Designing higher education facilities: Automation and controls

The world is getting more high-tech, and the colleges and universities preparing students to work in an increasingly advanced environment must keep pace. Building automation systems and controls help these buildings run efficiently.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer December 23, 2014


  • David P. Callan, PE, Vice President, McGuire Engineering, Chicago
  • Michael Chow, PE, CxA, LEED AP BD+C, Member/Owner, Metro CD Engineering, LLC Powell, Ohio
  • Essi Najafi, FE, Principal, Global Engineering Solutions, Bethesda, Md.
  • Mike Walters, PE, LEED AP, Principal, Confluenc, Madison, Wis.

CSE: When designing integration monitoring and control systems, what factors do you consider? 

Callan: The people who operate the building are the most important criteria in determining the success of an automation system. This is often overlooked as we engineers toil away at our computers. 

Najafi: The goals of a control and monitoring system are to increase energy efficiency while creating a safe and comfortable environment that meets the owner’s requirements. To do this, there are several factors that need to be taken into consideration. First, understanding all of the spaces that will be included in the system, including back of house, utility rooms, garages, lighting systems, and plumbing systems. Second, defining the role of the system: will it provide full control, scheduling, or just monitoring? Many owners just want the energy savings that a control system can provide. Finally, we consider which systems the controls will integrate. The cost of a fully integrated control system can be daunting, especially if the owner’s goal is simply to adjust lighting levels or the HVAC based on building usage. 

CSE: What are some common problems you encounter when working on building automation systems (BAS)? 

Callan: Integration can be a challenge because existing buildings typically do not have homogenous equipment and controls. One must be prepared to solve problems in the field when incompatibilities or complications arise. 

Najafi: The human factor is the unpredictable element of the equation. Control systems and software have become fairly complex and require basic computer skills from the control operator. While the control graphic interface has greatly simplified the interaction of the operator with the control software, understanding the way the system operates or reacts to an operator’s input remains the biggest problem of system performance. Providing a self-sustained and self-correcting control system requiring minimum interaction with maintenance personnel will reduce some of the most common problems of control malfunctioning. 

CSE: What types of cutting-edge control systems have you specified into these buildings? What type of push-back are you receiving from the contractors, clients, or other team members? 

Callan: We routinely specify state-of-the-art technology. However, we take care to make sure the sequences and systems are understandable by anyone. Many of the features in high-end systems are never used by operators. We empathize. 

CSE: What types of smart building projects have you worked on? Please describe any facilities that have incorporated the Smart Grid, automated systems, or other integrated systems. Discuss the protocol (BACnet, LonWorks, etc.) and its pros/cons. 

Najafi: We’re seeing more of our clients, both in and out of the higher education setting, using smart building systems. Often these are the clients that have multiple buildings in various locations and want the ease/control to be automatically notified of abnormalities occurring at their facilities. Being quickly notified of issues, which often may be missed during regular maintenance, allows buildings to perform the way they were originally designed and reduces operating expenses for building owners. 

Callan: Today’s automation systems are mostly interchangeable from the engineer’s perspective. Most use, at the very least, an open communications protocol. Many go a step further and incorporate nonproprietary software and programming tools. Regardless of the manufacturer, the architecture is nearly identical. Smart Grid technology is showing some promise, but more related to grid-leveling programs and annuity program participation. 

CSE: Discuss the trends of convergence and automation within building technology, including controls of all systems within one network. 

Callan: We have seen nearly every equipment manufacturer adopt an Internet protocol (IP) network communications approach. All the major systems and equipment are addressable. We have come a long way in 15 years. 

CSE: How has the Internet of Things (IoT) been incorporated into a recent project? 

Callan: The IoT is a popular topic among manufacturers. It is less directly applicable to engineers and owners. It holds some promise in being able to make data and information accessible from anywhere, thereby offering the promise of someone, somewhere, being able to make more use of the data. In reality, most owners are better served investing in a local automation system, operator training, and preventive maintenance.

CSE: Describe a project in which the university client incorporated the BAS into a teaching lab or as an energy incentive in a dormitory. 

Najafi: Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., is very proud of its sustainable buildings and practices. As a result, the college uses its campus-wide base building management system to trend the campus’s energy usage. This information is used within the college’s educational curriculum as a teaching tool, and the energy usage is provided to the students for use in educational studies and projects.