Information technology solutions have the potential to push green building to the next level.
WRITTEN BY Calvin Hennick

Cover: Comfy has developed a mobile app so workers can indicate if they are too hot or too cold in the workplace and the software instructs the building’s systems to send a burst of cool or warm air to make the worker more comfortable. Above: Keven Hart of Tzoa. Photos: Emily Hagopian

Just as it took revolutionary technologies to create the environmental problems that exist today, it will likely take revolutionary technologies to solve them.


Green-focused tech innovations make sustainable practices simple to implement and highly scalable. Luckily, some of the sharpest minds in the tech world are working on it. In the green building arena alone, countless small startups, mature businesses, and major IT vendors are promoting solutions designed to monitor air quality, give building occupants greater control over their environment, connect lighting and other systems through smart software, and more.


Here are four of them.



Five years ago, Kevin Hart was working on a project in a space with high levels of concrete dust. Concerned about his work environment, he looked into ways to test the quality of the air he was breathing.


His options were limited.


For thousands of dollars, he could have rented a basic air quality monitor. Or, for a smaller (but still large) fee, he could have rented a monitoring device, which was around a square foot in size and, he says, “super heavy.” For hundreds of dollars, he could have brought in an outside expert to test the air, but that option would only give him data for a single day, when dust levels might be higher or lower than average. Hart never ended up testing the air, because there was no effective, affordable way to do so.


In 2014, Hart co-founded TZOA, a company that makes accurate, affordable, and highly portable air quality monitors. The business started in Vancouver, but has since moved to San Francisco, where Hart serves as its CEO. At the end of last year, the company shipped its first product—the TZOA-RD02, a palm-sized device meant primarily for research organizations. In tests, Hart says, the University of Utah found that the TZOA device was between 90 and 96 percent accurate against a “gold standard” monitor.


“That’s a $40,000 sensor against our $400 sensor,” Hart says.


It’s this reduction in price—and in size—that could be a game changer. It is already possible for people and organizations to test the quality of the air where they work and live, but nearly none do, for the same reasons Hart didn’t test the air even when he was worried about breathing in concrete dust. But Hart envisions a world in which air quality is a constantly accessible metric, not much different from reading the time off of a clock, or checking a home thermostat to see the current indoor temperature.


The consumer version of the TZOA monitor, which Hart hopes to launch by next May, will be even smaller and less expensive than the research device—between $99 and $139, and around the size of the face of a men’s wristwatch. Hart sees the product as a wearable device that people will be able to clip onto their backpacks, constantly collecting data about their environment, including information about chemicals, particulate matter, temperature, air pressure, UV exposure, and humidity.

This Tzoa air quality monitor is portable, affordable, and accurate.


Lindsay Baker is the president of Comfy, a company that produces software that interacts with heating and cooling systems to allow occupants to adjust the air around them.

By itself, a TZOA device will not increase the quality of anyone’s air, but it can give people the information they need to take action. (In fact, the devices will recommend specific action steps to users, such as opening windows if indoor air quality is poor, or avoiding a particularly polluted route for their morning jog.) Hart points to research suggesting that heightened levels of carbon dioxide in schools can impact kids’ ability to focus and learn, and says that there have even been cases in which school buses have leaked diesel fumes into the passenger compartment. But most parents have little to no information about air quality in classrooms and on buses, and therefore are in no position to demand improvements.


Indoor air quality, Hart says, is typically two to five times worse than outdoor conditions —a situation that can be remedied with an air purifier—but most people do not realize this, and so they never take action. On a macro level, ignorance about air quality leads to a lack of progress on pollution-prevention regulations and legislation, he says.


“We live in a democracy,” Hart says. “If [you] the average person doesn’t understand the problem, then there’s not any motivation for the person representing you to make a change.”


TZOA, Hart hopes, is the answer. “This is something people can constantly have on them, so you can do an instant diagnosis about where that pollution is coming from and what to do about it,” he says.



Temperature, says Lindsay Baker, president of Comfy, is the thing people complain about most in an office environment—more than lighting, cleanliness, privacy, or acoustics. “It’s very noticeable, it’s very visceral,” she says. “A: It’s typically not quite right; and B: There’s not a lot of good control over it.”


