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The city of Seattle has long been known for rainy weather, giving birth to grunge music, and its corporate headquarters for tech giants Microsoft and Amazon. Now the city also wants to become known as a leading hub for smart, energy-efficient buildings.

"Smart buildings" are essentially defined as any office or residential building (historic or brand new) that uses sensors, data, visualizations, and other analytics to measure the way the building consumes energy. For example, a huge hotel could use this type of technology to monitor the temperature in conference rooms, so that the heating system kicks on more robustly during sessions. Engineers can program smart buildings to turn off the air conditioners on the weekends when no one goes to the office. This technology also quickly helps building managers pinpoint problems like faulty pipes or malfunctioning cooling systems—all in the name of saving both energy and money.

Back in 2010, the city of Seattle wanted to capitalize on this growing trend of smart-building technology and become a regional leader in the field. The Pacific Northwest is already home to several energy-related startups, says Stan Price, executive director of the Northwest Energy Efficiency Council, a regional business association. "The analysis and visualization of energy usage can lead to actionable data that gives us a different way to think through energy efficiency. That's what the real pay dirt is here," Price says. "We want to show what the new world of energy efficiency can be like."

This type of evangelizing was an easy sell in Seattle. After all, the Microsoft campus already uses this type of technology to measure its energy efficiency. With that as just one model, the city, local industry leaders, economic-development officials, and community-college officials decided to tackle this smart-building project in three distinct ways. One goal was to reduce the use of energy by 25 percent in downtown buildings.

First, this group of people decided to run a pilot program in five downtown buildings (close to 2 million square feet of space) to gauge the way the smart technology helped or hindered those facilities. Second, the group would construct a smart-building center (slated to open in the fall of 2015) to act as a national resource on this topic. Finally, the local community-college system would offer a new degree in sustainable-building technology to train the next generation of tech-savvy, energy-conscious building managers.

In doing so, the region hoped to prove the value of this experiment. "We think it has traction nationally and internationally. This is part of the allure," Price adds. "If we can figure out things here and a number of companies out here get into this space, then we'll have the opportunity to export these ideas."

In the first phase of this experiment, the city of Seattle's economic-development office worked with Microsoft, Accenture, and a handful of downtown buildings to implement the smart technology. Five office buildings now use these systems, including a Sheraton hotel, a Boeing building, a municipal tower, and two university buildings. Much of the initial cost of $450,000 came from a federal grant and from Microsoft. The individual facilities pay for the monthly costs of running the smart-technology systems, which range from $2,900 to $7,600, according to city officials.

While it's too early to draw too many formal conclusions about this data, anecdotally it has been successful, says Stephanie Gowing, a green-business advocate with Seattle's Office of Economic Development. The two buildings have saved more than $130,000, Gowing says, because the technology helped the building managers identify various ways that the buildings wasted natural gas and electricity.

Another phase of the project is training the next generation of building managers in this type of smart-building technology. That's where the community-college system entered the picture. Just this year, South Seattle College launched a two-year program to give experienced professionals (who hold associate's degrees) a bachelor's degree of applied science in sustainable-building technology.

Taught primarily online, the course is designed to instruct students—engineers, carpenters, existing building managers—how to develop, tackle, and run the complex computers, engineering systems, and sensors that now run modern, green buildings. It also can be a lucrative field. The lead faculty member for the degree, Victoria Hardy, estimates the graduates could earn as much as $80,000 a year. "In the industry surveys leading up to the development of the program, there was considerable agreement that there would be 500 sustainable-management building positions in the Puget Sound area in the next three to five years," Hardy adds.

The final component of this regional push comes from the creation of a local smart-building center. Housed in a former Merchant Marine hospital overlooking downtown Seattle, the center will host conferences, training sessions, and events. The center will also loan equipment and technology out to other facilities, Price says.

One of the key components of this smart-building push throughout the Seattle region is demonstrating that this technology can improve the energy efficiency of all types of buildings—not just the all green, sleek, modern ones. It's about figuring out the way the buildings we use every day function and how we can make them work more efficiently, with Seattle running the first regional experiments.

This story has been updated.

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal and part of our Next Economy coverage.

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