By 2020, it is predicted that more than 50 billion things will be connected to the Internet. A good number of them will form part of our cities, buildings and homes. Telecommunications engineer, Mikel Barrado, benefits from a privileged and active view of this future of smart and sensorised environments as head of market and business strategy for new technologies and systems applied to Smart Buildings and Cities at the TECNALIA Research & Innovation institute. He also sits on the Board of Directors for the Spanish Cluster on Home and Building Automation and Smart Cities (DOMOTYS), heads up the ‘Homes and Buildings of the Future’ Group for the Home Automation and Smart Cities Technology Platform (SmartLivingPlat), and is a member of the Industrialised Construction and Virtual Modelling Committee for the ‘Urban Habitat’ area of the Basque Country’s Science and Technology Plan, among others.
Sustainable construction is one of Tecnalia’s strategic business areas. Within that, what kind of projects is your department involved in?
Mikel Barrado.- Our team’s principal focus is connected with anything related to innovation in buildings and cities in terms of making them smarter; i.e., more efficient, capable of improving people’s quality of life, their leisure time, making them safer and increasing interactivity with regard to spaces, making them more people-oriented. To achieve what we consider to be a smart building, we work on the development of new products, for example in the area of renewable energies and building envelopes; on aspects such as acoustics, structural calculation and in increasingly relevant fields such as 3D printing and additive manufacturing, virtual manufacturing, BIM, GIS and big data, which allow for decisions to be made with regard to buildings and cities from the design itself; as well as everything related to the Internet of things, which has to do with the integration of electronic devices into an environment, massive integration, in order to make smarter decisions in environments, especially during the operational phase of a building, as that is the period that requires the greatest consumption levels of all kinds of resources.
Are buildings projects as important as those developed for cities?
M.B.- Ultimately, they represent two different scales although the opportunities and technologies are applicable in both environments. There is a great deal of opportunity for action in terms of the numerous buildings that make up our cities and that is our bread and butter, although a very significant area of applications is opening up with regard to cities, above all with the increase in awareness surrounding everything related to the smart city and local authorities also committing to this kind of solution. All the solutions related to the concept of the friendly, people-oriented city and to more sustainable urban development present great opportunities for development.
Your main clients are companies and local authorities. Has there been an increase in the demand for products and services related to urban intelligence or smart buildings?
M.B- We respond to the requirements of the companies that approach us, offering them solutions and products that they either lack the time or the know-how to develop. In some cases, however, we develop technologies that we offer to companies and we commit to that investment. BIM currently represents the major part of that business demand and is one of our core areas of innovation. We are involved in a lot of software development, both for manufacturing companies and for developers, builders and companies that own or maintain buildings. With regard to manufacturers, we find there is a great deal of interest in the integration of electronics and products to make them interactive or capable of being controlled by mobile phones, i.e. everything related to the Internet of things. Right now the most innovative companies are mainly requesting our services in relation to these two areas of activity.
Why is the Internet of things presented as such an important opportunity for the construction sector?
M.B.- The Internet of things is a reality in a variety of sectors, such as the automotive industry. It so happens that the value of the product, in this case a car, has moved beyond its inherent values, such as engine power or reliability, to include technological aspects, such as whether or not it has Wi-Fi. This added differential technological capacity will also extend to buildings and homes in the future. In fact, some of the largest venture capital investments being made in Silicon Valley in the United States are related to the Internet of things for buildings and cities. Companies like Google, Apple and Samsung are investing in this area. That scenario represents an opportunity for companies in the construction sector although, if they do not react in time, it could also be a threat because of the potential for other agents to enter the market in the application of these solutions and edge them out. That makes the incorporation of the Internet of things a necessity for companies because, otherwise, someone is going to come in from outside the sector and establish themselves in that role. For example, Nest is a company that has developed smart thermostats with a very simple surveillance camera. This company, which has been acquired by Google, only sells the thermostat, priced at $250, which they send you to install yourself. Consequently, what they have essentially done is steal the limelight from the boiler, which is the piece of equipment that actually heats the house. Why? Because the efficiency of the boiler is taken as a given and it is the smart thermostat, capable of learning from your habits and being controlled via your mobile, that then gains differential value. The trend in the sector is moving towards interactivity being increasingly valued over and above the features of traditional products.
Do we run the risk of a degree of technological trivialisation occurring in the sense of that differential value placed on software or connectivity overshadowing other essential construction objectives?
M.B.- The development of these technologies, which are frequently based on interactivity, needs to correspond to a useful and meaningful application. In that regard, energy efficiency represents one of the biggest opportunities for interactivity. It is not a matter of seeking interactivity for interactivity’s sake, but rather that the integrated software and electronic devices make the product, in this case a building, more efficient; that they improve its use, the energy consumption and sustainability of the whole. It is not about setting technology against products and services that improve efficiency or sustainability but about the aligning of solutions in order contribute to the same end goal.