It may not seem like controlling the temperature of a room should be so difficult (this is not a problem for most people in their homes or cars), and yet in many office settings, heating and cooling systems are operated in such a way that they both make people physically uncomfortable and waste energy in the process. Who, for example, has not walked into a commercial building on a hot, humid day, only to find that the air conditioning is set so high that a sweater is needed? Or sat in an all-glass conference room set to a theoretically perfect 72 degrees, and then felt the room turn into a virtual sauna when it’s filled with bodies and sunlight? Or walked into an office set at a chilly 68 degrees, located the thermostat, punched the “up” button a bunch of times, and then waited over the course of an hour for the temperature to slowly creep up to … 69 degrees?


Part of the problem, Baker says, is that building managers often keep temperatures colder than necessary in the summer to prevent occupants from complaining that the air conditioning is broken. The lack of controls is another problem for many systems. Sometimes the thermostat is located in a manager’s office which may be locked when the boss is traveling, and other times users have no ability to control their climate at all.


Even keeping buildings at a comfortable 72 degrees is not ideal, Baker says, because that solution wastes energy heating and cooling unoccupied rooms, and it won’t make everyone happy anyway.


“If you gave everyone in the world a peanut butter sandwich, most people would probably be fine,” says Baker, a former LEED program manager at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). “That doesn’t mean they would necessarily be happy or productive. In commercial buildings, we keep shoving peanut butter sandwiches down everybody’s throats.”


Comfy, an Oakland-based company founded in 2013, produces software that interacts with heating and cooling systems in commercial buildings, allowing occupants to instantly adjust the temperature of the air around them and helping to move buildings away from a one-size-fits-all (or, as Baker says, a “peanut butter sandwich”) model of climate control. Using a mobile app, workers indicate that they are too hot or too cold, and the software instructs the building’s systems to send a burst of warm or cool air, accordingly. Baker estimates that 70 percent of commercial buildings in the U.S. larger than 50,000 square feet have systems that are compatible with the software.


The blast of air is important, Baker says, as it allows occupants to instantly feel the effect of the change, as opposed to waiting as the room warms or cools. Also, this model allows the room to gradually return to its baseline temperature, meaning that energy won’t be wasted providing extra heating or cooling to a room after it’s empty. Comfy’s software uses machine learning to adjust baseline temperatures over time. So, if staffers are constantly requesting warmer air during their recurring 2 p.m. sales meeting in Conference Room B, the system will start adjusting the temperature in that room, at that time automatically.


Rather than depersonalizing office life, Baker says, tech tools like Comfy actually have the potential to bring a personal touch to previously impenetrable systems.


“It’s maybe counterintuitive to what people think,” she says. “It’s entirely humanizing the experience, compared to how buildings have been run. It’s bringing nuance and sort of a ‘human-centric-ness’ to buildings in a way that wasn’t possible before.”

Cisco has developed the Digital Ceiling, which combines energy efficient products with the controllability made possible by loT.


Small tech startups are not the only ones bootstrapping their way to a greener planet. Networking giant Cisco Systems has made a big play in recent years around green technologies as part of their Smart Cities and Smart Buildings offerings.


Those initiatives extend beyond energy savings, with a focus on using Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, devices, and software to help municipalities and building managers find hidden efficiencies for things like managing traffic, helping motorists find parking, and providing physical security. The solutions also help cities and buildings reduce energy use by giving users the ability to connect and control systems over IT networks.


The company has been working on its Smart Cities program for around a decade, but has only begun ramping up its efforts in the building space over the last couple of years, says John Baekelmans, chief technology officer of the IoT vertical solutions group at Cisco. In February of this year, Cisco announced a new framework it calls the Digital Ceiling, which converges lighting, heating, cooling, and sensors into one solution, increasing efficiency, lowering costs, and giving building occupants a better experience.


