Implementing innovative control system design ideas

Henderson Engineers outline their experience to improve their control system design.

By Jared Carlson and Lynn Browning December 16, 2021
Courtesy: Henderson Engineers

What is the meaning of innovation? The definition may vary depending on who you ask and what their respective goals are, especially within the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) industry. Sean Turner, our innovation director, has appropriately dedicated considerable time during the past year toward defining innovation at Henderson Engineers with the aim of streamlining our innovation strategy and client experience approach.

As we presently define it, “Innovation at Henderson is leveraging technology and our collective ideas to drive results for clients. It’s investigating and implementing new ideas about efficiency, effectiveness, or new lines of service; to build a better world.”

In one of his recent articles, Sean rightly observed that innovation is not just about groundbreaking ideas, but also well-defined processes to implement concepts. At Henderson, we follow five key procedures to bring innovative ideas to fruition:

    1. Define the “Thing”
    2. Resource Appropriately
    3. Establish a Process
    4. Build a Roadmap
    5. Build a Culture

In this piece, we outline our experience using the above five-step process to improve our control system design.

1. Define the “Thing”

A clear innovative trend in the AEC industry is the move toward interoperable building control systems. This term generally refers to ensuring different control systems (e.g., HVAC, lighting, building access security, etc.) not only operate as intended, but are able to work together and enhance the overall building control. At Henderson, we took an additional step to define interoperable building control systems in the context of our firm’s vision to “be the firm that builds a better world,” our strategic focus on client experience, and our typical deliverables around control systems including schematics, points lists, and sequences of operation.

Specifically, we defined our approach toward interoperable building control systems as, “Uniform design, approach, and presentation of building system controls to all stakeholders will facilitate interoperability, improve our clients’ experience, and push everyone forward to building a better world.”

2. Resource Appropriately

With a clear definition in place, our next step was to appropriately resource the endeavor. We treated this innovative idea like any other project at Henderson. It would require time and multiple milestones to deliver the final product. Therefore, we staffed the project with experts who had the flexibility to step away from their day-to-day responsibilities to focus deeply on this undertaking.

Freeing up staff to devote their time on a single overhead project rather than trying to fit it in around other billable work avoids tension between meeting the immediate needs of our clients and making progress on innovative ideas to drive our company forward. Providing exceptional client experience often involves this delicate balancing act of meeting client expectations on current projects versus working to improve efficiencies and processes to meet long-term client needs.

3. Establish a Process

When defining the process to develop and implement any project, we need to ensure all project team members remain aligned over time. The AEC industry historically uses a waterfall project management method that involves a linear process of analysis, design, and execution. However, we must re-evaluate such traditional processes to be more iterative, flexible, and collaborative when developing innovative ideas.

The agile project management method is one option that provides the needed flexibility and iterative approach while incorporating regular end user feedback. This method involves:

  • Segmenting project requirements into smaller, incremental stages with regular feedback intervals, and
  • Rapid execution of these stages in short iterations – often called sprints – until they develop a minimum viable product (MVP).

Sprints are short time periods of about one-to-two weeks that allow project teams to change direction and incorporate feedback quickly. Developing MVPs for each stage allows for visibility on the progress of the project and near real time adjustments during project development.

We discovered the uniform control project needed more structure than just utilizing a pure agile method. Therefore, we chose to utilize a hybrid project management method that incorporates aspects of both the agile and the waterfall methods. This decision allowed us to get a clear sense of scope and the amount of time required to complete this project (waterfall), and apply an iterative approach using sprints to develop the project across the different stages.

Courtesy: Henderson Engineers

4. Build a Roadmap

 After settling on a hybrid agile method, we moved on to building out the roadmap for the project. Applying the agile mindset, we separated the project into segments called stories, epics, and initiatives:

  • Stories – Stories are short requirements or requests from the perspective of the user. These are developed during iterative sprints and can take several weeks.
  • Epics – Epics are larger bodies of work that incorporate multiple stories. These can take several weeks or months to complete.
  • Initiatives – Initiatives are the common goals or visions of the project. These may incorporate multiple epics and can take several months to complete.

A great example of this application from a film and literature perspective is “The Lord of the Rings” saga:

  • Initiative – The Lord of the Rings narrative
  • Epics – Books 1, 2, and 3
  • Stories – Each act within a book
  • Sprints – Each chapter within a book

Applying this philosophy to our innovative idea, the project initiative was to create Uniformed Control System Design. The first Epic developed the templates and standards that would be used to create content. The second Epic developed a catalog of all the systems and equipment that have control points. This catalog also helped develop a workload tool for each discipline to track content creation and estimate the time required to complete the project. Finally, the third Epic involved the development and rollout of the content.

5. Building a Culture

While having a solid process and roadmap is great, building a culture that is receptive and supportive of implementing innovative ideas is crucial. Such a culture requires buy-in and belief from everyone, so execution cannot be outsourced to a single person or group. Otherwise, the process breaks down.

With Henderson’s collective focus on client experience, we have found that one of the advantages of having a solid culture is that it makes us ‘sticky’ to our clients. We see stickiness resulting from the hybrid agile project management process as it involves getting client feedback on an iterative basis. This facilitates their voice and buy-in into making the project better as it develops. Overall, client input makes implementing innovative ideas easier because it helps set project expectations, improves client experience, and ultimately leads to building a better world.


This originally appeared on Henderson Engineer’s websiteHenderson Engineers is a CFE Media content partner.

Original content can be found at

Author Bio: Jared Carlson is Director of Engineering and Principal at Henderson Engineers and Lynn Browning is Project Management Technical Director at Henderson Engineers.