Is technology outpacing industry in the development of these solutions?
M.B.- If you mean with regard to the construction industry, as yet few companies are incorporating these new technologies. A change of mindset is required in terms of business. For example, one seemingly obvious element is that, in order to include electronic devices as a product, the first thing a company needs to do is employ personnel with the relevant training. Metalwork manufacturers are incorporating electronic devices and motors for controlling windows and blinds and then connecting them with other systems in the building. This creates the need for employing an electronic, telecommunications or software engineer as part of their workforce, which they did not have before. The big multinationals have started the ball rolling and small companies will gradually take it on board. The sector is somewhat slow in terms of capitalising on the opportunities presented by new technologies but that is also to be expected and the adjustment will take place gradually.
Are there any examples of businesses within the construction sector that are already ahead of the game with regard to this type of application?
M.B.- There are traditional electrical and industrial automation companies that have moved their products towards home automation and then some companies have already started to emerge that specialise in new technological devices for doors, windows, ceilings or furniture. Therefore, perhaps now there is a need for a degree of hybridisation to take place between these very advanced home automation companies and the traditional product manufacturers. Obviously much more progress needs to be made in this area but that does not mean that Spain is at the tail end of these transformations because, at a global level, not much progress has been made in this combined area of activity..
And in terms of research and technological developments?
M.B.- With regard to technologies resulting from research centre development, there are some exceptional innovations in place in our cities, on a par with what can be found outside Spain.
We now add the concept of building automation to home automation? What does that mean exactly?
M.B.- Home automation is related to housing, while building automation is deployed in tertiary buildings: hospitals, universities, theatres, etc. In truth we are talking about similar technologies. It is true, however, that the sector is moving away from the term ‘home automation’ because it had become associated with a certain degree of malpractice and installation problems. Conversely, the Internet of things and apps represent a marked positive trend within the sector. As such, the IoT and the use of mobile devices to control spaces are now consolidated as new ways of explaining a project that has been ongoing for some time and to which innovations have been gradually introduced to bring these technologies to the user, to industry and to building owners.
What is your work concept with regard to smart buildings?
M.B.-We have a variety of ongoing smart building-related projects. At our facilities in Bilbao we have an experimental facility consisting of an entire building in which we can alter all the elements that determine efficiency levels. It is a key tool for us since one of our strategic areas as a research centre is construction product research. The Kubik building allows us to change, replace and test all kinds of facades, climate control and access control systems, floors, ceilings, walls, etc. Moreover, we have developed a solution that has been installed at the University of Mondragón for three years now that manages the climate control system and the envelope of one of the buildings in a smart, predictive way. A BIM model is generated from meteorological forecasting and daily use data that establishes the building’s energy consumption requirements. This allows us to simulate the building’s behaviour over the following hour and act accordingly: control the heating and air conditioning, and increase or decrease the shade layer on the facade. This predictive model provides an energy saving of up to 40% and is one of the new innovations we will be presenting at BBB Construmat in May.
What other new innovations will you be showcasing at the trade fair?
M.B.- Firstly, we are going to present a new 3D printing solution using cable-operated robots for the printing of prefabricated pieces for large-scale construction projects or on-site use for the construction of the building itself. This solution is one we have developed in collaboration with the IAAC and it will be exhibited within the Future Arena area. Secondly, and in relation to interactivity, we are going to present a number of solutions that allow us to make furniture and other surfaces in our home interactive without the need to install switches that can ruin the aesthetics of the whole. An example of that is a bed head which is turned into an interactive surface that facilitates the control of the lighting, sound or any domotic element of the home. It is a technology that is very simply integrated into furniture which takes it from being a passive element to becoming another Internet of things mechanism.
Following this line of thought, you have previously talked about smart, sensorised environments, with devices connected to all kinds of objects. Does that also apply to buildings?
M.B.- That is the future that IoT is able to deliver. The prediction is for the connection of billions of devices, and their introduction into our environment, cities and buildings is a clear possibility. It is, however, important to understand that maintenance and energy supply will be fundamental elements with regard to any mass introduction of this type of electronic equipment. We are working on technologies that will enable these devices to generate a small amount of energy in order to interact with the environment so that they do not require any form of maintenance. The installation of these devices also needs to be very simple and immediate, however, and in order to achieve that, they will have to be wireless.
We have not talked about smart, connected solutions for the urban environment…
M.B.- We have developed an interactive panel in this area, to be used in tourism. It replaces the traditional static information panels that still exist on our streets. We have designed an interactive, touch screen panel that allows you to hear the information in multiple languages. It also acts as a data collection point: recording the number of users, the languages the information was requested in, among other things. Plus, as an element of added value, we are placing sensors in the panels to record air quality or noise pollution levels in the area. This is valuable information that local authorities can use when making decisions on tourism management and sustainability in our cities. We have already installed some of these panels in San Sebastian and are working on a project for Ávila.