BAS, controls are at a crossroads

An integrated engineering team should collaborate on all software programming and optimization during design and construction.

By Greg Shank, Principal, Altura Associates Inc., Irvine, Calif. January 25, 2016

In the new data-driven lifecycle of modern commercial buildings, building automation systems (BAS) and controls services can be an effective bridge between design, construction, and operation. Gone are the days when building controls functionality was locked within a construction subcontract and squeezed into the chaotic final days of construction and initial occupancy. Open-network architecture and employment of a connected building-commissioning (CBCx) approach have opened a new landscape.

Today, optimal operating sequences and relationships can be built into the "smarts" of a building, and performance requirements can be made software-enforceable. However, these software aspects need to be considered early and repeatedly throughout the design/construction cycle by a multidisciplinary project team. In effect, the team is defining a software data platform that will extend into the normal operations phases of the building’s life. Done correctly, it will serve as the building’s next-generation energy-management system (EMS) and will adapt to the needs of the owner and occupants over time without costly hardware changes or massive software overhauls. It will put the most useful and valuable information at the fingertips of the building managers and operators and empower occupants and the facilities staff to get the most out of their building.

The path to this vision for a next-generation EMS does require new approaches to project delivery for both new construction and retrofits. According to smart-building research firm Memoori, the traditional supply chain for BAS services is in the midst of a major restructuring. The critical piece of this restructuring is the separation of the contracts for hardware installation from the contracts for software, including controls, analytics, and workflow management.

This separation enables building owners to take advantage of the explosion in software services that mine building data to reduce energy costs, improve occupant comfort, streamline operations workflow, and automate corporate environmental reporting. No single company or product category can drive the full potential of this industry shift. Instead, it will be built on top of open-network architectures, where a variety of innovative service providers can easily leverage the data from the myriad connected devices throughout a building.

When clients are introduced to this process, they may respond with, "This sounds great, but are you telling me I now have to manage even more subcontracts and spend more money?" The answer is "no." Here are a few key recommendations:

Managing complexity:

  • Start your operations and maintenance (O&M) controls service contract in the design phase. With this approach, the same firm helps to define performance requirements, supervise (or implement) software programming, test the systems, and then maintain and optimize the systems over time. This scope can be fulfilled by a wide range of companies including energy-management firms, systems integrators, integrated engineering firms, and new category-busting service providers.
  • Use a commissioning (Cx) firm to manage the process of delivering high-performance building controls. This approach sends a strong message of accountability to the entire team. The Cx firm takes a leadership role in facilitating a detailed and customized sequence of operations, coordinating test plans to verify installation of the hardware and software to accomplish the established sequences/automation, and ongoing testing and optimization of the controls programming during building operations.
  • Put the hardware contract under the general contractor or mechanical, electrical, plumbing (MEP) engineer, and contract the software/analytics directly to the owner. As we elevate our expectations of the functionality and performance of whole building automation and energy management, it is necessary to think in terms of a building ecosystem with different types of specialized software using a common database that is fed by the various hardware deployed in the HVAC, lighting, and other systems. The team should not be limited by the software that lives on a particular device or supervisory controller within one of those systems.

Managing cost:

  • Competitively bid the hardware and software/analytics with discrete acceptance criteria and performance benchmarks.
  • Look for consolidation opportunities. For example, evaluate whether multiple systems can run on a common network or whether software-based virtual metering can be used to minimize the number of energy submeters required.
  • Reduce soft costs by integrating the scopes for controls-sequence development, start-up/acceptance testing, Cx functional testing, automation programming, and operational tuning/optimization.

A common theme in these recommendations is the need for simple and continuous lines of accountability. For example, the simple step of separating controls hardware procurement from the software programming, optimization, and maintenance creates powerful opportunities, but these opportunities can be destroyed if the responsibilities are handed off between parties throughout the process.

Greg Shank is a founding principal of Altura Associates. He manages complex design, construction, and operations projects with a focus on measuring performance and building team capacity.