How to Use Machine Learning (and People) to Make Buildings Better

There’s a major thing that many office building managers tend to overlook when setting the heating and cooling system: the people inside them.

Funny enough, it turns out people can sometimes be the best way to run a building efficiently. A four-year-old startup called Comfy (formerly named Building Robotics) uses workers in office buildings essentially as sensors—via a mobile app—to alert the building’s heating and cooling system when employees want their work spaces a little hotter or cooler.

Despite giving workers easier access to pumping in hot and cool air, the Comfy system can actually lower a building’s energy use for heating and cooling by between 15% to 25%, says Comfy President Lindsay Baker.

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In recent years, integrating computing technology—sensors, wireless networks, indoor location systems—into buildings has become a hot space for venture capital investment. And on Tuesday, Comfy announced it has raised $12 million in funding from investors Microsoft (MSFT), real estate giant CBRE (CBG), and Emergence Capital. Other investors in the company include Claremont Creek Ventures, Google Ventures (GOOG), Formation 8, Navitas Capital, Red Swan Ventures, and the Westly Group.

Comfy’s tech works a bit like Nest’s, the thermostat company that Google acquired for $3.2 billion two years ago. Comfy plugs into both a building’s management system and a mobile app that building occupants download to tweak the temperature in specific zones.

The Comfy system collects all the data about how occupants are using the app and learns—via machine learning—to automatically operate the building’s temperature settings so workers are happy and the building is comfortable. The building can be optimized for energy savings. The settings, even when focused on comfort, always lead to some kind of energy savings, says Baker.

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But Comfy doesn’t just provide lowered energy use to save a company money. It also lets workers make their individual work spaces more personally ideal simply through the use of their cell phones. The app asks a user to “warm my space,” “cool my space,” or simply push a button for “I am comfy.”

The added tech also means that the building operates more dynamically, as both the inside or outside of the building changes over the year, from new workers to changing weather patterns.

Comfy charges its office building customers—like Google (GOOGL), Infosys, and Under Armour—a subscription to use its tech. To date, the company has its systems installed in about 40 locations around the world, which is the equivalent of about 3.5 million square feet. The company plans to use the funding to grow its sales.

Other startups that are trying to incorporate information technology into office buildings include Lucid, and Enlighted. Big companies include Johnson Controls (JCI), GE (GE), Honeywell (HON) and Siemens.

The summers are becoming hotter than ever before, with the changing climate, and summer just started this year. Likely the building management space will become hotter, too.

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