings, and to improve the quality of life for tenants. For example, heating and a cooling system may both be optimized, but if they are not communicating, they could be working at cross-purposes.

Obstacles remain to a retrofit boom. One of the biggest is a lack of financing for capital-intensive projects. Also, the motivation is split between building owners who commit money and tenants who benefit from lower utility costs, Bartlett said.

However, the cost of leased assets like buildings is increasingly the concern of finance chiefs, especially under accounting rules that make such assets more visible on the balance sheet. Those CFOs will push for smarter use of space, while more tenants are also demanding green work spaces.

"We're at this tipping point," Bartlett said. "It's going to take off."

(Reporting By Nick Zieminski in New York; editing by Matthew Lewis)

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