Engineering flexible office buildings: automation and controls/codes and standards

Office buildings need to have the ability to accommodate myriad types of businesses and activities to meet the needs of tenants. Here, engineers with experience on such buildings share their knowledge, lessons learned over the years, and trends for automation and controls and codes and standards.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer February 16, 2017


Cory J. Abramowicz, PE, HBDP, LEED AP, Associate, ESD (Environmental Systems Design), Chicago.

Matt Chandler, PE, LEED AP BD+C, BEAP, Senior Engineer, KJWW Engineering Consultants, St. Louis.

Andrew B. Horning, MS, LEED AP BD+C, Associate & Project Manager, Bala Consulting Engineers Inc., King of Prussia, Pa.

Julianne Laue, PE, LEED AP, BEAP, BEMP, Senior Energy Engineer, Mortenson Construction, Minneapolis.

Matthew Pastore, CxA, Director of Design-Build Services, GHT Ltd., Arlington, Va.

John Yoon, PE, LEED AP, Lead Electrical Engineer, McGuire Engineers Inc., Chicago.

Mike Walters, PE, LEED AP, Campus Energy Market Leader, MEP Associates LLC, St. Paul, Minn. 

CSE: When working on monitoring and control systems in such facilities, what factors do you consider?

Matthew Pastore: From working within the Washington, D.C., commercial office-building market, our engineers have found that the level of openness and interoperability of monitoring and control systems is critical to our clients. It is of paramount importance that the building is easy to operate, maintain, and service, as properties frequently change hands in our region. Affordability is always a critical factor, as well. When evaluating any monitoring and control system, we first determine its level of openness and, second, its ability to interoperate with other building systems in a secure and nonproprietary open-platform environment. Through clever interpretation and adoption of ASHRAE Standard 135: BACnet-A Data Communication Protocol for Building Automation and Control Networks, manufacturers have created new structural and product-distribution mechanisms that frequently restrict competition and free market access to maintenance needs, particularly for the building’s end users. Simply specifying products with BACnet protocol functionality doesn’t resolve the installation of proprietary systems. As the world continues to adopt an Internet of Things (IoT) approach where all systems collect and exchange data, the need for engineers to specify and design truly secure, open-platform control systems cannot be emphasized enough. By designing with principled and disciplined guidance, engineers will collectively be able to specify systems that promote competition and free market access for all monitoring and control systems.

Laue: Owner preference is the most important aspect in designing, specifying, and integrating a control system. It is key that the MEP designer understands what the owner wants and what their team is capable of doing. Do they have someone in-house that is qualified to run the system you specify? Will they outsource? How do they intend to use it today? How might they want to use it in the future? Having answers to these questions before beginning the design of the monitoring and control system will help to put everyone on a path to success.

Chandler: It’s important to consider what system components and features will be useful to the operation of the building as well as those that will be useful for ongoing maintenance and diagnostics. The cost-effectiveness of each enhancement needs to be considered to avoid adding too much complexity without a justifiable purpose. It’s also important to analyze the owner’s basic goals for the building and develop simplistic and cost-effective solutions to improve on the owner’s basic needs. Measurement and verification techniques can be implemented to monitor incoming utility data and system-level utility usage to better understand building energy usage and provide opportunities for trends and improvement.

Yoon: What functionality is needed by the client? The temptation is to overspecify systems, which may potentially give building owners abilities that they don’t need or want. Overspecifying systems not only impacts initial installation cost, but more important, increases their overall complexity. Building operations and maintenance staff have to wear many hats and often don’t have the time or resources to properly train on or maintain complex systems.

CSE: What types of system integration and/or interoperability issues have you overcome in such projects, and how did you do so?

