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By Jennifer Goetz
From the August 2023 Issue

In 2023, there’s no escaping the artificial intelligence (AI) conversation. Since the release of ChatGPT, last year, along with another service-engine based AI technology, this technology’s potential has been frequently discussed in the media. Particularly, the topic of generative AI, a branch of AI that can identify data patterns and then generate its own original content, has been in the spotlight.

According to a report from Mckinsey Global Institute, “Generative AI and the Future of Work In America,” by 2023, “activities that account for up to 30 percent of hours currently worked across the U.S. economy could be automated—a trend accelerated by generative AI.”

While the world is in the midst of a generative AI breakthrough, traditional AI systems have been integrated into building systems for quite some time.

artificial intelligence
(Photo: Adobe Stock / lance)


“Since the 2010s, AI has become more common in many buildings, like offices, hospitals, and schools, and it continues to grow,” says Trent Swanson, Vice President Architecture, Platform & Artificial Intelligence for Johnson Controls. “AI can help facility managers understand how people use a building to then automate functions and processes to improve building layout and operation.”

According to Swanson, AI has been able to enhance a building’s energy use, security, and maintenance practices. It has the capability to analyze occupancy patterns and adjust heating/cooling systems accordingly; adjust lighting levels based on the prescience of natural light; utilize facial recognition and monitor for unusual activity; among other capabilities.

In addition, “AI is often used to predict when equipment might break down, allowing personnel to address potential issues in early stages, which saves time and money,” he says. “It is also used to plan cleaning schedules in busy places like hospitals.”

AI and Machine Learning (ML) capabilities present a variety of opportunities for facility management. As facility managers focus on finding new ways to measure and monitor benchmarks for building operations, there’s the question of how all this extra data can be put to use. Of course, computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS) are capable of downloading data and presenting it in a digestible way for building personal, but generative AI systems can take the data and carry out the reactionary responsibilities without human intervention.

“Artificial intelligence is already impacting the architecture, engineering, and construction industry, and the potential for further transformation is enormous,” says Michael Schroeder, Partner at SGA. “As we gather more data, AI can generate initial design options, conceptual solutions, and massing studies more efficiently and accurately. It also holds the promise of more efficient space planning, reducing wasted space, and providing cost and lead time estimation.

“By automating specific tasks, AI could alleviate labor bottlenecks and cut down on time spent on mundane tasks, ultimately improving the project delivery process,” he continues. “These capabilities are exciting, but it is also important to recognize the potential risks and challenges.”

Opportunities For Optimization

From the design perspective, AI’s output and insights can help humans make more informed and accurate decisions, especially when it comes to enacting energy-saving or sustainably-focused projects.

“It can generate detailed solutions on optimizing airflow and natural light, and generally provide better energy conservation and management recommendations to achieve net zero and carbon neutrality more readily,” Schroeder says. “There is also an aspirational element to

AI, with its ability to help designers conceptualize bold architectural forms in a matter of minutes. Whether those designs can actually be built is another matter, but visionary architecture has always played an important role in the early stages of the design process.”

“The focus on AI will be key to sustainability, optimizing energy use, managing resources, and improving green building designs. AI’s advances will revolutionize construction, optimize designs, automate tasks, reduce waste and enhance safety.”

— Michael Schroeder, SGA

Schroeder also sees generative AI’s potential to help support buildings as facility managers look to discover more sustainable solutions. “The focus on AI will be key to sustainability, optimizing energy use, managing resources, and improving green building designs. AI’s advances will revolutionize construction, optimize designs, automate tasks, reduce waste and enhance safety.”

Swanson notes that it will be critical to merge AI with existing internet of things (IoT), as these devices supply the necessary data for AI to function and derive insights.

“Expect a surge in smart devices and sensors in buildings, collecting diverse data ranging from video to occupancy to temperature,” he says. “From collected data, AI will offer more personalized experiences, learning individual preferences and adjusting environments accordingly, and interactive AI assistants will become commonplace.”

Of course, as security concerns arise from natural disasters to the potential for workplace violence, AI will play a role in identifying hazards before they become a problem.

“Enhanced security surveillance, enabled with AI, will become more common and will help detect unusual activity or unauthorized access,” says Swanson. “In public or commercial buildings, AI will analyze crowd movement to pre-emptively identify dangerous situations. AI algorithms will also be used to process sensor data for structural health monitoring, detecting deterioration signs early, as well as fire or gas leaks. AI will also improve cybersecurity by identifying abnormal network activities, preserving the digital safety of building systems.”

