Best practices for designing government buildings: Automation, controls and technology

Learn how to specify automation, controls and technology systems for government and military buildings

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer July 29, 2020


  • Chris Ankeny, PE, LC, LEED AP BD+C, Associate/Senior Electrical Engineer, Clark Nexsen, Virginia Beach, Va.
  • Mark Chrisman, PhD, PE, Health Care Practice Director/Vice President, Henderson Engineers, Kansas City, Mo.
  • Randall Ehret, PE, Technical Director | Electrical, ESD, Chicago
  • Todd Garing, PE, LEED AP BD+C, Vice President, Mueller Associates Inc., Linthicum, Md.
  • Rob Jordan, PE, FPE, LEED AP, Mechanical Department Manager, Burns & McDonnell, Kansas City,
  • Julene May, PE, PMP, Chief, F-35 Beddown Program Management Office, Stanley Consultants Inc., Eielson AFB, Alaska
  • Jon Sajdak, PE, Associate Fire Protection Engineer, Page, Austin, Tex.
  • Troy Windom, Automation Manager, Dewberry, Raleigh, N.C.

From your experience, what systems within a government, state, federal, correctional and military project are benefiting from automation that previously might not have been?

Chris Ankeny: We see lighting controls and daylighting controls benefiting the most.

Todd Garing: Creating robust control systems that monitor and alarm critical items can reduce the burden of overstretched maintenance staff. Cost of many types of sensors as well and integrating equipment controls has plummeted, which permits access to a lot more data to assist in maintenance and energy consumption monitoring.

Mark Chrisman: We completed a recent study to combine nine non-automated facilities into one larger automated facility that could be significantly more efficient. Most of the existing facilities are pre-WWII era or shortly thereafter and haven’t had significant upgrades since then. Automation will continue playing a larger role in the federal sector, similar to the way nationwide retailers have warehouses that use automated processes/robots in the private sector.

Julene May: Energy management and control systems are providing significant benefit, driving down costs and energy consumption. As technology proliferates in building systems at pace with the internet of Things (IOT), we believe this will expand and become interoperable with other services, such as emergency services, public notifications and scheduling.

Troy Windom: I wouldn’t identify any particular system. What I would identify, though, is a building as a whole. Most of the systems have been digital for years, but now it’s becoming more common for a user to look at integrating as much as possible.

What types of system integration and/or interoperability issues have you overcome for these projects and how did you do so?

Troy Windom: As previously stated, probably the single biggest issue is trying to get buy-in from the various factions of information technology for an agency/site. The second biggest issue is understanding how the different manufactures tag their data.

Julene May: Integrating multiple vendors has been a challenge for our clients in terms of operating and maintaining facilities. We have worked with our clients to standardize specifications and vendors to mitigate this.

Is your team using building information modeling (BIM) in conjunction with the architects, trades and owner to design a project? Describe an instance in which you’ve turned over the BIM to the facility maintenance team for long-term operations and maintenance (O&M) or measurement and verification (M&V).

Rob Jordan: Building Information Modeling (BIM) is an intelligent, 3-D model-based process that gives architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) professionals insight and tools to more efficiently plan, design, construct and manage buildings and infrastructure. BIM provides a 3-D digital representation of the physical and functional aspects of facilities and infrastructure and has been defined as a “shared knowledge resource for information.”

A team from Burns & McDonnell recently helped a federal manufacturing client create a campus model from over 40 BIM models, develop a workflow to maintain the models over time, populate the client’s asset inventories and produce valuable system shutdown maps. Without the model, the client would have been required to evaluate every room and every piece of equipment in the facility and individually enter the information into a database. The model enabled the client to instantly know where everything was located (crucial given the sensitive nature of the facility) and to retain all the data in one place using a streamlined approach, providing one source of truth.

Julene May: Our team uses multiple BIM platforms for design authoring, clash detection and provision of O&M data. We have delivered projects from design through construction using digital twin BIM models and delivering a BIM “as built” to the owner.

