GAO: GSA Hasn’t Been Smart About Smart Buildings Program

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Smart building technologies might pay for themselves in cost savings but the government’s landlord hasn’t been able to make the case.

The General Services Administration wants to embrace the internet of things by injecting government buildings with smart technologies. However, the agency’s methods for measuring costs and return on investment aren’t smart enough, according to the Government Accountability Office.

“Limited quantified information exists on the costs and benefits of the GSA’s smart buildings program’s key technologies,” GAO analysts wrote in a Jan. 30 report. Furthermore, “GSA does not have documented, clearly defined goals for the smart buildings program, nor has GSA developed performance measures that would allow it to assess the program’s progress.”

As both the government’s landlord and an agency trying to establish itself as a public sector technology leader, GSA officially began looking at smart building technologies in 2005 and ultimately identified two to focus on: advanced utility meters and software that would later become known as GSAlink.

The first uses sensors to better manage energy consumption throughout buildings. As of January, approximately 675 meters have been installed, a GSA official told GAO.

The second technology—GSAlink—uses those meters and other sensors to give a more holistic picture of building operations.

“For example,” the report notes, “GSA officials told us that GSAlink can collect data on the temperature and pressure of chilled water that is being circulated through a building’s cooling system and identify equipment that is operating outside of normal parameters or normal business hours when a building automation system may not be actively monitored.”

GSAlink is installed in 81 government buildings, 80 of which have advanced utility meters.

Collectively, these two technologies cost between $48,000 and $155,000 to install in a single building, according to GSA.

The range is largely dependent on the age and condition of the building and can skyrocket in older buildings that need to be upgraded before new technologies can be installed. GSA reported that these upgrade costs average $90,000 but can vary wildly, with at least one building costing upwards of $3 million.

But getting an accurate accounting of these costs is difficult, as noted by both GSA and GAO, since upgrades are often made incrementally over years and can come from other funding sources, such as improvements made using money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Similarly, it’s not clear what savings are actually being reaped through the program.

A business case for implementing smart technologies done in 2009 stated that a smart-buildings program would pay for itself in less than two years through energy and operational savings. Unfortunately, that study failed to account for necessary building upgrades or the fact that most operations and maintenance contracts cover multiple years at a fixed price.

These issues are compounded by the lack of a written plan for deploying, managing and accounting for savings within the program, GAO said.

During interviews for the report, GSA officials told GAO analysts of their “broad goals” for the program but weren’t able to provide any documented plans describing those goals or a path toward achieving them.

“Without clearly defined goals, related performance measures, and data that can be used to measure its progress, GSA is limited in its ability to make informed decisions about the smart-buildings program,” the report states.

GAO also cited some barriers to deploying smart building technologies, including cybersecurity—more internet-connected devices means more opportunities for hackers—and the “limited technological proficiency … or lack of buy-in” from building managers, whether GSA employees or contractors.

GAO analysts recommended GSA create clearly defined, documented plans and goals, develop metrics to measure those goals against and seek out the kinds of data needed for those measurements.

GSA officials agreed with these recommendations.

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