High expectations for high-performance buildings: automation and controls

High-performance buildings are intricate, complex projects that require attention—qualified, expert consulting-specifying engineers apply their knowledge on such projects specifically within the building automation and controls segment.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer June 23, 2017


  • Dave Clute, NREL Energy Executive, BOMI-HP, VP, Intelligent Building Group Operation Director, Environmental Systems Design Inc., Chicago
  • Paul Erickson, LEED AP BD+C, Building Performance Practice Leader, Affiliated Engineers Inc., Madison, Wis.
  • Richard Holzer, PE, NCEES, LEED AP BD+C, HBPD, Principal Engineer, Southland Industries, Garden Grove, Calif.
  • Tim Kuhlman, PE, RCDD, CDT, Associate Principal, TEECOM, Portland, Ore.
  • A. Brian Lomel, PE, LEED AP BD+C, CxA, WELL AP, Director, TLC Engineering for Architecture, Orlando, Fla.

CSE: When working on automation and control systems in high-performance buildings, what factors do you consider?

Clute: There are many factors to consider when working on the automation and control systems, but perhaps most important is the requirement for open-protocol communications supported by the service-integration layer. Where the system natively communicates using an open protocol supported by a service-integration layer, the subsystem controller, devices, etc. will be configured to expose all data and control points (hardware and software) from the system.

Kuhlman: I want to know to what level the control system will be integrated with the information technology (IT) network. Whether the controls system network will be completely isolated or use the IT network and Wi-Fi systems to transport data.

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

Kuhlman: I designed the cabling infrastructure for a manufacturing facility where the design criteria were for all networks to use the telecom backbone cabling infrastructure. This included the building management system (BMS). The telecom rooms were designed with additional space for BMS network equipment, and the fiber-optic backbone was sized for additional capacity so they could have a dedicated fiber strand. The owner decided the BMS would be a performance specification under the mechanical subcontractor. The BMS contractor rightfully excluded the backbone cable. However, the BMS contractor assumed a ring configuration for their connectivity while the telecom backbone was actually designed in a star configuration. After they were awarded the contract, the RFIs started pouring in about how there was no point-to-point connectivity between the telecom rooms to establish the fiber ring they were expecting.

Clute: The most important issue was not so much a technical issue as an economic, organizational, and governance issue. To successfully integrate multiple systems within a high-performance building, the business case that justifies the investment must clearly identify, document, and communicate the cost benefits and expected financial returns within a reasonable payback period, usually 3 to 5 years.

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

Erickson: We are seeing in increased interest in fault detection and diagnostics (FDD) and performance analytics. In many cases, no additional software is needed. However, an intentional approach is necessary to harness the commonly unused capabilities of the BAS that owners are already purchasing. This can be done by specifying during the design phase that they would like the data to be open to them and they’d like additional interface graphics to distill the data. Competitive bidding also means this can be done with little to no added cost.

Clute: They are not as unique as they used to be, but the use of digital dashboards deployed on mobile devices is becoming more prevalent in the design, construction, and operations of high-performance buildings. Owners and operators of today’s buildings expect their end users, tenants, and building managers to be able to access the building’s automation and control systems from within the building, whether they are on the road or working from home.

CSE: Define how you are working with clients (building owners, etc.) with regard to Internet of Things (IoT) products and systems.

Clute: IoT may be the newest way in which we describe, catalog, and connect the various parts and pieces of a building together, but the importance of how we define, design, and deliver a high-performance building still depends on people, process, and tools, in that order. The IPD process referenced above is an excellent way to achieve the desired outcome for an IoT project.

CSE: What does IoT mean to you? How do you define the concept of IoT in high-performance buildings?

Clute: The way we explain IoT in high-performance buildings is best described by our process to define, design, and deliver using a model roadmap illustrated in Figure 1.

Kuhlman: I look at IoT as the “networking of things.” We see more devices becoming intelligent (automated, controllable, or communicative), but this is of little value if they can’t reach the network. The file server the IoT device wants to talk to could be on the local network or somewhere in the cloud. They could be wired or wireless. Either way, to make IoT work, there has to be a network present to support it.

CSE: Describe how you work with product manufacturers and their IoT-compatible products.

