88 Acres

How Microsoft Quietly Built the City of the Future

4: Enough data to change the world

The ROC itself looks like an air-traffic control tower – albeit without the windows.

Microsoft's Smart Campus

A bevy of large, wall-mounted displays wrap around the interior of the room, and the same monitors sit atop every desk. The smart buildings tool dashboard is splashed across many of the screens, showing off a colorful collection of maps, dials, lists, and tickers.

Engineers can get big-picture information at a glance, like how many kilowatts of energy are being consumed across Microsoft headquarters at any one moment. With a few clicks they can also zoom in on one building, one floor or office in that building, or one piece of equipment.

“Let’s see how City Center building is doing today,” Whitson says, and within seconds he’s clicking through a wealth of information about the building – the number of employees who work there, the outside air temperature, the thermostat, what time the lights come on and go off, even a list of mechanical inefficiencies the software has detected and how much each of those faults is costing the company per year.

Once Whitson sits down in front of one of the terminals, he is suddenly connected to Microsoft’s buildings. Those 500 million data transactions per day can be accessed from the dashboard at his desk rather than from crawling through pump rooms or across rooftops to get data.

Now that the smart buildings software cooks up a chuck wagon of data every day, what to do with all of that tasty information?

The software identifies issues large and small, and even puts them in prioritized order according to how much the problem is costing the company. A majority of problems they can fix right from their desks, and for the rest, the engineers issue work orders (about 32,300 per business quarter).

Apart from efficiency, the surge of data has also made for some eye-popping analytics. These are mechanical engineer Trevor Sodorff’s specialty.

“We have good people, but without good software there are limits to what you can do,” Sodorff says. “Everything lives within the context of the bigger picture.”

One of Sodorff’s party tricks, if you will, is whipping out algorithms to detect new mechanical faults. So during meetings that wander through stretches that don’t pertain directly to him? Rather than discreetly checking his email or letting his mind wander, Sodorff writes algorithms.

At one such meeting, Sodorff announces that he’s just written a new algorithm for detecting when the air in a given building is being overcooled. He projects the algorithm on a screen, and then launches into a deeply technical explanation about when a discharge air pressure set point is something-something, then the air is being overcooled by something-something for a duration of 900,000 milliseconds.

“That’s 15 minutes,” says Grove, his fellow engineer, translating on the fly.

Later in the meeting, Grove is talking about how the smart buildings software helps the engineers measure and validate that the energy reduction they’re seeing is due to reduced consumption and not because it was 5 degrees cooler than yesterday. It’s an important distinction for companies to make, especially when seeking a utility rebate.

“We may do an audit, and find we’ve done something that saves 200,000 kilowatt hours, which works out to … uh …” Grove says.

“Sixteen-thousand dollars,” Sodorff says without missing a beat. (“I studied math for two years before I decided to be an engineer,” he adds. “It’s what butters my bread, if you will.”)

"Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be presenting at the Pentagon. It was a thrill."
- Darrell Smith , Director of Facilities and Energy
Microsoft

Darrell Smith beams at his team.

“Now you see why developing this software at this scale was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Smith says. “It affords you the ability to work on some very large-scale, world-changing projects with some very smart people. It’s Microsoft University.”

If the smart buildings tool was developed at Microsoft University, today is graduation day. Where much of Smith’s time the last few years has been spent developing the software, he now spends hours with visiting business, government and industry leaders offering enthusiastic show-and-tells. He’s presented to hospitals, oil companies, automobile manufacturers, cities, and federal government agencies – even at the Pentagon and very soon, this same solution Microsoft has deployed will be available to any business.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be presenting at the Pentagon. It was a thrill,” Smith says. “It’s been interesting, because I don’t see myself as a salesperson. I see myself as an evangelist for the smart building industry, and what can be achieved with smarter buildings.”

Office buildings, hotels, stores, schools, hospitals, malls and other such commercial buildings are responsible for up to 40 percent of the world’s total energy consumption. In the U.S. alone, businesses spend about $100 billion on energy every year.

“Buildings have been built and run the same way for the last 30 to 50 years,” Smith says. “This isn’t a Microsoft problem, it’s an industry problem.”

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