Smart building consulting: integrating people and systems

Examine the role of a smart building consultant and uncover the tools and processes used to communicate and work with stakeholders to deliver valuable smart building solutions

By Owen Dalton and Sal Bonetto September 30, 2020


Learning Objectives

  • Understand the emerging role and value of a smart building consultant in the context of smart building design.
  • Learn about the tools and processes that facilitate communication and integration.
  • Know the stakeholders in the smart building industry and examine how they interact with one another.

A smart building project leverages data from one historically siloed system to another historically siloed system to create new and useful insights, savings, efficiencies and other use cases. If an organization’s business and building’s systems become integrated, the smart buildings project will create the greatest economic impact.

Smart building consultants organize these types of integrations (that share data between systems) into use cases to help communicate what information is being collected, how it is shared and how it can be used in the next system that will benefit from this new information.

To integrate building systems, which have historically been siloed and separate, the smart building consultant first needs to integrate people, who are also historically siloed and separate. It is often more challenging to integrate people by effectively communicating than it is to detail and integrate a system using technical means and methods. The true feat is securing alignment with these separate groups of people, who are used to doing separate things in separate ways, to deliver something new together.

Who is the smart building consultant?

Historically, there have been building control “integrators” in the industrial era of building design and construction; they primarily dealt with the physical integration of building systems. Their scope was mainly limited to integrating building systems together, often to enable more useful methods of control for occupants and operators.

This entity has evolved to meet the needs of the digital age and can be understood as the smart building consultant. The term “smart building consulting-specifying engineer” makes more sense for this role because the framework that smart building consultant works in, along with their tools and the methods of delivery, all stem from the proven model of a consulting-specifying engineer. The smart building version of this engineer is the response to our increasingly digital world. By nature, the role of the smart building consulting-specifying engineer is different and is something that some stakeholders on a project might not be used to yet.

Designing smart buildings

The smart building consultant looks at how an organization communicates, both within the actual business of the organization and within the building. The portions of the project that relate most to the consulting portion of the smart building consultant’s role is the planning stage and the operation stage, which are at the beginning and end of a project.

During design, they work as a peer review and regulatory entity, responsible for ensuring the core systems specified by traditional engineers adhere to the specifications and intent of the overall smart building solution. Because smart building solutions leverage data between previously unrelated systems, the smart building consultant needs to act as an oversight entity to ensure that traditional engineers act in more advanced, integrated ways.

In construction, the smart building consultant also acts in an oversight role, ensuring submittals adhere to specifications, which should adhere to the smart building consultant’s direction for digital capabilities and functionalities of the core engineering systems.

The smart building consultant acts as a specifier and an engineer during the design and construction portion of the project. They issue drawings and specifications that trigger a master systems integrator on the construction team to implement the integration sequences as well as provide the smart building software platform. The engineering specification triggers both a service (custom integration) and a product (smart building platform) generally provided by a master systems integrator (service) and a manufacturer (product).

Scope, role and tools

The overall job of the smart building consultant is to help the owner achieve newfound efficiencies, productivity, wellness, communication and connection between the organization in ways that were previously not possible. The smart building consultant helps unleash the power of the inherent data that systems within an owner’s building and business are already generating, can generate and inevitably will generate in the future.

Using a true consultant-based approach, the smart building consultant begins by understanding how the organization functions, communicates and operates, by talking through use cases to help communicate sequences and ties between systems as they currently exist, do not exist or could be improved by shared data between one another. As a trusted adviser to the owner, the smart building consultant will help identify, realize and optimize solutions that stem from technology integration between building and business systems.

Planning: The initial stage of a project is led by the consulting portion of the smart building consultant. The goal is to analyze how an organization currently communicates and operates, propose solutions made possible by data interaction and secure alignment around achieving use cases that will enable bottom-line savings. Smart building consultants must have the ability to effectively communicate with different types of people. The tools described below have been developed to assist with communicating the same information to dissimilar people from multiple backgrounds with varying agendas.

Observation: Consultant to the owner’s organization as a “fly on the wall” for a period. The goal is to understand the owner’s operational structure of the organization. Create communication diagrams that help explain how the organization interacts within the business and within their building systems. Organize findings by energy, real estate and people. Tools include:

  • Organizational communication diagrams (people).
  • Business system communication diagrams (digital systems).
  • Building system communication diagrams (digital systems).
  • Use case diagrams (systems and people).