Chris Ankeny: Yes, we use BIM; All USACE projects require BIM model as a deliverable along with construction documents.

Mark Chrisman: Our firm extensively uses BIM in conjunction with project partners. We have been part of projects in the private sector where the BIM model was setup to be used by facilities management staff to assist with ongoing maintenance. However, this method is not effective or beneficial without appropriate upfront and ongoing training. Without the proper introduction to this too, facilities staff became disenfranchised with the models/process and reverted back to what they had done previously. For this to work, the design team and on-site technology team needs to be engaged once the building and BIM model is turned over to staff, for a period of time afterward and possibly even include annual training for changes that occur.

Troy Windom: Yes, BIM is used for some customers. Most federal agencies, though, are still just using CAD.

Have you included virtual reality or augmented reality in the design of such a project? Describe the application of such tools.

Todd Garing: Yes, for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM) architect set up a virtual reality station in their office to allow the design team and owner to “walk” through the building. The VR was used for design verification, owner education and identification of any elements for discussion. It also allowed us to “walk” through the model and identify areas of correction, for example if any light switches appeared to be “floating in the air” instead of mounted to a wall.

Julene May: Our firm has 3-D visualization capabilities and technologies and we use virtual reality headsets to help our clients understand designs. It has been a very useful tool in making critical design decisions.

Mark Chrisman: While we do not currently have in-house VR or AR capabilities, we regularly work with many design partners who do. These tools have been very beneficial in conveying the design concept/feel to the end users. We have also had success walking through how some of our building systems are designed or installed using VR.

Has the “internet of things” (IoT) come up in discussion or been implemented on such projects? How has this integration impacted the project? If so, please give an example.

Troy Windom: To date, IoT has not come up on federal projects. The issue I see is getting agency information technology buy-in on having all those perceived potential cybersecurity risks on a network.

Cybersecurity and vulnerability are increasing concerns. Are you encountering worry/resistance around wireless technology and IoT as the prevalence of such features increases? How are you responding to these concerns?

Chris Ankeny: Yes, there is a barrier specifically with DOD projects in that they do not allow the use of wireless technology for building control systems.

Rob Jordan: Wireless communications, IIoT (the Industrial internet of Things) and bring your own device (BYOD) policies are large areas of concern in today’s cybersecurity landscape. However, a systematic and rational approach can address these issues and provide an acceptable level of security. Disabling wireless capabilities, if not absolutely needed, is one example. If simplification is not an option, then tailoring and applying a recognized standard to the architecture and policies of any MEP system will go a long way to mitigating the vulnerabilities introduced by wireless and IIoT. Although these technologies are emerging, they are manageable with a sound approach. Holding vendors and integrators accountable is important to avoiding inadvertent vulnerabilities in MEP systems. It’s also important to embrace a policy of continuous monitoring for threats. The cyber landscape is constantly changing and vigilance is key for long-term security of MEP systems.

Troy Windom: The Department of Defense (DoD) does not allow any wireless on their BAS networks. As previously mentioned, I think it’s going to be tough to get buy-in for agency’s IT to be adding additional IP devices on their network. They will be worried about a potential security issue.

When incorporating IoT-ready products or technologies, what are some of the most pressing challenges or concerns when working on such structures?

Troy Windom: Based on experience from designing nonIoT products for these facilities, IoT will probably not be considered unless the manufacturer can show where they have installed it before and prove that it does have a CON. Another consideration would be proof of an Authority To Operate (ATO). It will depend on acceptability from site to site. I know the DoD through the Construction Engineering Research Laboratory (CERL) is working hard to standardize systems to ease the approval process.

How has your technology team worked with facility managers to implement security technology (biometrics, card-scan, etc.) in government, state, federal, correctional and military projects?

Chris Ankeny: Yes, many of our DoD projects require access control, using DoD ID cards (CAC cards).