Smart Building Initiative – LIFT Progress Report

This is one in a series of articles reporting on progress being made by the inaugural recipients of Longhorn Innovation Fund for Technology (LIFT) support.

The project has the potential to set a great example in a highly interactive and media savvy way.

Tools are now available that offer real-time data for people who want to learn how their personal choices impact energy consumption at the room level. In a year-long project, the Smart Building Initiative marries this technology with an integrated building monitoring system to track and analyze how human behavior plays a key role in optimizing energy efficiency in a single building.


Curb Logo

In May 2008, The University of Texas at Austin adopted a Campus Sustainability Policy making it one of the first institutions of higher education in the country to require policies, practices and curricula focused on “advancing environmental stewardship and sustainability on our campus.” As part of the School of Architecture, The Center for Sustainable Development (CSD) embodies this mission. Through a unique multidisciplinary combination of research, education and community engagement the center strives to connect environmental, economic and social justice challenges and find solutions that are “creative, balanced and achievable.” The work of the center is characterized by a conviction that individual choice and collective decisions have a positive impact on how we live and how buildings, neighborhoods and regions are planned, built and preserved.

The Smart Building Initiative (SBI)—a CSD project under the direction of Matt Fajkus, Assistant Professor and Ulrich Dangel, Assistant Professor, School of Architecture and Gloria Lee, Associate Professor and Riley Triggs, Lecturer, Department of Art and Art History, College of Fine Arts— is looking for creative ways to address the fact that over 40% of the nation’s energy is consumed by existing building space. Through developing and piloting an innovative technology system on the UT Austin campus, the initiative hopes to use energy consumption, efficiency, and behavioral data to assist building managers in making informed decisions on facility operations and to help concerned individuals reduce their own energy usage on a building-by-building basis.

With the support of LIFT funding, and in collaboration with the University’s Facilities Services Department and the Office of Sustainability, the research team is transforming SBI from a conceptual prototype to an integrated, multi-faceted system that improves personal energy use awareness and impacts energy monitoring and building use strategies across campus. With roughly 19 million square feet of existing building space on the main campus alone, the potential for lowering energy costs and consumption are significant.

40% of the nation's energy is consumed by existing building space.


The SBI pilot study is based on the simple premise that understanding how occupants use a building—and empowering them to make conscious choices about their own energy consumption—can help improve the efficiency of all energy-related systems. To date, project accomplishments include selection of a test building, installation of an energy monitoring system, creation of a website and development of a mobile phone application that allows users to see in real time how much energy they use in the building and also be rewarded for energy-conserving choices.

Sutton Hall is serving as the site for the pilot study. Due to asbestos testing requirements and other logistical concerns, installation of the energy monitoring system key to the project has only recently been completed. As Fajkus observes “Implementing this project has been challenging for the same reason that it is interesting and significant.  Setting up the energy sensors, people-counters and devising a system to assimilate and make sense of this data is difficult, particularly when retrofitting such equipment in a 100-year-old building.”  The system, which is now in operation, analyzes temperature, light levels, relative humidity, air quality and electricity usage. It is also providing baseline data on the building that will be used throughout the duration of the project.

A multi-disciplinary team of graduate student assistants consisting of René Pinnell, Ryan Bruner, Department of Art and Art History, College of Fine Arts, Blake Smith, School of Architecture, and Anil Kumar Attuluri and Anil Kumar Katti, Department of Computer Science, College of Natural Sciences have implemented “indoor localization” technology that can accurately track the location of wireless devices down to the room level. They have developed, tested and recently deployed a Smartphone app called “Curb,” to help students, faculty and staff who opt in to the study “curb” their energy usage while in Sutton Hall. The app allows users to track the impact their own choices have on the overall energy consumption in the building. Simple steps such as turning lights out when a room is not in use can make a quantitative difference. Participants in the study will be able to see how their choices―together and over time―add up to both good stewardship and cost savings. Building managers will also be able to use the technology to track energy consumption throughout the building and implement savings strategies based on what they learn. With all the pieces now in place, the SBI team is preparing an official launch for the data gathering phase of the pilot study.

We're creating an awareness of energy usage from the scale of the building down to the scale of the human.


The SBI pilot study is the first of its kind in higher education. By linking the core services of a building to the people who use them, the project will not only help facility managers understand ways they can optimize energy usage in a building, it also empowers occupants of the building to learn more about their own energy consumption. As Fajkus observes, “we are learning about both human performance and building performance by charting highly unique and influential data.” The Provost’s Office has expressed interest in the findings of the pilot as the data about energy consumption might be useful in scheduling rooms and buildings for classroom activities based on documented energy requirements.

Jim Walker, Director of the Office of Sustainability, and an active partner with SBI in deploying sensors to monitor energy usage in campus buildings, says “The project has the potential to set a great example for how we work with students, faculty and staff on resource efficiency inside our buildings in a highly interactive and media savvy way.” The installation of the touch-screen monitor at the entrance to Sutton Hall provides a common interactive point of real-time data for students, faculty, staff and visitors who are curious to see how this innovative effort supports and extends environmental stewardship and sustainability at the University.

An additional benefit of the project is the true interdisciplinary make-up of the team. Lee considers this one of the most remarkable aspects of the SBI pilot study. The School of Architecture, the Department of Art and Art History, the Department of Computer Science and the Office of Sustainability are all working together to provide a “complete system view, from user to building to operations, in one project,” she observes. The “breadth of knowledge needed to complete this” project is based on each group having “a unique and equally important perspective to contribute.” Barbara Wilson, Director, CSD, expressed the hope that SBI could serve as a “bellwether for future interdisciplinary, campus-based research endeavors.”

Around 7,000 kilowatt hours are consumed every day in Sutton Hall.

Next Steps

During the fall 2010 semester, students in the School of Architecture received emails announcing the SBI pilot study; flyers were also posted throughout Sutton Hall to reach the large number of non-Architecture students who use the building as well. From this pool of stakeholders, the team now hopes to engage over a hundred participants in the data collection phase of the project. A launch party for those who opt-in to the pilot is scheduled for shortly after Spring Break. Study participants will sign-up to use the Curb application and take advantage of the system of energy monitoring and indoor localization technology to track and modify their own energy consumption while in the building. The data gathered on how Sutton Hall is being used will be compared with its energy consumption in the hopes of identifying potential energy savings.

After the data collection phase ends in May 2011, the team will work together to analyze the data and suggest future research and implementation strategies. Long-term, the results of the SBI could lead to campus-wide implementation of a permanent system. Such a system would enable students, faculty and staff on campus to make informed decisions about their own energy consumption and would help facility managers implement new sustainability practices. A number of external entities, such as Dell’s Office of Sustainability, have already expressed interest in the results of the initiative. Findings from the pilot study will also serve as a case study to inform future interdisciplinary, applied and campus-oriented research endeavors.