Yoon: One surprising challenge that we’ve encountered with system integration is the issue of trade jurisdiction in large metropolitan areas. We have multiple MEP systems with multiple installing contractors-electricians, low-voltage security contractors, mechanical contractors, etc. While the concept of integration/interoperability seems like a great idea, many contractors may feel like they are losing control of the systems that they are installing-or, at the extreme end of the spectrum, they are giving away work that they would normally be "entitled" to. There is a ring of truth to these statements, and we haven’t found a good solution to this issue. Any solution must find a way to motivate the contractors to accept this potential exposure. One interesting proposal is a limited application of IPD concepts on the subcontractor level so that the risk and rewards associated with integration can be shared between the various subcontractors.

Chandler: Some projects require integration between multiple controls systems and contractors. These issues are addressed with proactive planning during design while creating the construction documents and by following up with coordination between the design team and the controls contractors to minimize the potential for scope gaps. As an example, fire alarm integration for a joint emergency response center was required for six different fire alarm systems on a recent project. Multiple coordination meetings were held with all stakeholders, and fire alarm vendors and systems were reviewed in detail. The meetings were documented and reviewed prior to each successive meeting to confirm the previous direction was still valid. Changing technologies further complicated the design, but all options were reviewed from a feasibility and cost standpoint.

Pastore: Our company has educated owners during the earliest stages of design to the issues surrounding the selection of proprietary systems. To overcome interoperability issues, we have specified on past projects that the front-end system, or human- machine interface, is an open system to allow increased operability from the various systems that all follow BACnet protocol. Through this education, our clients have developed a greater understanding of the complexities surrounding the current market situation. They appreciate the flexibility to select the best and brightest companies, service providers, and systems that will ultimately achieve their performance goals. This allows us to reach across company and manufacturer lines to select the best option for each building’s unique situation.

CSE: What unique tools are the owners of such projects including in their automation and controls systems?

Chandler: Owners are including utility monitoring features to help understand utility usage. The utility data can be used for comparison against energy models created during design and to monitor ongoing building performance.

Pastore: In this region, Tridium systems are preferred by an increasing amount of owners who are seeking an open system and a unique solution to this current market situation. Tridium and other related open-platform controls are able to be installed, serviced, and maintained by many different companies, which is a primary objective of owners seeking cost-effective solutions for their buildings. By designing and specifying systems like Tridium on the front end, secure open-platform controls are able to be openly licensed and freely distributed, removing past obstacles for owners to remain locked into a single service provider or manufacturer.

Yoon: While not necessarily unique, we are receiving an increasing number of requests by large tenants in multitenant buildings to have HVAC automation systems that are independent from the rest of the building. The basic motivation for these tenants is a desire to have more direct control of their environment and to mitigate what they perceive to be "nonresponsiveness"’ on the part of the building’s operation and maintenance staff. This can be a significant challenge for building operations and maintenance staff in large high-rise buildings with central plants.

CSE: How have you worked with the building owner or facility manager to implement the Internet of Things into their facility management? Have you helped catalog every device in an office building, such as lights, fire alarms, electrical outlets, and other products? How has implementing IoT strategies improved cybersecurity in your experience?

Pastore: Our company has worked with multiple building owners who seek to implement an IoT approach into their facility management strategies. We begin by creating a master controls integration plan (MCIP) that is tailored to serve as a site-specific set of design guidelines and includes accompanying specification language for each set of systems. The MCIP is fleshed out as the building’s design develops and systems are selected. Core direct digital control (DDC) system elements are also defined including interoperability, security procedures, network isolation, and security hardness testing. Finally, we use the MCIP to define the physical and local requirements for the IoT layer and its security. Our owners who have implemented the MCIP approach have reported that they enjoy improved cybersecurity, in addition to easy operability and maintenance.

Walters: IoT application has entailed a focus on client education and integration needs with pre-existing control systems. IoT applications that can leverage original building components have been the products that we’ve seen most readily adopted, such as Enlighted.

