A comprehensive look at the intelligent building

Technology is changing what’s possible for buildings. With the advent of smart building technology, heating, cooling, electrical, lighting, fire/life safety, and other systems need monitoring and intercommunication for optimized efficiency and operation.

By Steve Brown, CAP; Kurt Karnatz, PE, CEM, LEED AP, HBDP, HFDP; Rob Knight, CCS,CD April 22, 2016

Learning objectives:

  • Distinguish the differences between smart buildings and their counterparts.
  • Demonstrate the benefits of system integration as they relate to smart buildings.
  • Apply smart building techniques in various commercial buildings in a general building example.

Most infrastructure systems deployed in today’s buildings are inherently "smart," with self-contained logical control that includes embedded performance optimization and self-diagnostic algorithmic features. While it is understood that intercommunication of these systems provides tremendous opportunity in optimizing building operation efficiency, it is necessary for the engineer to think beyond the building automation system (BAS) as the link to systems interoperability. With sophistication comes the need for a BAS and building controls that allow for nearly seamless operation of this interrelated equipment. Smart buildings and smart cities integrate the design of the infrastructure, building and facility systems, communications, business systems, and technology solutions that contribute to sustainability and operational efficiency.

Today’s truly intelligent buildings interoperate on a common converged network where data is shared through an open-source platform. Middleware collects, analyzes, and communicates in a two-way fashion with the smart systems to best optimize the building response and enhance the occupant experience. To do this effectively and efficiently, the engineer must bring together and align more stakeholders than in the past.

The BAS, with control over the building’s HVAC systems, has long been viewed as the core smart system in a commercial building. However, modern construction contains many more inherently smart devices and subsystems. Electromechanical timers for irrigation and lighting control have given way to microprocessors with real-time clocks and the ability to network together. Racks of clicking elevator-control relays have been replaced by robust and reliable programmable logic controllers. Multiple networks crisscross the building, each one connecting its specific group of devices, such as surveillance cameras, card readers, or fire alarm initiating and notification devices. Audio/video systems have grown from stand-alone racks of analog-source electronics to buildingwide distribution of digital content. Ever more stringent building energy codes essentially mandate that networked microprocessor lighting control systems be installed instead of an array of interconnected sensors and power packs.

Smart features—such as microprocessor control, the ability to network together, and some form of user interface and configuration software—can now be found in irrigation systems, plumbing equipment, all sorts of submeters (including electricity, natural gas, domestic water, and hydronic energy), and even fire extinguishers and exit signs. The next generation of smart devices, coming to market under the Internet of Things (IoT) banner, promises the next stage in the evolution of building performance monitoring with wireless communication, low-power or completely battery-free operation, low cost, small form factor, and a wide range of esoteric applications.

These IoT devices frequently report to the vendor’s cloud-based application for processing, analysis, reporting, and user interface. Google’s $3.2 billion purchase of Nest is a clear indication of the bullish outlook tech firms have for future investment in building technology and the convergence of building systems and the information technology (IT) department.

Benefits of integration

Smart devices and IoT technologies are the conduits to capture better and more relevant building data; however, if that data remains solely contained within the boundary of the original smart building system—BAS, lighting control system, electrical power monitoring system, vertical transport system, etc.—the power of the collected data cannot be fully realized. These independent "silos" of smart devices are, at best, inefficient to install, manage, and maintain. Each is typically sold and installed by a separate contractor, each is operated or monitored by a unique software system, and the massive collection of disparate specialty devices makes it all but impossible for the average facility operator to become adequately trained to maintain most of it properly.

However, if these specialty devices become enabled to share their data through an open-source data platform, smart building systems become collectively intelligent and their effectiveness increases exponentially. When elevators, HVAC systems, lighting controls, and other systems are integrated with intelligent building platforms, they move beyond the collection of data to allowing communication across the systems to foster efficiency. Strong building data is the foundation of the intelligent building platform, which turns the collected data into building intelligence that can be applied to foster smarter use of the built environment.

Two generic examples take advantage of common scheduling and occupancy/vacancy programming across these systems, as well as provide occupants with more control over their space.

  • Example No. 1: HVAC zones within the building can be reset to a "standby" condition during normal working hours either by time schedule or when unoccupied as sensed by a zone occupancy/vacancy sensor. During this "standby" mode, the associated HVAC equipment serving the respective zone will revert to an intermediate, relaxed temperature setpoint and the lighting can be reduced or turned off completely—all reducing energy consumption.
  • Example No. 2: During off-hours, should an occupant (or occupants) enter the space, the elevator controls can signal the respective zone for which the occupant is destined and the associated HVAC and lighting controls—just in that zone—can be automatically activated to temporary occupancy. Once the occupant is in the zone, the occupancy/vacancy controls will adjust the HVAC and lighting controls as the occupant moves through or changes zones.

The real power of each smart device gets unlocked when incorporated into an intelligent building software platform. The traditional approach to integrating systems has been to expand the HVAC-centric BAS, but there are practical limits to what a building management system can achieve. Due to the wide variety of devices and applications for integration in a modern building, it is becoming more common to forgo the traditional approach and to, instead, provide a dedicated intelligent building platform separate from the building management system. In this approach, the intelligent building platform acts as a master to the various specialty devices and subsystems.

