PropTech: With PassiveLogic, Smart Buildings are not just “Connected” Buildings, They’re Intelligent

PassiveLogic, RET Ventures, NREP, Keyframe Capital
Courtesy of PassiveLogic
Troy Harvey, PassiveLogic

By Meghan Hall

Technology has transformed the way that those in the commercial real estate industry are able to view property through the gathering and analysis of hundreds of data points. The rise of the smart building has taken hold. However, those at PassiveLogic, which markets itself as the first fully autonomous building controls platform, believes there is a difference between a building that is simply connected versus one with artificial intelligence. The platform recently raised $16 million in funding with partners such as Keyframe Capital, RET Ventures, and NREP. The Registry recently spoke with PassiveLogic’s TroyHarvey on the future of smart buildings and their capabilities. 

Please tell The Registry a little bit about PassiveLogic. Why did you decide to form a company that would be a pioneer when it comes to autonomous building controls?

When we looked at the tools operators had to make buildings work, we saw they were terribly inadequate. And it turns out that most of the people in the C-suite have never ventured to the boiler room and they have no idea how their buildings are run. The incumbent building automation providers aren’t solving the problems, instead relying on recurring revenues from the same outdated products that have been around for decades.

We advocate for the folks who operate and maintain buildings every day. We make the case for why their needs are vital to the value of the largest asset class in the economy. What they most need are tools that make buildings work as they were designed to work, that consider the building as a whole integrated system, and that enable those buildings to work without supervision. What building techs and operators need are tools of autonomy. 

For those who are unfamiliar—how do you define autonomous building controls, and what does this integration mean for commercial real estate?

Autonomous buildings go beyond “smart” or “automated” — they manage their own design, installation, and operation, and continually provide autonomous maintenance and management. In real time, autonomous buildings introspect their own physics and provide deep insights and analysis. The Digital Twin API allows owners to connect to the cloud and to their own internal management systems.

We think of autonomous buildings largely in the same way we think of autonomous vehicles. While cars move from point A to B through space along the quickest route, autonomous buildings move from point A to B through time along the most energy efficient control path. By providing true autonomy, PassiveLogic unlocks a building’s full potential for the first time, making portfolios smarter, more connected, and more cost-effective to manage, with technology that is accessible to all buildings — not just the largest commercial spaces.

How do you believe this technology will add to the “smart building” evolution that has begun over the past several years?

Up until this point, “smart” buildings have largely been just connected buildings, without any true underlying intelligence. The fundamental control theories that govern our buildings are still largely static patch-work sequences and PID loops, which fall far short of capturing the intelligence we need to power actual “smart buildings”. PassiveLogic has re-architected building control methodology from the ground up around a physics-based, digital twin ontology — which for the first time completely describes a building, its systems, and the environment in which it operates. When an AI framework is applied to this rich ontology, buildings can learn about their own operation, make decisions autonomously, and improve operational efficiency. 

How does PassiveLogic work? How is its technology structured to create efficiency within a building’s physical structure?

Using the analogy of self-driving cars, it is of course extremely important that they avoid accidents to the greatest extent possible. The risk is high if two cars crash into each other — it may result in injury or death. By contrast, in buildings it turns out that the systems are “crashing” into each other all the time, due to lack of sub-systems coordination. While the risk of injury or death is low, the end result of this lack of autonomy is a huge missed opportunity in operational efficiency — for example, heating and cooling working against each other within close proximity. PassiveLogic takes a future-forward, whole-systems approach to coordinate all functions across a system; unlocking greater operational efficiencies and energy savings.

Can PassiveLogic speak a little bit about its “deep physics” Digital Twins?

Digital Twins have become a common concept, but what they mean is by definition abstract. In short, a digital twin is a virtual avatar of a real-world object. At PassiveLogic, we base our autonomous building platform on the concept of Deep Digital Twins, which go well beyond visual CAD or BIM models and are defined by the fundamental, first-principles physics of real-world objects. We define a pump not just with a digital label of “pump”, but with equations that define what ‘kind’ of thing pumps are. For example, English speakers know a door as ‘door’, and Japanese speakers know the word ‘ドア’ for the same concept. Both groups understand that a door is a moveable portion of wall with a handle that allows access to a space. A deep digital twin understands the concept of ‘door-ness’ and can seamlessly translate between any language or protocol, capturing the notions of what doors do and how they work in addition to their name. We use deep digital twins in building automation to help us simulate environmental conditions and control sequences so we can prototype designs before implementing them in the real world.

Why is it significant that PassiveLogic’s platform enables autonomous systems without data science or AI training time?

Data are not inherently valuable unless we have a way to find the significant values, interpret them correctly, and translate that insight into meaningful action. For the past couple of decades, our buildings have been producing increasing volumes of data streams, and building owners are swamped with the task of making meaning from this sea of information. The data quickly becomes a burden. An autonomous building can provide deeper insight that goes well beyond “what” is happening in buildings by illuminating “why” and “what will be”. The AI leverages this information to swiftly and autonomously make optimal control decisions, and operators can easily access insights and apply rules for any part of the portfolio.

How much time/money can PassiveLogic save clients as a result?

By using autonomous technology as the foundation for control, portfolio owners can coordinate the control of all their building systems — unlocking a whopping 30% savings on operational costs just by controlling more intelligently. No other retrofits of equipment or envelope upgrades are required to see these savings. 

PassiveLogic just recently secured $16 million in Series A Funding. What specific asset classes, partnerships or markets does PassiveLogic intend to target next? Why?

The small to medium commercial spaces (<100k sq ft) currently have very limited access to building automation. Less than 5% of this market has been penetrated due to the fact that current solutions can’t scale down to be affordable for this asset class. The breakthrough PassiveLogic platform democratizes the world of automation, enabling anyone to design and install their own scalable autonomous systems, from coffee shops to skyscrapers. While we see this as our primary market beachhead, PassiveLogic’s mission is to transition every building to full autonomy.

Both the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) as well as Swiss HVAC company Belimo have invested in PassiveLogic. As the technology evolves, how do you see the application of autonomous building technology changing/expanding? Why?

We started with building automation because HVAC control is a fundamental requirement for literally every building, and we knew we could make it a lot better. But this is just the starting point for a platform that fundamentally changes a building’s entire life cycle and the way humans interact with the built environment. As more and more buildings become fully autonomous, we have the opportunity to integrate autonomy into other processes the building is used for. A couple of examples:

  • In a logistics warehouse, efficient control of the building’s HVAC systems is directly tied to what product is stored and when shipments move in and out. We have the opportunity to tie in supply chain operations with building operations as one cohesive process.
  • In a hospital, the importance of human comfort and individualized zone control is probably more important than in any other asset class. We can expand our autonomous building platform to better capture patients’ needs and translate them into effective zone by zone control — and ultimately tie into healthcare data streams to coordinate patient management with environmental management.

Is there anything else you would like to add? Anything that we should be asking?

The question that seems obvious when you lay all this out is why isn’t this being done already? No one has done this before because the right questions haven’t been asked. Frequently, real estate technology firms look at the portfolio holders and try to incrementally increase value at the top of the market. We instead looked at the foundational technology infrastructure supporting our buildings and saw it needed to be reimagined. We observed that the problems could be more effectively addressed through computer engineering rather than incentive shifting. Buildings had never been looked at as a complete ecosystem of interrelated systems before, and this new lens brought into focus a set of solutions that had never been applied to this industry. Buildings are the largest asset class in the world economy, and they consume 40% of the world’s energy. The opportunity for impact is unmatched.

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