Potential Integration Risks And Challenges

Naturally, since AI is feed information from the data it’s given, there’s the risk of untruthful, bias, or toxic information getting through.

“One potential risk lies in the interpretation of building codes a complex task that requires precision, accuracy, and knowledge of a particular location or jurisdiction,” says Schroeder, speaking from the perspective of AI’s risk to the Architecture and Design (A&D) process. “AI models may need help interpreting these local provisions, as they may not be explicitly stated in the code and require additional knowledge of the local context.”

He highlights that, since building codes are put in place to ensure public safety, even minor errors or omissions in code interpretation can be major consequences for an organization.

“Implementing AI incorrectly could lead to significant liability issues, and over reliance on AI without checking solutions can result in additional troubles,” Schroeder adds. “In this area, I believe that AI should be used as a tool rather than a solution.”

Another concern to consider is amount of power that may be given to AI systems in daily operations, and the potential for it to malfunction. According to the 13th Annual Global Data Center survey from the Uptime Institute, “most operators believe acceptance of the use of artificial intelligence will grow in data centers, but operators are distrustful of its ability to make reliable operational decisions.”

What if a natural disaster comes and your power is knocked out—will your facility be able to function for long? With these new technologies playing a bigger role in building operations down the line, the need for redundancies and enhanced microgrid capabilities will come into play.

In addition to the threat of technology malfunctioning in some capacity, FMs have to consider how AI will impact their workforce down the line. In several industries, most noticeably what is happening with the TV writer and actor strike, fears of AI taking over are starting to surface.

“As the use of AI in buildings grows, so does the importance of ethical considerations, such as data privacy, potential job displacement from automation, and transparency of AI decisions.”

— Trent Swanson, Johnson Controls

“As the use of AI in buildings grows, so does the importance of ethical considerations, such as data privacy, potential job displacement from automation, and transparency of AI decisions,” says Swanson, “When introducing the concept of AI to stakeholders, it’s essential to emphasize the potential return on investment. Even with the initial investment, the long-term savings from increased efficiency, reduced energy consumption, and improved predictive maintenance can make a strong financial case.”

While artificial intelligence has been integrated in several products built to assist facility operations—everything from HVAC control to being paired with sensors to optimize security—adding in this technology in more than a few building systems can become quite costly. The process of integrating AI technology into building systems not only involves acquiring the technology, but also the related expenses of training, data management, and potentially recruiting new staff with the necessary expertise. Just like when hiring human employees, newly deployed AI tech needs training; this technology is still in its infancy, and needs to be told what to do at first.

“There is also the recurring cost of maintaining and updating AI systems as well as effective management required to do so,” says Swanson. “AI systems typically rely heavily on large data volumes that need to be collected, cleansed, and stored. Handling personal or sensitive data increases complexity due to privacy concerns that must be carefully addressed.”

Now, there are options to relieve organizations from some of these costs. According to Swanson, facility managers may not need to assume the full risk and cost of the implementation of much of the AI in their building portfolio and can instead use financing, equipment, and products from vendors that leverage AI to deliver smart building outcomes quickly and effectively.

The Future With Artificial Intelligence

AI’s role in the in the built environment will continue to expand and transform. “With broader adoption, its ability to predict problems such as maintenance needs will become more advanced, leading to less downtime and longer equipment life,” says Swanson.

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Time will tell how industries integrate and adapt to AI technology—and the government will step in to regulate its usage. However, from the facility management standpoint, this technology is inexplicably tied to the future of buildings, big or small.
“To be AI-ready, it’s critical that facility managers plan and invest in building digital infrastructure and data management necessary to deliver AI-enabled outcomes,” says Swanson. “AI effectiveness largely depends on the quality and volume of data it can learn from, so a robust data collection and management strategy is important to any AI implementation. When planning, focus on outcomes and stakeholder value.

“The goal of AI should be to create more comfortable and safe spaces, more energy efficient buildings, as well as more reliable buildings and equipment.”

Goetz is the Editorial Director of Facility Executive Magazine.

Do you have a comment? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below, or send an e-mail to the Editor at jen@groupc.com.

Facility Executive Magazine