Kuhlman: I need to know from the product manufacturers how their product needs to communicate. Is it a hard-wired Ethernet connection? How will it be powered? Does it need in-building Wi-Fi? Can it communicate over a cellular phone network?

Clute: We have developed a catalog of solutions or initiatives that describe more than 130 unique use cases or scenarios within a high-performance building. We try to identify at least three different manufacturers that satisfy the functional and technical requirements in each use case to deliver the economic, environmental, and experiential outcomes. With more than 2,500 IoT solutions on the market, it is near impossible for clients to understand the possibilities of all these available technologies and what is appropriate for their needs. We guide our clients through the noise/confusion and lead them to identify and achieve their high-performance building goals and objectives.

CSE: Who is driving the IoT discussion? What is pushing this movement?

Clute: It varies by project. Sometimes it is the owner that has a vision of what they hope to achieve for their tenants or end users. On other projects, it might be the architect that has learned about the possibilities of what a “truly intelligent building” might deliver. The IoT champion can emerge from any part of the team, but it takes someone with the passion, drive, and persistence to help all the stakeholders in a project envision the desired outcomes and help the team navigate the journey to achieve their business goals. We believe the driving force behind the IoT movement is the same imperative we have always had, and that is improving the way we design, build, and operate the built environment at the lowest cost, highest quality, and in the shortest time possible.

Kuhlman: I see the IoT market being driven by the product manufacturers that want to sell their IoT devices. They have to make the business case that their device will improve efficiency, or reduce energy usage, or make for a better work environment.

CSE: How have you worked with the building owner or facility manager to implement IoT into their facility management?

Clute: The most effective way we have found to achieve this goal is to provide well-defined design and implementation guidelines for IoT solutions as early as possible in the lifecycle of the built environment. Education and storytelling of how IoT solutions can benefit the end users in ways that relate to how they interact with the built environment is an effective technique. One of the tools we use is our “A Day in the Life” presentation that steps the end users and facility-management teams through the experience of all aspects of the building’s features and functions.

CSE: What’s the most important thing to take care of when dealing with IoT implementation in such a project?

Kuhlman: I see IT security as the most important issue. For example, take a vending machine that has a network connection to enable it to communicate status and inventory and allow for credit card or digital wallet use. Will this sit on the building IT corporate network or on the other side of the corporate firewall (the unsecured side of the network)? What if this was a generator where the manufacturer provides offsite remote monitoring for warranty of the unit? How would you answer the same questions on what part of the network it will connect through to get back to the manufacturer? All these decisions have consequences to the security of the network and the devices to which they connect.

Clute: The most important thing is managing expectations of the end-user client. The architects, engineers, and contractors involved in the process may have a clear picture of what they hope to achieve, but if the end users (visitors, tenants, or operators) do not understand what they are being provided at the end of the project, the realization of the IoT vision will miss the mark. The functionality and benefits of an IoT solution must be clearly communicated and documented in the design and implementation guidelines even before the schematic design, design development, or construction documents are produced and delivered to the client. 3-D BIM visualization models, illustrations, and animations help, and we are encouraged by the emerging VR applications that will help us manage client expectations.

CSE: With IoT still a relatively new aspect of building projects, what are some lessons you’ve learned that you’d like to pass on to engineers without your experience?

Clute: Be as specific and as detailed as possible when documenting the features and functions of a high-performance building. Also, it is important to tailor the content to the audience. It takes a range of different communication tools to communicate the design intent. At one end of the spectrum, we may need a 250-page textbook that illustrates and explains the functional and technical features for all our IoT solutions. At the other end, for the C-suite, we need to be able to communicate the value of a high-performance building with IoT solutions on a single page. Other documents that help are the 35-slide quick-reference guide or the 15-page white paper. A comprehensive library of digital assets that can be delivered on a web page, in print media, on a smartphone or tablet or PC is a powerful way to provide the knowledge necessary to define, design, and deliver a high-performance building.

CSE: How do you work with the owner to catalog all the devices in a high-performance building, such as lighting, fire systems, HVAC components, and other products? Why is that important?