Visioning: Articulate observations to owner. Help envision how these could be improved by leveraging data between systems. Goal is to secure buy-in from owner’s stakeholders. Tools include:

  • Division 25 master specifications (systems and people).
  • Use case diagrams (systems and people).
  • Network and system architecture diagrams (digital systems).
  • Return on investment analysis (systems and people).
  • Integration master plan (systems and people).

Metrics: Define specific metrics and key performance indicators that can be generated from each use case. Keep in mind return on investment as an ultimate measure of success. Depending on the project, metrics will sometimes fall within to the buckets of energy, real estate and people. Tools include:

  • Energy model (usage and savings).
  • Workplace satisfaction surveys (data and metrics from multiple sources).
  • Productivity metrics (clicks to a task or time).

Financial modeling: Energy modeling, real estate appraisals, workplace strategy and space use modeling are all methods to help predict the financial gains seen by increased efficiencies and optimization in energy, real estate and people for an organizations for specific iterations and use cases, as defined by the team.

Design: The smart building consultant’s role during the design phase of a project is to ensure the building is designed with the integration goals in mind. Their job is to implement the integration solutions envisioned and agreed upon with the owner during planning. They work alongside the other mechanical, electrical, plumbing and technology engineers as another design consultant on the project, hired in any number of ways; direct by owner is best. As the owner’s advocate for the integration vision, the smart building consultant works as an owner’s representative, commissioning agent, peer-review and a consulting-specifying engineer in design.

Their scope of work can touch all low-voltage power and digital control systems typically in a building, as well as the enterprise level business systems that help an organization operate. Although they do not typically specify these systems, they provide detailed reviews, direction, control features and sequencing.

As a design engineer focused on data and information exchange, the smart building consultant may need to interact with the enterprise software and management tools governing an organization. Their scope does do not include software development or programming, but it does provide the required direction and specification to support the smart building platforms and subcontractors necessary for programming or development work to bring the integration use cases to reality.

They specify in-between or “scope-gap” devices/controllers/hardware/software necessary for added integration capabilities by issuing integration automation drawings and Division 25 specifications. If a necessary hardware component should be grouped into another division, such as electrical or mechanical, the smart building consultant will manage and direct the documentation of the device on the other discipline’s documents.

For the smart building consultant to be effective, they need to be involved in the project from all angles. Therefore, a multidisciplinary integration team helps develop a more holistic understanding of the building and business systems that are being tied together. This diverse team then creates innovative ways to solve digital communication roadblocks.

Use case document

Communication tool: This is a way for multiple people from many different backgrounds interpret the same information. It needs to be simple enough to speak to everyone but detailed enough to convey what is happening, how it happens, why it’s important and how it might affect things.

It organizes ideas into specific sequences of operation that can be discussed by dissimilar people so that it is easier for everyone to refer to specific integration instances.

MEPT drawings and specifications review by the consultant: Guidelines are issued to each MEPT discipline regarding control requirements and information exchange criteria. Design reviews of Divisions 22, 23, 25, 26 and 28 ensure criteria is being met through specifiers that are not the smart building consultant. Many of the integration use cases hinge on the success of the relationship between smart building consultant and design team. It helps if the traditional design team has someone dedicated to the control portion of their scope so that they can work as a member of the integration team and serve as a point person for control reviews and collaboration.

Integration automation drawings by the specifier: These can be considered integrated-automation sheets or “I-Sheets” and are used to communicate network architecture, enterprise level integrations and sequence of operations that support the integration use cases. These drawings include:

  • Division 25 specifications (specifier).
  • Sequence of operations.
  • Triggers the who (master systems integrator).
  • Specifies the how (execution).
  • Specifies the what (master system integrator service and smart building platform products).

Construction: Integration begins as data between previously dissimilar systems begins to exchange. The smart building consultant’s scope is Division 25. Their role is to ensure that the sequences and specifications laid out in the bid and construction documents are met and that the building begins to collect, share and use its data in ways that enable the use cases.

The bid review and master systems integrator selection role entails:

  • Help the owner, design team and or general contractor interpret and vet Division 25 bids.
  • Interview Division 25 contractors.
  • Review value engineering process and protect integration critical systems/components.