The traditional building management system (i.e., temperature control system) remains an integral part of the mechanical systems. The building management system is specified within the mechanical division of project specifications (MasterSpec Division 23) and is typically provided by a subcontractor to the mechanical contractor.

In similar ways, lighting controls are specified within the electrical division and provided by the electrical subcontractor, and plumbing controls are specified within the plumbing division and provided by the plumbing contractor, etc. The intelligent building platform is elevated into a dedicated specification division known as MasterSpec Division 25 and is provided by a specialist system integrator or integrated automation contractor.

Key features of an intelligent building software platform are:

  • Multiple protocol capability to allow flexibility in procurement of the various subsystems and devices
  • A common object/data model to encourage the normalization of the assortment of protocols and subsystems into a consistent framework
  • Open-source software to enable software development to extend the core features 
  • Open distribution to ensure that the owner/end user will have maximum future flexibility when expanding or maintaining the system
  • A suite of software features that match up with owner requirements, which could include advanced visualization/user interface, dashboards targeting managers and occupants, fault detection and diagnostics, energy analytics, advanced reporting capabilities, and performance optimization capabilities.


The best conditions for success when creating an intelligent building occur when the goals of the diverse stakeholders (see Figure 2) can be aligned with intelligent building goals at the project outset. Just as it is necessary for a project team to find agreement on basic architectural programming details like location, size, height, and cost before any detailed construction drawings can be drafted, the "size and shape" of the intelligent platform must be agreed upon before any meaningful design can begin.

Unfortunately, current practice is often to skip an initial programming phase with the stakeholders at the table. Instead, each subsystem design engineer or design-build contractor creates a solution in a vacuum or with minimal coordination between disciplines, and the opportunity to develop the most value at the lowest cost is lost. Much later in construction, as the various stakeholders come to the table, features get added in a patchwork manner, leading to higher costs and unfortunate compromises that result in a system with diminished effectiveness.

Avoiding this situation requires pulling together people from the organization who may be unfamiliar with the design and construction process and who may have never before been asked to envision the technology features of a building, and conducting early workshops or design charrettes. Quite a bit of education often is required at these early meetings, because many team members will need an understanding of what is possible. The potential positive results can be huge. When the team of traditional early-stage participants, such as architects, engineers, and general contractors, are all aligned around a set of minimum requirements for intelligence, the intelligence becomes a part of the DNA of the project.

There are a limited number of stakeholders for a traditional building management system, including operating/engineering staff, building-management staff, and perhaps energy-management staff. In an intelligent building paradigm, there are many more stakeholders that should become involved, because an intelligent building is able to deliver benefits across a much wider spectrum. Of course, the specific involvement on any project will depend greatly on the individual experiences and expectations of each stakeholder, from end user/occupant, to IT and network technicians, to corporate management-level executives, to regulatory compliance officers.

Some of the stakeholders in a modern building may be new to the idea of an intelligent building, and may be accustomed to performing their job functions without real-time software. For these stakeholders, additional conversations will be necessary to educate them and to encourage active involvement in the project.

The benefits available to the stakeholders are represented in Figure 3. While the benefits of an intelligent building solution are broad, many of the goals, initiatives, and desired outcomes of the stakeholder groups overlap. The concept of data visualization is pervasive through each of these categories. By looking at each category separately, but keeping in mind they overlap, it is clear that an effective intelligent building solution requires the right communication and integration across systems.

A brief summary of the benefits of intelligent building strategy implementation:

  • Improved operational efficiency/use. This class of stakeholders (facilities manager, operations manager) is focused on keeping the building functioning on a day-to-day basis. Inwardly, they are concerned with occupant satisfaction, ease of operation, access to critical systems information, and productivity of the maintenance staff. The visibility provided by the intelligent building platform allows a real-time and more organized response to maintenance concerns, making their jobs easier and improving their ability to keep the occupants comfortable and happy. These stakeholders are concerned with the productivity of the non-staff occupants in the building and strive for optimal building comfort. They want access to information about the effectiveness of the building’s spaces and how integration can improve productivity.
  • Reduced utility consumption. Beyond improved maintenance practices that can reduce the amount of wasted energy, the aggregation and analysis of data from devices, such as power meters alongside HVAC controls, within the intelligent building platform can allow a facility to predict its utility demand and implement more focused energy-management strategies to maximize efficiencies and minimize costs. Facilities can reduce their dependency on the power utility grid when these strategies include the installation of onsite renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind. The power of integration is ultimately optimized when this intelligence from the building platform is used to drive a net zero facility.
  • Improved financial performance. Expanding from the objectives of those stakeholders concerned with operational efficiency, knowing the financial effects of operational inefficiencies can foster more informed decisions. More efficient responses to operating problems can lower the maintenance costs and inevitably promote a more optimal, therefore, more energy-efficient and cost-effective operation. Customized reports comparing financial metrics across the entire enterprise also can be provided to the financial stakeholders who are interested in how the intelligent building systems are impacting the company’s financial metrics and the bottom line revenue/profitability.
  • Enhanced occupant experience. These stakeholders (end user, owner, facilities manager, operations manager) are concerned with the comfort and safety of the building occupants. Many studies have associated a strong link between occupants’ comfort and productivity levels. These stakeholders also want the intelligent building to help disseminate messages during an emergency, including pre-action and warnings. Additionally, they are interested in how the building’s intelligence can be leveraged to maintain proper access control and improve emergency communications as well as tenant/employee attraction and retention.
  • Sustainability. Sustainability stakeholders are concerned with energy and water efficiency, utility optimization, and how to reduce emissions and save resources. These stakeholders will want to show performance data from throughout the intelligent building in lobby displays to promote the building’s sustainability initiatives.
  • Competitive advantage and value. When increased efficiencies, lower resource consumption, and positive financial performance are coupled with an engaged, empowered, and seamless occupant experience, real estate value and competitive advantages are created. A building where systems are integrated and converged is capable of capturing embedded opportunities that create value through both continuously improving performance and the ability to respond to marketplace desires and demands.
  • Prestige/recognition. Prestige and recognition are motivations for multiple stakeholders who want to create a high-profile image for the building, company, and/or community, showcasing the company’s commitment and dedication to all occupants, visitors, and investors.