Clute: As described briefly above, we use our design and implementation guidelines (the “DIG”) to catalog and document all the different initiatives and solutions within our portfolio of solutions. These solutions are organized, indexed, and cross-referenced using the CSI Division numbers that are fundamental to our industry and way of working. We spend as much time as possible upfront with the owners to help them understand the importance and relevance of the CSI divisions and specifications to organize and prioritize solutions.

CSE: What are some of the challenges of incorporating IoT into facility design for existing buildings?

Kuhlman: The age of the building can make a big difference. In a 20- or 30-year-old building, it may be possible to squeeze more networking equipment and cabling in to support the IoT devices. Take a 100-year-old building on a university campus and that can be a real challenge. Buildings of this era had little concept of concealed spaces for network cabling. Surface-mount routing can be done, but it severely distracts from the vintage architecture of the buildings. Plaster and metal lathe construction is very bad for good Wi-Fi signal coverage.

Clute: The biggest challenges we face when incorporating the IoT into the built environment are complexity, increasingly shorter product lifecycles, and subject matter expertise. The number of IoT solutions available in the market is exploding. It is a complex landscape that our clients struggle to understand within the context of their business. The speed at which new products and solutions arrive in the marketplace is getting faster each year. The product lifecycles from an initial release to the next release are getting shorter. What used to be a typical 3- to 5-year product lifecycle is now 12 to 18 months. And finally, finding and retaining the subject matter experts that know how to procure, implement, and deliver IoT solutions is perhaps the greatest challenge. The team that is put in place at the beginning of the project is often not the team in place at the end of a high-performance building project when it comes time to operate and maintain the building. This puts even more importance on the ability to deliver the “know-how” in a way that is transportable, transferable, and sustainable across time and space.

CSE: Cybersecurity has been a high-profile issue surrounding IoT—how do you deal with such concerns?

Clute: The importance of engaging the IT information security teams responsible for maintaining cybersecurity in a high-performance building cannot be understated. We try to identify, engage, and coordinate with all the key stakeholders involved with cybersecurity using a responsibility assignment matrix (also knowns as RACI matrix). This project-management tool helps us define who is responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed for all the cybersecurity issues related to IoT design and implementation.

Kuhlman: In my opinion, network security for IoT devices is the most important issue. A device, such as a generator, that has both an internal network connection for control and an external network connection for a manufacturer to do offsite monitoring can be a risk to the equipment and the internal network.

CSE: How might IoT technology make your job more challenging? Are there ways IoT makes it easier?

Clute: IoT makes our job more challenging for the very same reasons I previously described—complexity, speed, and the need for subject matter expertise. The IoT does provide a framework within which to organize content, but we need standards to help all our key stakeholders understand and agree upon what IoT means. Standards are emerging, but it takes time.

CSE: Describe your experience with high-performance campuses (such as a group of university or hospital buildings) that have implemented IoT campuswide.

Clute: We have implemented IoT in individual buildings and are currently working on projects for which we are in the early stages of master planning the IoT deployment for campuswide projects. We would be happy to discuss these when our clients are ready to share this information.

CSE: What types of compatibility issues have you come across between, for example, multiple manufacturers of lighting controls?

Clute: The industry today has not agreed upon a single consensus standard or de facto standard for communications protocols among devices. At the device-network level, such as communications from ballasts, relay panels, and preset scene controllers, the market is a mix of open interoperable standards-based networks and closed proprietary networks. The recent explosion of various wireless-network implementations has only furthered the mess in the industry. At the system level, however, nearly every lighting control system provides some integration capability, typically via web services (such as simple object access protocol/extensible markup language (XML/SOAP) or BACnet/IP, but in some cases, the integration gateway can present a bottleneck for throughput.

CSE: How do you stay up-to-date on the latest IoT advancements?

Clute: We have created an Intelligent Building Group within our firm dedicated to capturing, cataloging, understanding, and communicating the latest IoT advancements in the industry. We maintain close contacts with the industry groups that create standards and foster a culture of continuous education and learning within the company for staying current on the latest solutions. We actively participate in industry conferences focused on technology and the built environment, such as Realcomm and IBcon. We also host webinars, encourage our staff and team members to write thought-leadership articles, and offer American Institute of Architects-accredited courses for architects and engineers to help them understand the IoT space. There is no better way to learn something than to have to teach that subject to someone else.