Smart Homes to Smart Cities: Building Automation Roundup

February 18, 2019 by Gary Elinoff

While IoT devices find more ways into our homes, building designers are largely taking a wait-and-see attitude towards automation. Have a look at some trends and cutting-edge innovations in building automation.

While IoT devices find more ways into our homes, building designers are largely taking a wait-and-see attitude towards automation. Have a look at some trends and cutting-edge innovations in building automation.

What does "building automation" mean, anyway? When we say that a building is automated, it may mean many different things. 

Building automation applications may include:

  • HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning)
  • Lighting
  • Doors
  • Security

Many of these applications are directly related to the concepts of "smart buildings" or "smart homes" and are often associated with initiatives towards efficiency, such as "green buildings" that reduce power consumption and water waste.

In this article, we'll take a look at some recent updates and announcements in the realm of building automation.

SaaS Smart Buildings

The concept (and reality) of smart buildings has matured to the point that it is wasteful for engineers to “reinvent the wheel” for each new smart building. Because of this, Site 1001 introduced its Skylight Platform for automated buildings at the recent CES electronics show in Las Vegas. Site 1001’s viewpoint is simple: You can't have smart cities without smart buildings.

Skylight’s platform relies heavily on both the cloud and AI and is designed for public buildings, offices, and hotels. It is a Software as a Service (SaaS) platform residing on Amazon Web Services (AWS), making it far easier for building engineers to implement up to the minute smart building features.

As an AI platform, Skylight incorporates built-in machine learning algorithms, so “the more information it gathers, the smarter the building comes.”

Building Automation Data Communications and Standards

Building automation applications entail a level of connectivity, oftentimes between sensor nodes and data processing centers. Along with this functionality necessarily come a slew of data communication challenges. Familiar communication protocols such as ZigBee and Bluetooth are suitable for network communications for low-power, wireless applications, but building automation-specific standards have developed, including KNX and BACnet.

Last week, Renesas announced the use of the KNX standard on their G3-PLC powerline communication solution. Powerline communication (PLC) is a method of data transfer across AC power transmission conductors that has proven promising for building automation applications.

Examples of Building Automation

Smart Homes 

In its most basic and simple terms, smart homes are pioneers of a new age in building automation. Many of our homes are already pretty smart. Common household devices, such as lamps, thermostats, and motion sensor security systems can be configured as nodes on a local Internet of Things (IoT).

Individual nodes, such as the door lock, and can be controlled via smartphone app. As sensors and systems become more advanced, connected stimuli can trigger a specific response—a lamp turning on in the bedroom followed by motion being detected in the hallway can be programmed to start the coffeemaker, for example.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning can also play a big part in that they can look for patterns. The AI can discover that after you open the garage door and then open the front door, you usually turn on the hall light. The AI, learning by repetitive example, can then turn on hall light automatically to welcome you home.

When synced with mobile-based systems, such as Apple's Siri or Google, patterns can be established based off of your location. By tracking a mobile device's GPS location, for example, a smart thermostat can know when you've started your commute home and begin heating your home up to your preferred temperature. This is a real-world example of cloud intelligence and local intelligence working in tandem.


Amsterdam’s Edge

The Edge is perhaps the greenest, most connected building in the world. The building fully exploits the IoT, and it starts with a security system that automatically recognizes car license plates for garage access. In that garage, parking spaces have access to electric chargers that ensure fully charged vehicle batteries in time for the commute back home.


Screenshot from video of The Edge in Amsterdam. Courtesy EDGE Technologies, used under CC 3.0 Attribution license.


The building requires no electricity from the power grid, thanks to solar panels on both the roof and the south-facing wall. The Edge also incorporates geothermal energy. There are two boreholes that reach a depth of 400 feet, and during summer, large amounts of hot water are drawn up and stored, conserving their heat for use in heating during the cold Dutch winters.

Clean tap water is not wasted for uses that don’t require especially high purity. Rainwater is connected and used to flush toilets and water the gardens.


Aspern Urban Lakeside Project

Aspern is an initiative started by Siemens. It is currently being built in Vienna and is expected to be completed by 2028. Presently at 2,600 housing units, with a projected future total of 10,500 housing units and commercial shops, the project has a focus on three automation-focused priorities:

  • Power management in buildings
  • Low-voltage power distribution
  • Big data management in a dedicated data center

By incorporating automation into a neighborhood- or village-sized area, Siemens hopes to prototype how smart buildings can be linked together into system-level smart metering, energy management, and interconnectivity. Projects like Aspern are arguably the steps that will allow for true smart cities.

The Future of Smart Buildings: Integrating into Smart Cities

The concepts and realities of smart buildings and smart cities have begun to mature to the point that standardization has begun to emerge. Cloud-based modalities like Skylight will make it easier for updates and improvements to be effortlessly transmitted to all participants. The coming generation of smart buildings will be able to fluidly participate as functional citizens of the smart cities that will encompass them.

As building automation becomes more prevalent, it's likely that smart buildings will be incorporated into smart cities by means of smart infrastructure for utility management and even coordination for autonomous vehicles as traffic features are embedded with sensors and wireless communication.

What's your experience with developing building automation systems? Share your thoughts in the comments below.