Visualizing success

Strong visualization tools organize and present the building data so that stakeholders can better understand the building to make necessary adjustments for optimization. Individual dashboards for each of the building’s stakeholders can be built to concentrate on targeted data sets. For example, the day-to-day building operator will need the most inclusive dashboard that features an overall picture of the facility as well as certain granular-level statistics specific to each facility, while the financial stakeholder will want to know how the day-to-day numbers play out in the overall budget.

Another benefit to effective visualization tools, and possibly the most powerful long-term benefit, is the power to influence behavioral change within the people that occupy and visit the intelligent building. Dashboards displaying the real-time data of a building’s or a company’s space can inspire more sustainable habits within the occupants of that space, which in turn can increase the space’s efficiency.

Cost and budget issues

With all the features and benefits that have been described, why are more buildings not incorporating the truly intelligent, converged building system approach? One common misperception is that it must cost more. If the intelligent concept is an afterthought and is applied as an overlay late in the building design process, there indeed could be a budgetary impact. However, if the intelligent building concept is a key initiative considered from the project inception and supported by the project owners and stakeholders, the individual smart systems can be planned and designed to minimize—and even remove—the budgetary impact.

Early involvement allows the project to eliminate common redundancies, such as multiple parallel networks, multiple software systems configured to create separate user interfaces, and even multiple electrical installation subcontractors. Early involvement also enables the many granular design decisions to be made in alignment with the overall intelligent goals. This can result in the elimination of costly details with marginal incremental benefit, with a corresponding budget shift into items that deliver maximum value. At the same time, it can prevent design-time gaps in the planning of smart systems that are sufficient to attain the intelligent goals, reducing costly last-minute change orders.

Accurately estimating the budget of the building project is a key benefit of early intelligent building planning. If the stakeholders desire the many lifecycle advantages that an intelligent building can provide, it may be entirely appropriate to set aside additional construction budget to fund the necessary future technologies. When the goals are understood, a suitable budget can be created. Unfortunately, it is far too common for projects to consider intelligence late in the project, at a time when all aspects of the design are asked to value engineer. It is far easier to look for opportunities to reduce a budget line item than to fight to add a new line item.

As an example, a recent client engaged Environmental Systems Design as a partner for the design of its new headquarters facility early in the project. This client recognized building occupants have high expectations in regards to their modern built environment. This client committed to providing their employees, colleagues, and customers a heightened experience in terms of efficiency, comfort, safety, and increased productivity through the implementation of the intelligent building concepts.

Environmental Systems Design was tasked with developing, designing, and delivering an intelligent building platform. Early involvement, in-depth coordination across all trades, and unwavering client support has led to an intelligent building design that will be implemented in a cost-neutral way when compared with the initial budgetary line item costs for the individual mechanical, electrical, plumbing (MEP), and associated systems. The intelligent building design will integrate BAS (HVAC temperature control), an intelligent lighting control system, vertical transport systems, and building metering and submetering onto one common, converged platform where fault detection, diagnostics, building analytics, and informational dashboards are applied to deliver on the efficiency, comfort, safety, and productivity initiatives identified and agreed upon by the project stakeholders.

The demand for building intelligence through a converged platform is being recognized by building owners and operators as a primary and future-oriented component of meeting market expectations, creating value, and maintaining a competitive advantage. The intelligent facility of today and tomorrow will be strikingly different even from that of the current, high-performance building. While both feature smart MEP systems and the latest equipment optimization, the intelligent building will stand out behind the scenes for its ability to collect data from each disparate system, collaborate it into dashboards for individual stakeholders, and—most importantly—to use the collected data to impact the building positively and enable continuous improvements.

Steve Brown is studio manager, energy and automation, at Environmental Systems Design Inc.

Kurt Karnatz is president at Environmental Systems Design Inc.

Rob Knight is senior associate at Environmental Systems Design Inc.