Researchers to create common language for intelligent buildings

Smart buildings integrated into the energy system are facing a breakthrough. Now, a European research collaboration plans to ensure that solutions can transfer across national borders and equipment manufacturers.

Heat pumps are a central part of smart buildings, but solutions can't be simply transferred across national borders today. The photo shows Danish hotel Crowne Plaza's solution, unrelated to the current project. Photo: Martin Lehmann

Esperanto is first and foremost regarded as an artificial language, or a kind of linguistic study in an artificial tongue.

It was made based on a number of existing language families by Polish ophthalmologist and linguist L. L. Zamenhof in the late 19th century, with the intention it should become a universal second language. The dedicated end goal was no less than bringing peace to the world by removing language barriers.

His thesis was that if all of humankind were able to communicate, nothing would be impossible.

Despite the fact that Esperanto today is mainly a curiosity used in a number of smaller associations and taught in evening classes, the dream of a common tongue is by no means dead, as attested via a new European research collaboration named Domos. The project does not, however, pertain to a common language between people, but buildings.

The name Domos is a contraction of the Latin word for 'house', domus, and the abbreviation for 'operating system', OS. As the moniker indicates, its focus is a communication system common to building data.

A manufacturer wants a monopoly, as that is the most profitable

Torben Bach Pedersen, Professor of Computer Science, Aalborg University

It involves so-called smart buildings – buildings that in one way or another are an active part of society's energy system via data; either by generating energy, using it at particular points in time or by offering flexibility services to the grid.

At the heart of the research collaboration are Professor Torben Bach Pedersen and Associate Professor Christian Thomsen from the Department of Computer Science, Aalborg University in Denmark.

"We are going to develop the general ontology for intelligent buildings' data," says Pedersen, and if that sounds a tad complex, well, that's because it is.

Rather simplified, one could say that the researchers are to develop a common language for intelligent buildings, a type of apparatus in brick Esperanto that will enable transferral of solutions across national borders, transmission system operators, buildings and equipment.

Breach of monopoly

Today, smart buildings are still in their beginnings, but in step with the roll-out of the green energy transition, buildings are increasingly incorporated into plans for energy systems.

In brief, the designation 'intelligent' building means that it can be incorporated into and coupled with the energy system that surrounds it. It may cover everything from using the excess heat of industrial processes to stabilization of the power grid through batteries, but it can also be something as simple as sensors turning off the lights to save energy.

In reality, though, imagination is about the only limit. However, the commonality between all elements in smart buildings is that system development has happened both asynchronously and decentralized. This means, for example, that a solution used in one country cannot be duplicated in another that uses different equipment.

That makes the implementation of buildings in energy systems a costly affair, as projects practically have to start from scratch every time.

"It's nothing new that technologies develop in parallel and differently at the same time. Typically, individual manufacturers aren't too happy about standards and haven't pushed to establish them. A manufacturer wants a monopoly, as that is the most profitable, so interoperability hasn't exactly been a usual feature of this kind of technology," says Pedersen.

And there's been no centralized interest in getting systems to talk to each other, either. Now, though, the technology is nearly mature enough for the market to have achieved critical mass, necessitating such a solution.

Today, the technologies can't communicate adequately across borders

Torben Bach Pedersen, Professor of Computer Science, Aalborg University

Esperanto idiomatically means 'one who hopes', and that is just what the Domos researchers do: hope that by breaking down barriers between nations and technologies using a common language, they can accelerate the integration of the building stock in a green energy system.

"Today, the technologies can't communicate adequately across borders. If you look around, you'll find a lot of specialized and rigid solutions. There is one particular heat pump for one specific power market. The rigid approach makes it hard to expand systems or to propagate them in new countries, as the entire system was developed for one specific combination instead of being generalized," says Pedersen.

The plan is to continually publish data from the project as open-source.

Part of something bigger

Domos expects to be active over a three-year period and has a budget of EUR 5 million, with four of those millions coming from the EU.

While the interglossal foundation will be laid in Aalborg, Northern Denmark, the project consists of a large number of elements, with researchers collaborating with companies in France and Switzerland, among other places, and examining different factors such as energy efficiency, heat generation and flexibility services.

The University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland (HES-SO) is to investigate resident experiences of living in an intelligent building. Part of this will be to develop a new label, a so-called Smart Readiness Indicator (SRI), for buildings.

The SRI will illustrate the building's technological readiness to enter into the surrounding energy system. But, more importantly, it will illustrate to residents what value is tied to the buildings they live in.

"That's why it's also important to send residents the signal that this isn't a type of surveillance. So the project will have a similar focus on finding out how to communicate which data are being used, so residents feel safe and understand what they get out of it," says Pedersen.

The first step, however, is the common language that Aalborg University is working on. And if that part succeeds, it might not end up producing world peace, but the group will settle for less.

"We'll see energy savings in terms of both price and kilowatt-hours, increased flexibility in energy consumption, better and cheaper digitalization and a strengthened European industry, which will have a common basis to work from," says Pedersen.

And it all starts with teaching Europe's buildings Esperanto.

English Edit: Jonas Sahl Jørgensen

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