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Defining the Digital Twin for Buildings

Houston, we have a problem.

Quickly after the oxygen tanks exploded early into Apollo 13’s mission in April 1970, the astronauts were fighting for their lives. The whole world held its breath as the now-famous rescue ensued. Engineers in Houston scrambled to sort through technical issues from hundreds of thousands of miles away. 

The rescue was successful because back on earth there was an identical copy of the spacecraft—Apollo 13’s twin. The team could quickly test solutions on the ground without adding risk to the astronauts in space.  

Almost 50 years later, NASA uses the same strategy to understand and manage systems and machines across the solar system. Except today, the twins are virtual and there’s a fancy buzzword to describe them: Digital Twins. 

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Analytics: a human-in-the-loop technology

The number one misconception about building analytics software is that it will solve problems on its own. 

Yes… it’s an extremely powerful tool for building owners.

Yes… it can revolutionize how buildings are managed and operated.

No… it’s not capable of producing results on its own. 

With the exception of automated supervisory controls, energy management information systems (EMIS) are human-in-the-loop tools. They help explore our data and find needles in the haystack, but they require regular use by a well-resourced team to fully convert data to information to insights to action to verified results. 

I think the misconception is, unfortunately, caused by sales hype. Marketers are overselling their product or service with promises like “20% ENERGY SAVINGS”. Sorry marketers, but we need an asterisk:

*Analytics can help you achieve X% energy savings if you use the software and take action

Effective EMIS use requires integrating ongoing activities into the organization’s everyday operating procedures. I call this the “path to action”. The creation of operational processes requires thinking through how the team will:

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2019 Annual Review

Building on last year’s review, welcome to this year’s edition of putting life under a microscope.

To borrow a phrase from Maria Popova, I prefer resolutions in reverse. Studying the past year to determine how I want to move forward.

2019 was easily the best year of my life. Not because it was easy or particularly pleasurable, but because of the transformation and growth that happened.

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Haystack 4.0 and the battle of open vs. closed ecosystems

I’ve been living in a bubble. My bubble has been burst.

This week, I was reading about the new version of Haystack, a data modeling standard I believe is vital for smart buildings and a must-have for analytics projects. Then I stepped into a meeting to discuss an actual project. Two different vendors are installing analytics software on the same building—one for monitoring-based commissioning (MBCx) and one for single-pane-of-glass (SPOG) and supervisory control. Neither vendor is using Haystack or any standard data model.

See ya later, bubble.

To me and my colleague, that was a huge problem and a huge red flag. But neither vendor saw it that way. The owner didn’t see it that way. Our questions got brushed to the side.  Before I explain why that’s an issue, let’s back up a bit and discuss what Haystack is. Let’s take an example piece of building system data, “AI_3”, on the Haystack journey…

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What is EMIS? We need a new answer.

In the last month, I’ve read over 50 research papers, blog posts, and articles on analytics software for buildings. I realize this would put most people to sleep, but I love it. It’s also part of my job. One thing I don’t love is the standard, copy-and-paste framework most people are using to describe analytics software. I think it’s confusing, outdated, and it’s inhibiting the adoption of this powerful tool. 

It’s time for a new answer to the fundamental question, “What is it?”.

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When analytics insights fall on deaf ears

Ouch. That deflated feeling when we uncover an insight using analytics and share it with our team or client and… nothing happens. Or we’re presenting a screenshot from the EMIS and the audience is unresponsive or just doesn’t get it. Blank stares. Or you send a report from your EMIS and no one responds. I hate that feeling. 

If you’re finding cool shit with your analytics and it’s falling on deaf ears, it might be time to take a step back and consider this: EMIS is an exploratory analytics tool. We use it to find the needle in the haystack. To understand what the data is hiding in our buildings. But to get shit done, we need to transition to explaining what the data means, including who, what, where, why, and how. 

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What’s your favorite analytics software?

My colleagues, clients, and partners have always come to me when they have a question about deploying analytics software in the built environment. Without hesitation, the most frequently-asked question, especially for newcomers, is this: 

What’s your favorite analytics software?

Or this: 

What do you think of X software? Is it better than Y? 

Lucky for me, I love answering this question. I have plenty of opinions on the merits of this or that brand. I love to go down a rabbit hole of the best energy data visualizations or fault detection algorithms. I love calling out vendors for bullshit marketing hype and selling nothing but smoke and mirrors.

But I can’t answer it. Not yet at least.

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2018 Annual Review

I do this every year in my journal, but decided to share it here this year. Thanks to James Clear for the inspiration.

What Went Well

  • I moved to Denver! Sometimes I take this for granted. (The mind tends to move on rather quickly…) It was a big change and it took a ton of energy, but I did it and I’m sure glad I did. There were many times in the mountains this year that I would suddenly burst out, “I can’t believe I live here!”
  • I got divorced, and it was earth-shattering and heartbreaking and the hardest thing I’ve ever done. What made it positive is that it was also loving and amicable and free of any sort of fighting or animosity. We depart as friends, better off for having married and devoted a part of our lives to each other. Thank you, Kayli.
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lessons learned: the fundamental attribution error

As I’ve been promoted and promoted and promoted again, I’ve had various conversations with other managers assessing the performance of others on the team. They’re frustrating. They’re good at this, but don’t do this right or that right. They’re problems in the way of our success.

While I felt all of these things from a management perspective, I also had the perspective of the employees, having done the same job and had the same struggles. From that perspective came this little voice in my head wondering why I was judging those people like this. Hey, man, those guys are doing the best they can inside of a broken system.

But I didn’t say anything. Perhaps my ego liked getting promoted, at least partly because of others’ “poor” performances, so I didn’t listen much to my little voice.

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Seven Questions to Avoid Competition

We recently lost a very large project in a competitive selection process. It hurt so much that it had me reaching to my bookshelf for inspiration on what to do. I reached for Peter Thiel’s Zero to One, and I decided it’s time to build something that has no competition. Easier said than done.

Here are Thiel’s questions to ask yourself on whether you can actually make that happen:

  1. Can you create breakthrough technology?
  2. Is now the right time to start this particular business?
  3. Are you starting with a big share of a small market?
  4. Do you have the right team?
  5. Do you have a way to deliver/sell your product? 
  6. Will your market position be defensible for 10-20 years?
  7. Have you identified a unique opportunity that others don’t see?

Otherwise, you’re sort of hoping for a miracle.