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October 31, 2012

The app wave is construction bound

Construction Corner | Korky Koroluk

"There's an app for that" seems to have become the anthem of the decade.

Since the advent of the iPod and iPhone, there are little applications available to do just about anything.

Led by the iPhone, smart phones are everywhere, affecting everyone.

I saw a guy the other day who almost got hit by a car because he stepped off the curb with his head down and his eyes on his smart phone.

Of course, he may have been looking for an app to tell him if there was a car bearing down on him.

The advent of smart technologies is having a profound effect on everyone, and now Frost and Sullivan, a big multinational consulting firm, has released a paper offering market insights about what smart building technologies might do to various segments in the construction industry.

Korky Koroluk

Construction Corner

Korky Koroluk

In brief, whether the trend to smart buildings might be a boon for some, a peril for others. Some companies are going to get blind-sided unless they pay closer attention to the changing world around them.

As ever, change comes gradually and often grudgingly to our industry. But, the authors of this new paper say that building technology companies “ranging from construction and HVAC to lighting and building management systems have realized the importance of embracing the change that is occurring.”

As a result, they say, “industry players are beginning to look at the building as a concept rather than a mere physical structure.”

“This makes them look beyond their immediate product offering and think of how to become part of supplying a smart-building solution.”

Now there is “smart” everything: smart thermostats, smart windows, smart building materials, and on and on.

The paper predicts that the trend will accelerate.

Saint Gobain, a big glass manufacturer, has bought a 50 per cent stake in Sage Electrochromics, a smart-glass firm. Other firms, hoping to produce windows that generate electricity, are spraying glass surfaces with highly specialized coatings.

So how will this affect the conventional window, façade and roofing industries in the long term?

No one knows yet. But, if these technologies gain enough traction, they will surely disrupt the existing markets. And that’s something that other players in the industry should be thinking about now.

You may not be a manufacturer, but as a contractor you’d be wise to keep a close eye on what’s happening, and figure out the kind of training your workforce is going to need to handle these new materials.

Think about sensors. They are getting smarter and we’re using more of them. Now, we’re not far away from sensors that can transmit data using energy they harvest from movement, light or changes in temperature.

Energy harvesting isn’t new, but, as the paper notes, its use in transmitting data “to control lighting, heating and air conditioning and other aspects of building technologies, without the need for cabling or batteries, will certainly change the building... automation industry.”

Again, what impact will such technology have on the existing technologies in that sector of the industry?

Lighting is a key element in smart buildings and the evolution of light-emitting diodes or LEDs is gathering speed. Its rapid growth is already causing incompatibility problems with existing lighting dimmers.

The shift to LEDs, the paper predicts, “could make millions of installed lighting dimmers obsolete.”

Johnson Controls achieved huge gains in its energy refit of the Empire State Building in New York City.

Energy consumption is down 38 per cent for annual savings of $4.4 million.

The market won’t ignore savings like that, which leads me to think that every company in the architecture/ engineering/construction sector should have, however small they might be, someone whose key responsibility is to watch and evaluate emerging technologies.

Korky Koroluk is a regular freelance contributor to the Journal of Commerce. Send comments or questions to editor@journalofcommerce.com.

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