Best practices for engineering government buildings: Building automation

Designing utilities, public works, airport, mass transit, transportation or other government projects is a big task. Learn how to design automation, controls and technology systems in government buildings.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer April 15, 2021


  • Michelle Blake, PEng, Vice President, Industrial Buildings, Stantec, Vancouver, B.C.
  • Jeremy Cooan, PE, LEED AP BD+C, Senior Electrical Engineer, Stanley Consultants, Minneapolis
  • Michael J. Rossini, PE, Associate, Senior Electrical Engineer, Bala Consulting Engineers, Boston
  • Ciarán Smyth, PE, CEng, PMP, Vice President, WSP, New York City
  • John Gregory Williams, PE, CEng, Vice President, Harris, Oakland
  • Matthew Williamson, PE, Associate Principal, Arup, San Francisco

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

Michelle Blake: Many of these projects have complex monitoring, control and communications systems. The design approach includes a systems integration plan that identifies the required systems, interfaces, responsibilities and processes for verification and validation of the design as it develops. Integrating with existing legacy systems can be the biggest challenge. Involving the stakeholders and the system vendor early in the design process to identify challenges, risks, design decision gates and timing has been key to successful system integration.

Michael J. Rossini: The maturity of BACnet in recent years as a standard protocol for systems integration has greatly facilitated the ability to combine different systems onto one user platform. Most equipment manufacturer controls can be provided with the ability to communicate via BACnet. This has helped to integrate simple systems like variable refrigerant flow systems that are provided with packaged controls as well as chillers, boilers and even pumps. Complete programming functionality is not always accessible through this interface, but the ability to change setpoints and monitor equipment status and alarms is common. Interfacing with lighting control systems also provides a benefit to facility personnel by making it possible to reduce the number of different control systems that need to be accessed.

From your experience, what systems within a utilities, public works or transportation project are benefiting from automation that previously might not have been?

Michael J. Rossini: The installation of new power services and information access for travelers has been extensively developed and expanded in recent years to provide a more pleasant customer experience. Wireless internet access and readily available power stations with 120 volt and USB connections for charging of cell phones and personal devices at every seat has undergone significant improvements and will probably continue to evolve as technology changes.

Michelle Blake: Building automation systems with extensive monitoring points and remote adjustment control can help manage energy and water consumption with the added benefit of reducing operating costs.

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).

Michael J. Rossini: Bala uses BIM extensively on projects for the design and layout of the MEP systems. Systems are designed and coordinated with the architecture, structure and MEP systems. Coordination checks are performed on a regular basis to ensure that all systems are coordinated with each other. We have not experienced an instance where the BIM for the MEP systems has been used for O&M or M&V.

Michelle Blake: Our maintenance facilities design team is a fully integrated architectural and engineering team with all disciplines using 3D modeling in the design process. For our design-build projects, we encourage the significant trades, such as mechanical, to complete their design using BIM. Our clients are just beginning to change their maintenance practices to use BIM for O&M and M&V. We turn over our model in almost all instances, but we have had only a handful of clients request the level of detail required for them to effectively use it for maintenance.

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

Michelle Blake: To assist with significant design decisions, to provide an overview of design progress or to walk-through the design at milestone submissions, we use digital collaboration software for a fly-though with the end-user. This is far more effective for end-users to understand the finished work environment rather than looking at drawings. Our most recent projects have taken advantage of a digital collaboration platform using Autodesk C4R for designers which allows multiuser collaboration through Revit and using BIM 360 for the larger project team which allows interactive collaboration through a Cloud-based platform outside of Revit accessed through a web browser. In addition to these, we are also introducing InSite, a virtual meeting collaboration platform and 3D laser scanning for existing facilities which is effectively a virtual site visit.

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.

Michelle Blake: Our role is typically to provide the backbone to allow application of wireless devices and communication so that the client can implement their systems and applications.

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?

Michelle Blake: As noted above, we typically provide the backbone and our client is retains the responsibility for safety and security of the data and data transfer.

How has your technology team worked with facility managers to implement security technology (biometrics, card-scan, etc.) in utilities, public works or transportation projects? If you have a unique example, such as an airport or other facility, please provide details.

Michelle Blake: Most facilities include CCTV and card access systems. The move toward more advanced security protocols has not been a priority for these types of facilities.