Smarter Infrastructure: Investing for the future

Build new and rebuild old stuff as if your life depended on it…

[Originally posted on the now defunct IBM Smarter Computing blog on 14 October 2014]

In a previous blog post, I discussed how I explained Smarter Infrastructure to my daughter and her friends because they wondered what I did for a living after seeing me working in my home office. I’d now like to take that explanation a step further and discuss smarter infrastructure using an analogy from the physical world. In this post I’ll describe for you how I designed and built my energy-efficient house and the effects that smarter architecture and design have on its daily operations and cost profile.

Background

Without detailing too much historical perspective, suffice it to say that twice in my life I almost became an architect for the built environment. But the fickle finger of fate intervened and I became a digital architect instead. Thankfully, I was able to exercise my interests in physical architecture, alternative energy and passive and active solar technologies by designing and building my own house. I spent about two decades investigating best practices, the local building codes and alternative building technologies. I spent another two years building the house. This story is an example of why we need to invest in smarter digital and physical infrastructures in America and the world, in my humble opinion.

Location, location, location

I was very lucky to find a parcel of land in the California foothills that has excellent southern and western exposures (for solar energy exploitation) and beautiful views of the Central Valley. Once the land was secured, I started to develop the house plans based on the topology of the parcel, based on variations on a theme I conceived during my high school senior project in mechanical drawing.

Green design for the future

I initially considered using rammed earth or straw bales as the primary construction method due to their inherent “greenness,” but the seismic engineering requirements  in California and lack of expertise in the local county building department ruled them out. I eventually arrived at a combination of technologies: insulated concrete forms (ICFs) for the walls and a structural insulated panel system (SIPS) for the roof. The passive solar design called for the roof to be of a vented design (similar to a “cold-roof” concept but in reverse, given the insolation exposure in California), with overhangs to the south and west calculated to shade the walls in the peak of the summer heat. Passive solar design also meant that the downstairs levels would be built into the earth at the crest of the slope.

ICFBuilding a house foundation with Insulated Concrete Forms.  I built my whole house this way. Photo courtesy of FoxBlocks, Inc. – http://www.foxblocks.com

I used recycled steel joists imbedded in the concrete walls to support the upper-level floors. All floors in the house are concrete on steel pan deck and are radiators in the hydronic heating system. Living areas are finished with stamped, stained and sealed concrete while the sleeping areas utilize either tile,  berber carpet with no padding or floating wood flooring (to provide a modicum of comfort while also allowing for the radiant heat to transfer somewhat efficiently to the rooms).

I installed a split-zone air conditioning system that is sized at one-third of “normal” capacity. Both the heating and cooling systems were engineered to account for the huge thermal mass and high degree of insulation in the wall and roof systems.SIPS Installing a SIPS roof panel. Photo courtesy of Premier SIPS – http://www.premiersips.com

To illustrate the value of the thermal mass and insulation, let me offer the following example: to keep the house at 68oF when it is 32oF outside, the hydronic system circulates water at 90oF in the floors. The house also features a split-zone air recirculation system that uses passive intake cooling to keep the indoor air fresh (ICF houses are notoriously air-tight as compared to “stick-built” ones).

So, you may be asking at this point, what are the effects of spending all this time and energy and money on these newer technologies?

ICF room with steel joistsICF walls with imbedded steel beams and steel pan deck flooring for a data center in Oregon. Similar to how I built my house. Photo courtesy of Fox Blocks, Inc. – http://www.foxblocks.com

Unfortunately, rapid depletion of my building funds prevented me from instrumenting the house from an Internet of Things standpoint, so I just have anecdotal information on how the house performs. But I think you’ll agree that the anecdotal information is fairly impressive.

In our 100oF-plus summers, my electric bill is one-third that of my neighbors, which is driven primarily by air-conditioning (A/C) requirements. But I think the most impressive example is from the winter season, because it’s somewhat easier to survive heat than cold.

A couple of winters ago, prior to the exceptional drought that California and the US southwest, we had a very strong, wet storm as a result of the “Pineapple Express” that dumped lots of heavy, wet snow on the western slope of the Sierras. Usually we get a couple of inches of snow, which melts in hours, but this particular storm was very cold and we received almost a foot of snow at the 2500-foot elevation level. The cold air persisted for over 72 hours and the heavy snow took out tree limbs and power lines, so my house did not have any way to heat itself for three days (no power to circulate the water in the hydronic heating system).

In those three days, my house lost only 5°F: it went from 68°F to 63°F. I think that is very impressive.

What have I learned about smarter infrastructure?

The takeaways from my experience in designing and building an energy efficient home are many, but two stand out:

  • Investments in smarter infrastructure (CAPEX) can significantly reduce recurring energy expenses (OPEX).
  • Investments in smarter infrastructure can improve continuity of operations in periods of stress or disruption.

I believe this physical example applies directly to the world of digital infrastructure. How so? Here are a couple of thoughts and recommendations for organizations that want to make their digital infrastructure more efficient and resilient:

  • Look long-term: Understand we are in a “new normal,” and design and architect accordingly. Build resilience and flexibility into your systems and data centers. IBM architects and engineers can help you do so from the server, storage and network perspectives. They can also advise and consult on data center energy efficiency, site selection and construction (new or retrofit).
  • Do detailed engineering and multi-year comprehensive financial models to justify investments in smarter infrastructure. Do not be driven by annual budgets or short-term acquisition costs. Doing the right analysis job (from both technical and financial standpoints) requires minimal extra effort, but the payoffs are huge.

Thinking ahead

Future plans for the house (by prior design) call for the addition of solar systems: a photovoltaic system to reduce, if not eliminate, my electric bill and a hot-water system to augment or replace the propane water heater (a 75 gallon high-efficiency unit with a heat transfer coil inside as the hydronic heat source). I am also considering a battery back-up system and a small propane generator.

The eventual goal is to be as independent and self-sufficient as I can from the energy perspective, given a fixed income in retirement and the projected rise in energy costs (both direct and indirect) in the future.

In these times of massive change and adaptation, how will you prepare your digital infrastructure for the future? How will you make it smarter and more resilient? I hope the story of my house, as a physical example of smarter infrastructure, will motivate you going forward. Let me know what you think.

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