Yoon: We’ve experienced significant resistance in implementing IoT into facility operations in owner-occupied facilities. The root issue is that network security is typically managed by an information technology (IT) department, but IoT devices (including associated network-attached servers) are typically managed by operations and maintenance staff. Many IT departments are reluctant to allow Internet-enabled devices that they don’t directly control to be connected to their networks. The primary fear is that every IoT device has a potential hidden backdoor that will allow hackers access to their network. We’ve gone as far as to specify independent/isolated networks just for IoT devices to address these concerns.

CSE: What are some of the challenges incorporating IoT into facility design for existing facilities or new construction projects?

Chandler: The main challenge is that IoT is an emerging technology and is not well-known to owners and contractors. Our focus at this time is educating owners on the features and benefits that IoT can bring to energy efficiency within buildings. IoT is all about using data from every source available (access control, lighting motion-sensor information, building automation systems) and creating a "smart building" that can automatically start HVAC systems, lighting systems, and control power in the most efficient way possible.

Pastore: We are seeing challenges related to the intersection of traditional IT infrastructure with the new demand for IoT in building automation systems (BAS). Leadership is needed from the designers to merge these two distinct disciplines together in a manner that addresses both entities’ concerns while more clearly delineating the scopes of work for each. GHT considers this a tremendous opportunity for engineers to serve as the trusted advisor for building owners seeking greater openness and interoperability from their renovated or newly constructed facilities. By developing the expertise and understanding the current market situation and concerns related to IT infrastructure, engineers are in a unique position to develop an entirely new market of services built around master controls integration. Having identified this as a driver of future systems engineering, GHT started offering these services in an effort to encourage the development of open monitoring and controls systems to provide greater flexibility to our clients.

CSE: Advanced technology is having a huge impact on office building design. Describe a project in which technology played a large role, such as receptacles, circuit length, wireless Internet, advanced security, etc.

Yoon: Lighting controls seem to be one of the most dynamic building-system product sectors right now. While functionality of lighting controls has evolved along a parallel path with energy codes, specifying those systems can still be a challenge. With the lack of a single dominant open standard, similar to BACNet for building automation, we’re seeing the proliferation of numerous competing lighting control technologies. Each manufacturer’s solution has its own advantages and disadvantages-but we have yet to seen the emergence of a clear leader. For whatever reason, several promising open standards, such as DALI and ZigBee, seem to be stagnating or falling by the wayside in favor of more proprietary technologies.

Chandler: On a recent 12-story office-building project, the lighting controls needed to provide maximum flexibility for a variety of users, be user-friendly, and provide a simple overall building control scheme that implements daylighting controls. The solution was a network-based lighting control system that turned the lighting controls into addressable devices that can be controlled by onsite users and also have automated buildingwide controls. Maximum flexibility was provided by using a simple Web-based interface to program the lighting controls, as needed, based on the usage of the space. In addition, the office building required a massive amount of circuits, receptacles, and data outlets. Electrical closets and technology closets were strategically located to minimize voltage drop and increase efficiency. Premium-efficiency transformers were used to reduce electrical losses that cause wasted energy and heat gain, resulting in overall energy savings.

CSE: Please explain some of the codes, standards, and guidelines you use during the design process. Which codes/standards should engineers be most aware of in their design of engineered systems in office buildings?

Abramowicz: During the design, the local jurisdiction will dictate which code, version, and any addendums made to the existing code specific to that area. Most municipalities in the United States follow the International Building Code; however, some (such as Chicago) have a separate code that takes precedent over all other codes. In addition to a separate code, municipalities may also have a section devoted to high-rise buildings. The building code of the Municipal Code of Chicago is one example, and this code section can be found under Chapter 13-76 Building Permits. In this section, several codes and exceptions are discussed for all new buildings more than 80 ft abovegrade. Additionally, sustainability standards are important to design for, and depending on the project sustainable goals, even the base building’s sustainable certifications can impact the tenant sustainable certification level.