Construction administration responsibility includes:

  • Review building control submittals.
  • Review of Division 25 required submittals.
  • Conduct regular construction integration team meetings to ensure that integration use cases and construction related activities, hand-offs and processes are occurring.

Commissioning agent duties are:

  • Performance and verification testing.

The owner’s representative role is:

  • Ensure schedule, budget and functionality are met and delivered.
  • Conduct user group meetings within the owner’s organization.
  • Provide feedback and meaningful actions for use cases made possible through integration.
  • Assist in hand-off between manufacturer, representative/support networks, contractors and owner’s facilities management team

Helpful tools include:

  • An active list of team members and their role and responsibility on the project.
  • The schedule of construction-related activities.
  • Selection criteria developed for master systems integrator selection.
  • A process map issued to the team with integration-specific activities.

Other stakeholders

Depending on the project delivery method, stakeholders can vary. The following can be considered on a typical integration project: owners, designers, builders and manufacturers.

Owner: Overall entity that owns and operates the building, campus or facility. The owner is responsible for:

  • Business systems: These are the departments within an organization that are responsible for everyday operations to support the business itself.
  • C-suite: Chief executive, financial, operations and information officers. If consensus within this group can be found early on, everyone’s lives will be made easier for the entirety of the project.
  • Information technology: Responsible for the hardware, software and network architecture to support the organization’s business needs. IT departments are more robust than ever and the role IT professionals in an owner’s organization that this group is having is increasing on any given project, regardless of how “smart” the project is. Generally, the IT department functions as the main point of decision-making on the owner’s behalf to further the overall goals of the organization. During planning, they provide overall picture of existing network architecture and work alongside the smart building consultant to develop an overall integration plan. In design and construction, they serve as an advisory committee to the smart building consultant.
  • Steering committee: This might include other interested parties, generally referred to as “program,” which are the users of the program space: nurses, doctors, clinicians, teachers, faculty, janitorial staff or everyday building users. It is critical that this group sees and weighs in on the use cases discussed in planning and design because their input will create more valuable and useful solutions.
  • Facility managers: Responsible for ensuring that the organization’s building systems ultimately support the business, they ensure that buildings are safe, comfortable, productive and sustainable. The facility managers will weigh in on many of the use cases and will be major players on the decision-making chain of commands for the owner. Most of the use cases in smart building applications directly influence the productivity and usefulness of the tools that facility mangers interact with on a day-to-day basis. They will need to be on board from the beginning of the project and can be a major advocate if engaged correctly.
  • Project manager: Party responsible for driving a project forward for the owner.

Designers: Generally referred to as the design team on a new construction or building renovation project, designers might include:

  • Architect: Generally responsible for delivering the overall project. Sometimes the smart building consultant will serve as a subconsultant to the architect in an overall contract with an owner. It is important that the architect sees value in the smart building consultant and honors the requests and needs of the smart building consultant throughout the project. The architect shall help the smart building consultant conduct user group meetings with the owner’s steering committee.
  • MEPT consultants: Traditional scope and roles still apply to the engineering trades during the design and construction of a smart building project. If the smart building scope falls within the framework of a larger building project, the traditional MEPT trades responsible for Division 23, 26, 27 and 28 shall have additional responsibilities to coordinate their designs with the integration team. It is helpful to have a devoted member in each discipline assigned to take point on all building controls related items. They can serve as the discipline representative on the overall integration team. Similar to how the efforts of a U.S. Green Building Council LEED certified project add scope to the engineering team’s plate, a smart building consultant on the design team increases the scope of the traditional engineering trades to adhere to control requirements, specify building systems and control systems which comply with the overall integration team’s initiatives and use cases. They are then required to see these specifications through during construction.
  • Smart building consultant: Refer to the overall scope, role and tools of the smart building consultant.

Builders: Generally referred to as the construction team on a building project. This team is usually organized by a general contractor or construction manager who holds subcontracts directly with specialty contractors and installers. If the project is delivered through a design-bid-build approach, the entity holding the contract with the owner shall ultimately own Division 25, unless this division is subcontracted directly by the owner. This group’s goal is to deliver the smart building project within the framework of the overall building project.

