Inside Microsoft's living, breathing building

This is the second of a three-part series. Part 1 can be found here and Part 3 here.

Tearle Whitson and Jonathan Grove stroll across the rooftop of Microsoft’s Building 88. It’s one of the first sunny days of spring, and singing birds accompany the picture-postcard view of Washington state’s Cascade Mountains.

“This is one of the perks of the job,” says Whitson, taking a moment to survey the scene before climbing into the whirring, dark interior of one of the roof’s large, white air handlers. As nice as they can be, now rooftop field trips like this are few and far between.

Whitson and Grove have experienced a seismic shift in their workday since helping to develop Microsoft’s smart buildings tool. Two years ago, the two spent a lot of time climbing over rooftops, inspecting pump rooms and peering above ceiling tiles at variable air volume boxes.

“I used to spend 70 percent of my time gathering and compiling data and only about 30 percent of my time doing engineering,” Grove says. “Our smart buildings work serves up data for me in easily consumable formats, so now I get to spend 95 percent of my time doing engineering, which is great.”

Before Microsoft’s buildings leapt up the IQ curve, the duo’s home was on the so-called range. They’d move from building to building, camping out in each for two weeks at a time to inspect and tune it top to bottom before moving on to the next. It would take them five years to tune up all of the buildings on campus, and then they’d start the process all over again. Their tune-ups were making the buildings run more efficiently, saving the company around $250,000 annually – but the new data gold rush will help them save six times that much.

The duo now spend most of their time at the ROC, chewing on building data. Although they’re no longer camping out together tuning up Microsoft’s campus the old-fashioned way, the two have maintained the comfortable rapport and geeky banter they established working in the field.

Facilities engineers such as Whitson and Grove think of the buildings they care for as living, breathing things. Just like the human body, buildings have a wealth of indicators that things are going well – or, in some cases, not so well. Also like the human body, small ailments can lead to much larger failures, and an ounce of prevention can lead to many pounds of cure.

And now, with the new data-driven software solution that the team built, they can do an even better job of managing the health of Microsoft’s buildings – they’ve gone from country doctors, tapping a patient’s knees with a rubber hammer, to specialists with an MRI machine who can examine every layer of the knee inside and out.

Still, Whitson says it can be a tad unnerving to take a building and its network of sensors online and watch as the software immediately discovers a host of inefficiencies.

“There is a little bit of a mindset among facilities engineers. Everybody is prideful, and they take such ownership of their buildings, that it’s hard for them to find out that there was a lot that they were missing. It was a humbling lesson I had to learn early on while doing this,” Whitson says. “We have to get the old-school technicians out there to understand that this is going to help them. This is not to say you’ve been doing it wrong – you’re doing fine. But you can go farther.”

Both are quick to tell you that Microsoft’s smart buildings solution has revolutionized the way they and their fellow engineers work.

“We had the perfect environment and people to put all the pieces together. Our solution is a little unique to Microsoft, but very applicable industry-wide,” Grove says.

Image courtesy of Microsoft

Next page: Enough data to change the world