Laue: ASHRAE 90.1: Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings/International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), ASHRAE 62.1: Ventilation for Acceptable Indoor Air Quality, and ASHRAE 55: Thermal Environmental Conditions for Human Occupancy are the three go-to codes to guide the design process. It is important to understand which version of the code your project will be designed under as well as any local amendments or additional client requirements.

Chandler: ASHRAE 90.1/IECC, ASHRAE 55, ASHRAE 62, NFPA 70: National Electrical Code, NFPA 101: Life Safety Code, NFPA 72: National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. These codes have the greatest impact on installation requirements as well as the design. For example, the latest energy codes from ASHRAE and IECC have requirements for lighting controls, plug-load controls, and energy allowances. These requirements greatly affect an engineer’s design, and failure to implement them during the design could result in costly changes.

Yoon: Barring local code amendments, adoption of codes and standards is reasonably consistent around the country. What sets individual areas apart are not necessarily the codes and standards, but which ones are emphasized by the authority having jurisdictions (AHJs) and how they are interpreted. Also, the prevailing means and methods used by contractors can vary wildly by region, regardless of what is acceptable from a codes and standards standpoint.

CSE: NFPA has issued the latest version of NFPA 72 in the 2016 edition. How do you anticipate these changes to impact future office building design?

Chandler: Depending on the classification of the office building, the 2016 NFPA: 72 revisions may not have a major impact on the building construction. The advancing technology of fire alarm systems is driving some of the code revisions, therefore, these impacts will be across the board. Documentation of fire alarm systems will be more stringent under the 2016 NFPA: 72. KJWW has been implementing most of these documentation requirements on various projects as a standard.

Abramowicz: Every 3 years, we are graced with the publishing of the newest version of NFPA 72. And every 3 years, engineers must adapt to the changes that are made. The 2016 version of the code is no different, and there is a slew of positive changes that have been made. One specific change hones in on the minimum required documentation necessary to provide to the AHJ, should the AHJ require documentation. Added to this list of minimum required documentation are "room use identification" and "building features that will affect the placement of initiating devices and notification appliances" documents for all floor plan layouts. These additions are tremendously important because they hold the designer responsible for assuring that all rooms or spaces that require fire alarm devices have them, and that devices are free of obstructions that would directly affect their operation. In addition, mounting heights must be indicated for wall-mounted devices and appliances to assure compliance with the code. While complying with these requirements may seem simple, they’re often overlooked-which could pose a serious threat to our safety every time we set foot in an office building.

CSE: What are the most challenging codes and standards to follow for office buildings? What makes them so challenging?

Abramowicz: Many of the ever-changing building certification programs are revolutionizing not only the way buildings are designed, but also how they are operated and maintained. One example is the WELL certification by the International WELL Building Institute, which involves rigorous planning, design, and performance verification. The goal of the performance verification is to confirm the building can perform, maintain, and improve the overall building performance throughout the life of the building. Three years after receiving certification, the building must then recertify itself, which involves additional performance verification. Another challenging building certification program we’ve encountered through projects is the Living Building Challenge, a program by the International Living Future Institute. This has three certifications, Petal Certification, Living Building Certification, and Net Zero Energy Building Certification, that all have varying degrees of difficulty for compliance.

Chandler: Meeting energy code (ASHRAE 90.1/IECC) via the prescriptive path is challenging, and an energy model is often implemented to prove compliance. Energy-reduction techniques, including automatically turning off plug loads during unoccupied times, may include new features that are unfamiliar to building occupants and can result in dissatisfaction if their function and purpose are not properly communicated.

CSE: How are codes, standards, or guidelines for energy efficiency impacting the design of such buildings?

Abramowicz: The WELL building certifications and Living Building Challenge are emphasizing stringent efficiency and conservation standards as well as end-to-end occupant experience, materials and sourcing, and the holistic building footprint’s affect on the world. The certifications go beyond the anticipated outcome of the design to verify the actual performance once implemented and installed. Although the process of both is lengthy, the challenge is valuable because it allows the project team to design for actual versus theoretical.