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University of Birmingham turns to IoT to improve student experience and support Net Zero goals

Gary Flood Profile picture for user gflood June 16, 2024
A new cloud-based IoT platform from Schneider Electric supports data-driven decision-making and green strategy at University of Birmingham

An image of students at the University of Birmingham on campus in front of a building
(Image sourced via University of Birmingham)

One of the UK’s leading research Universities - University of Birmingham - says that its use of Internet of Things (IoT) technologies has cut its energy consumption by 14% and helped identify several ways to save on maintenance and cleaning.

The use of smart sensors is also critical to the University making strong progress on its decarbonization targets - achieving Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 2034 and Scope 3 by 2040 - says its Director of Estates, Trevor Payne.

He adds:

Our drive across campus is focused on what we call the ‘three Es’ - efficiency, environment and experience. This was the right system, with the right sensors and the right software to really start to develop our thinking in that area of improving the three Es.

The first phase of the work via the use of these sensors has focused on matching the exact energy use.

Next up, Payne plans to surface more ways to save energy, but also improve the student and staff user experience with flexible lighting and heating/cooling that will offer a range of environments for work and study.

The BEMS difference

While Birmingham is also working with other suppliers on its move to greener operations, like Siemens, Payne says the use of BEMS (Building Energy Management System) and NFC (Near Field Communication) technology is at the center of his operation.

BEMS are integrated data-driven systems for monitoring and controlling energy-related building services, like all its air-conditioning, heating, and ventilation.

In this case, the University is using a suite of BEMS tools from French digital automation and energy management specialist Schneider Electric.

Introducing it has increased the number of tracking points in the system from 6,500 in 2005, to 30,000 now, making Birmingham’s one of the UK’s largest enterprise-level BEMS. 

All managed by the University’s in-house team, the system now runs over 330 network servers and 600 third-party connected devices.

BEMS has also been extensively used to aid proactive facilities management at the University’s new School of Engineering building, which opened in 2021.

Digitizing ‘a building museum’

One of the six UK ‘Red Brick’ municipal centers of higher education set up in the 19th century, the University of Birmingham’s roots stretch back to 1825.

Now the 7th largest British university, Birmingham is home to over 35,000 under- and postgraduate students, spread over two main city campuses and other sites.

It also comprises over 300 buildings, of what Payne’s department characterizes as “a building museum”, all of which are different ages, complexities, physical condition and use (the first phase of building on its Edgbaston campus was completed in 1909).

That legacy means Payne must look after environments, ranging from grade one and two listed properties to new, state-of-the-art, learning and research spaces.

Complexity like this is no longer seen as any kind of justification for bulldozing some of this older estate and replacing it with newer build, Payne points out.

That would release far too much new greenhouse gas through construction. He says: 

More and more, I think there's going to be a focus on upgrading existing buildings, particularly as we look at sustainability and the impacts of embodied carbon. We’re going to be demolishing buildings a lot less, and revisiting and refreshing them a lot more.

So, repurposing and modernization of the estate is the priority at Birmingham - which can’t happen without significant investment in technology:

Because we've got such a diverse portfolio, to become more sustainable we're going to have to invest in the fabric of our older buildings.

It sounds strange when I say it, but we're still steam-driven as a University - we have a steam boiler house which is gas-fired. Obviously, as we plan to become more sustainable, we need to move away from gas towards electricity, so that means a big investment in our energy grid.

That's why partners are really important, because we're going to have to plan how we distribute energy around campus in a different way and the load centers are probably going to change on campus. And that’s a fairly big piece of work that needs some significant planning.

That larger drive for both efficiency and Net Zero operations also means that Payne and his team want to know exactly what is going on across all the 672 acres they need to power, light, and clean:

These days a lot of buildings that we have on campus have a building management system that sits in the background and monitors energy consumption, temperatures in rooms, runtime of assets, things like that

This is fairly standard, and a number of providers provide it. But if you’re serious about transforming building management, you have to think IoT - which is why we went to the vendor and asked, ‘What would BEMS Plus look like?’

In Birmingham’s case, ‘BEMS Plus’ comes down to extensive and connected deployment of IoT for tracking room and floor occupancy, air quality, CO2 emissions and other factors. He says:

What we wanted to do is to generate the right data from the right systems and the right points, and then use that data to drive actionable insights so that accurate and detailed building operational data is what makes things happen within the building.

A roadmap to wider sustainability

Prior to 2021, Payne had been using Schneider solutions for a number of years.

But as stated, opening of the new Engineering teaching block gave him the opportunity to test out digital support for future institution-wide green energy management ideas.

In particular, a system from the vendor called the EcoStruxure Building Advisor was implemented.

This provides dashboard-level real-time monitoring of the building management system to proactively address inefficiencies, quickly identify faults, and give the estates team time to take preventative action.

Now, 1,200 connected points across its infrastructure tell him and his team all they need to know about its use, he says.

Another power monitoring tool is also used to derive energy usage and power quality analytics:

For example, the way we now use the building is getting more and more efficient. The building management system makes sure it runs to its optimum efficiency, but it also reacts to the way that we use or don't use the building, so it either shuts lights off in a sector, and if a room hasn’t been used we get told we don’t need to clean it or I don't need to ventilate a 600-seat lecture theatre if it's not being used, and so on.

Great for the power and cleaning materials bill - but how does all this help the users of the University’s built environment?

Payne says apart from helping the institution meet its wider Net Zero targets, it’s also improving the day-to-day student and visitor experience:

Post-COVID, students want to study or work in darker or lighter spaces, some in noisier or quieter spaces, or in lighter or darker, warmer/colder spaces. 

Now, we can identify where those choices are and direct students to it: Okay, we've got 200 study spaces on campus right now, if you want to work in a quieter environment there are 16 spaces free in that room over there, etc.

Finally, having such strong green credentials is also contributing to the University’s wider organizational ambitions of becoming a Global 50 University:

All of the students that join us now want to be associated and attend a university that is serious about sustainability and net zero - part of the choice when they choose a destination for their education and research is, ‘Is this an organization that matches the values that I have?’ 

So, as part of our civic commitment it’s important we deliver that.

Intriguingly, all the BEMS and Smart Campus data is also of direct value to the people that Engineering was set up to serve - the University’s students and researchers in that discipline.

Specifically, data gathered from the building is being made available to help anyone interested in building management and sustainable solutions - and so aid both their teaching and learning.

Next steps

Now that IoT-powered BEMS has proven its worth in the Engineering building test case, for Payne the next step is obvious: scaling up:

If this works in one building, the next thing I want to do is to retrofit this into a building that we're upgrading; I want to make sure that I can use the same technology in older buildings. 

And when I've got the two talking together, it then becomes a volume thing.

He concludes:

For me, the headline here is IoT connectivity driving an enhanced student experience.

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