The Digital Ceiling combines the energy efficiency of newer products, such as LED lights, with the controllability made possible through the IoT. Taken together, these two advances not only complement each other, but have a multiplier effect of sorts. “One and one is actually three,” Baekelmans says, meaning that the solution is more than the sum of its parts. When businesses install LED lights and connect them to a control system like the Digital Ceiling, he says, it can reduce lighting bills by 90 percent compared to traditional lights.


Even the cost of installation is comparable to or lower than that of layering controls onto traditional lights, says Baekelmans. “One of the biggest costs of putting separate sensors next to additional lighting is that you have to pull the cables,” he says. “It’s a power cable, or it’s a power and a control cable, whatever method you use. If you’ve got sensors embedded now into each of those luminaires, and they almost come for free, that’s big.”


Cisco’s size gives the company advantages in combatting some of the hurdles that can accompany Internet of Things deployments. For one, there is currently no single standard protocol for IoT devices, meaning that it can be difficult to get different systems to “talk” to each other. By bringing different systems together in a single solution, Cisco’s Digital Ceiling mitigates this problem.


Cybersecurity is also a major concern for organizations adopting IoT solutions. No tech manager wants to get a call at 3 a.m. from someone telling them that hackers have gained access to sensitive corporate data by infiltrating a light bulb. Because of its networking focus, Cisco is brimming with cybersecurity expertise. “We prevalidate all of these technologies,” Baekelmans says. “We try to hack the hell out of it to see what could be the issue. The entire path you would follow from the light to the switch to the network to the Internet or the cloud—how do you secure that end-to-end? That’s what we do.”


Connecting systems to the IT network also means that a building’s light bulbs and thermostats will suddenly be generating data, and that these systems will be able to tie into other connected devices, such as mobile phones. Baekelmans says that software developers are only beginning to explore the potential applications of this—the same way mobile app developers had to figure out the best uses of smartphones through trial and error when those devices debuted. But he gives the example of a room’s sensors recognizing employees based on their smartphone media access control (MAC) addresses, and then customizing the lighting and temperature for them automatically, based on their preferences.


“We can do that today,” he says. “We can make it so the building can adapt to you.”



Tom Pincince, chief executive officer of Digital Lumens

Digital Lumens

Digital Lumens—a company founded in 2008 and located in the Fort Point neighborhood of Boston—sells connected intelligent LED lighting systems. Like Cisco, the firm says it can save customers up to 90 percent on their light bills. Also like Cisco, the company is actively exploring not only how its products can help reduce energy consumption and costs, but also how the data generated by its solutions can add value to the workplace in other ways.


“I think the industry has become far more educated, and is shifting more and more toward the value of data, rather than just lights,” says Kaynam Hedayat, vice president of product management and marketing for Digital Lumens.


For example, sensors in the company’s lights can provide occupancy data to software programs, which can then tell the building’s other systems not to waste energy heating or cooling empty areas.


“Today, many warehouses heat or cool the warehouse everywhere, regardless of whether there is a person there or not,” says Hedayat. “With this solution, they can get more granular. That’s one application.”


The company also recently used the lights’ sensors to help solve one of its own, seemingly unrelated, problems—workers bickering over conference space. “There are five conference rooms, and there [is] always fighting going on,” Hedayat explains.


By comparing occupancy data from the rooms’ lights to Google Calendar bookings for the conference rooms, the company noticed four problematic trends:

1. People booked the rooms and then did not show up.
2. People showed up to the rooms without booking them.
3. People booked the rooms, showed up, but then overstayed their booking.
4. People booked the rooms, showed up, but then left well before their allotted time was up.

Now, the company is allowing the lighting systems themselves to automatically book a conference room if someone shows up unannounced, so that the room shows up as occupied if someone looks on Google Calendar. If people overstay their meetings, the booking gets extended, and if no one shows up during the first ten minutes of the booking, it gets canceled.


So, Digital Lumens’ lighting systems are not just saving the company money and conserving resources. They are also—as odd as this may sound—taking on a sort of administrative role. The company plans to extend the application to its customers.


“It’s this kind of data that is there, and nobody’s thought about how to use it,” says Hedayat. “There are so many things you can do with the data. I think we’re just beginning to touch the tip of the iceberg.”