As we start to emerge from the pandemic — and as we seek to seriously address climate change — smarter buildings are a huge opportunity. Understanding the built environments of our offices, factories, hospitals, and schools will help us use energy more efficiently and monitor those environments for healthier outcomes.
But unless we want to get mired in proprietary systems and data models that will demand hefty integrations or lock buyers into the established system, digitizing buildings will require open standards. The Brick Consortium launched last month to promote such standards for buildings using the five-year-old, open source Brick schema.
The Brick schema was developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon, UC Berkeley, IBM Research, and the University of Southern Denmark. The goal was to build a way of tagging equipment, nodes, data, and locations within a building in a standardized format, as well as to build a method for understanding the relationships among any of those things. Once the labels are in place and the relationships are understood, the data can be exported from the proprietary building systems and used in new ways.
In the schema, a thermostat is considered a piece of equipment, and so gets its own label. The temperature set point on the thermostat is also treated as a piece of equipment; it gets a label to indicate where it is in the building and a model to indicate its relationship with a specific air handler. More advanced settings might create a relationship between that system and an outdoor sensor. Additionally, if the air handler is smart and has sensors to measure its performance, Brick has ways to model how those sensors relate to both the air handler’s performance and the outdoor temperature.
Brick also deals with logical locations that might not directly correlate to physical locations. A logical location might include the accounting department, or a fire safety zone. This way, data from one building system can tie into data associated with particular employees, or a different building system altogether.
Buildings are incredibly complex, especially the more modern ones. They include dozens of systems, among them HVAC, fire safety, lighting, access control, and more. And those systems, in turn, also relate to the outside world, whether it’s the HVAC turning on in response to hot weather or a need to conserve power during a brownout.
Buildings are also all different. Sure, most modern skyscrapers look like rectangular or square walls of glass around a central core, but the interiors and their systems can vary considerably. So in order to make buildings smarter, we have to find ways to translate all of that complexity into a digital format within which developers and analysts can work. And if we can abstract out some of that complexity and create digital models of the built environments, our workplaces could become not just more comfortable, but safer.
That’s why tools such as Brick exist. But it’s not the only one. Brick is one of a handful of attempts to create a set of standard names for the sensors, rules, and equipment inside a building. Others include Project Haystack, and data gathered from Building Information Modeling (BIM) expressed as Industry Foundation Classes, or IFC.
Companies such as Honeywell, Siemens, Schneider Electric, Johnson Controls, and more also have their own proprietary labels, which might cover certain aspects of what the Brick schema does. However, some of these companies, such as Johnson Controls, are also members of the Brick Consortium.
Google is modeling its own campuses using what it calls its Digital Buildings Product, which is compatible with both Brick and Project Haystack. Microsoft has a partnership with a group called RealEstateCore that uses some data models borrowed from the Brick schema. The point is that there is both a lot of interest in digitizing buildings and also a lot of competing work.
Some of these standards borrow from others and can be compatible with each other. Haystack and Brick are the most like one another and both are open source projects, with Haystack further along in its development. We are still early on in our efforts to make buildings smarter, but a common set of labels and data models will help us get there. The Brick Consortium is just the newest non-profit trying to promote an open source tool for the job.