Designing flexible, complex office buildings: Automation, controls, and technology

Mixed-use office buildings demand a great deal of expertise, flexibility, and complex technology, making them more challenging than one might expect. Engineers with experience handling office buildings share advice and a glimpse into the future regarding automation, controls, and technology.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer January 17, 2019


Jason Gerke, PE, CxA, LEED AP BD+C, Mechanical & Plumbing Group Leader, Principal, Graef, Milwaukee

Jason Majerus, PE, CEM, LEED AP, Senior Engineering Leader, Principal, DLR Group, Cleveland

Pui-Yee So, PE, LEED Green Associate, Electrical Engineer, Design Team Lead, Page, Austin, Texas

John Yoon, Lead Electrical Engineer, McGuire Engineers Inc. (MEPC), Chicago

CSE: What mechanical, electrical, plumbing, or fire protection systems within office buildings require specialized automation or controls that previously might not have?

Yoon: The luminaire-level lighting controls provision of the current energy conservation code. The language in the code is interesting in that it specifically requires wireless control capabilities. While the functionality requirements are relatively generic (programming of fade rate, light-level setpoints, sensor sensitivity, etc.) it’s unclear exactly why wireless capabilities are specifically mentioned. Most control manufacturers offer wired integrated solutions that have the same level of functionality.

CSE: Are you seeing automation and control features on these types of projects that you wouldn’t for other facilities?

Gerke: The highest level of automation related to HVAC systems uses the input from other building systems to monitor the location of people in an office building. Monitoring the location of an office building occupant allows the lighting system to turn off or dim when the occupant is not present in a space or turn off power to miscellaneous accessories in an office space. The reduction of these loads will help to minimize the HVAC loads and, therefore, contribute to lower energy consumption in a building of this type.

Yoon: Usually the opposite is true for multitenant commercial office buildings. Without a clear ROI, it is difficult to convince building owners that the additional expense of enhanced controls is justified. While the energy code mandates basic levels of functionality for DDC systems and lighting controls, the tenants usually do not understand the value of enhancing those systems. Base building energy usage often ends up being a pass-through cost to the tenants, so there is little motivation for a multitenant building owner to go above and beyond basic code requirements. Ultimately, the cost premium associated with enhanced controls falls to the tenant. It’s always a difficult conversation trying to explain why they should spend money on controls—something they don’t see—when they can buy something more tangible like nicer furniture. When a tenant has a fixed construction-budget allowance, the challenge is helping them understand how enhanced controls can dramatically affect the interior environment and the general well-being of their employees.

CSE: How have your engineers worked with building owners and facility managers to implement integrated technology in these structures?

Yoon: Most operations and maintenance (O&M) staffs are enthusiastic with the concept of IoT devices–until they realize that the networks that they need to connect to are controlled by someone else in their organization.

CSE: When incorporating IoT-ready products or technologies, what are some of the most pressing challenges or concerns when working on office facilities?

Gerke: For HVAC equipment and controls, there are a number of current manufacturers for control systems that use wireless technology ready to be plugged in and automatically set up the control system infrastructure. These systems rely on an interconnected mesh network and repeater devices to maintain the connections to controlled equipment. Office buildings are many times constructed as “heavy” buildings, with concrete floors, sound-resistant walls, and multiple other wireless systems. All these items may cause issues for the HVAC controls, or the HVAC control system may cause issues with other systems. It is important that the engineer works closely with vendors for all wireless systems in buildings while specifying this type of technology.

Yoon: The greatest challenge is device ownership and cybersecurity. Most information technology (IT) administrators are extremely protective and demand control of anything that gets connected to their networks. However, what happens when the O&M staff needs direct access to those same devices and the freedom to modify them as required? Who is ultimately responsible for firmware upgrades? Password management? Distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) botnet attacks using IoT devices grab headlines, and the thought of having hundreds of those IoT devices on their network scares most IT professionals. The standards around IoT devices are still in flux, with wildly inconsistent security provisions. While many manufacturers are embracing security measure, such as Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) encryption, for their wireless IoT devices to help alleviate customer concerns, the fact remains that most of the IoT devices associated with MEP systems are expected to have service life well beyond 10 years. That is well beyond the 4 years associated with most technology-centric devices. Those same IoT devices must be managed and maintained throughout that entire 10-year-plus lifecycle. What is the likelihood that a 10-year-old IoT device will still be fully supported by its manufacturer? Will the network infrastructure that those IoT devices use to communicate be obsolete? Will the documentation and training needed for proper O&M activities still be available?

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

Yoon: Yes, we use BIM and our models are usually developed to a level of development (LOD) 350. The concept of using the model for O&M and M&V functions is attractive, but most commercial office construction projects’ budgets can’t support the cost associated with that level of detail. We typically only see requests for LOD 500 in higher education projects.

CSE: How are cybersecurity concerns being addressed with BAS?

Yoon: The cybersecurity provisions that we typically see are not particularly elaborate. They usually involve sandboxing the system on a dedicated network that can be firewalled to separate it from the rest of the building’s network. While limiting access to that segment of the network helps, it doesn’t eliminate all risk—and with IP-connected devices, limiting connectivity can fundamentally impact their functionality. After all, the primary point of an IP-enabled device is to be readily accessible.