  • General contractor: This party is responsible for the overall delivery of the project. If the master systems integrator is subcontracted to the general contractor, the general contractor is ultimately responsible for meeting the integration requirements outlined in the drawings and specifications. The general contractor needs to be on board and in touch with the integration requirements from the moment they receive drawings and specs to bid on. They should engage qualified master systems integrators to submit bids on the Division 25 scope of work and meet with the smart building consultant and owner to discuss the criteria for master systems integrator selection with the team. It is critical that the general contractor and the master systems integrator are aligned, understand each other’s scope and can support the needs of one another throughout the construction process.
  • Master systems integrator: The success of the smart building project being delivered is directly tied to the capabilities and expertise of the master systems integrator. This is the contractor who is triggered by the Division 25 specifications. These are true integrators who are experts in communication protocols, custom programming, software development, deployment and servicing. Many of them are partnered with a smart building platform or software manufacturer and serve as licensed retailers of the product while also installing, programming and servicing the sequences specified by the smart building consultant. This entity works hand in hand with the smart building consultant and, together, the two parties ensure the design intent is installed and doing its job before construction is complete. Depending on the use cases, the master systems integrator may need to contract out special web development work or custom programming to the manufacturer of smart building software or another entity who may specialize further in programming and web development.
  • Heating, ventilation and air conditioning contractor: Responsible for delivering Division 23 on the project as a subcontractor to the general contractor. They are usually responsible for providing the building automation system for the project. The HVAC contractor will work closely with the smart building consultant and master systems integrator to define scope split between Division 23 and 25 required products and services. The HVAC contractor’s role during construction is to be the link between the manufacturers of their systems and the master systems integrator. When the master systems integrator requests a BACnet or other protocol points list from Division 23 equipment, the HVAC contractor is responsible for coordinating with their reps and manufacturers and producing this information to the master systems integrator for compilation and submission to the smart building consultant.
    Electrical contractor: This team is responsible for delivering Division 26, sometimes 27 and 28. Usually responsible for the electrical energy management system as well as the lighting control platform, these two systems are commonly involved in integration sequences and require close coordination with the smart building consultant and master systems integrator. The electrical contractor’s role is to be the link between the manufacturers of their systems and the master systems integrator. When the master systems integrator requests a BACnet points list from Division 26 equipment, the electrical contractor is responsible for coordinating with their reps and manufacturers and producing this information to the master systems integrator for compilation and submission to the smart building consultant.
  • Low-voltage contractors: Responsible for delivering Division 27 and other specialty low-voltage systems, their role is to serve the needs to the master systems integrator and smart building consultant, working in similar ways to link between manufacturers and integrators.
  • Commissioning agent: Responsibility includes ensuring the design intent is met, both functionally and performance-wise. Can be contracted into the project a variety of ways.
  • Smart building consultant: Refer to the overall scope, role and tools of the smart building consultant.


This group manufacturers the hardware and software products that go into a building.

  • Smart building platform: Generally, the difference between the building automation system and the smart building platform is that the BAS is designed for and works best when used to control and operate the energy management and HVAC systems in a building where as the smart building platform enables more efficient user interfaces and dashboards and provides a space for fault detection diagnostics, advisory controls and building analytics. The smart building platform is the tool that will take a smart building that connects systems to enable integration use cases to an intelligent building that predicts and advises the organization based on machine learning using data tomorrow. Smart buildings are connected systems with sequences written by humans. Intelligent buildings deploy sequences written by machines that learn from historical trends.
  • Building automation system: This product serves as the main control tool for the owner’s facility management team. The BAS consists of distributed digital controllers that communicate using common building communication protocols with one another and other systems through integrations and programming done by the master systems integrator and the HVAC contractor.
  • Lighting, electrical and energy management systems: These control systems generate a tremendous amount of valuable data and are used and relied on in every day integration sequences. These manufacturers need to have common data tagging abilities, the ability to custom program and offer a variety of storage and data exchange capabilities to keep pace with the demand of an increasingly digital world.
  • Business systems: These are the makers of the enterprise level software that organizations use every day to operate their core business. They take the form of things like email, company social media platforms, customer relation management software, on-premise data storage platforms, cloud data storage platforms, etc. The master systems integrator shall work closely with the smart building consultant and the owner’s IT department to interact together as a team with the business system manufacturers. These manufacturers will be involved in integrations requiring data exchange between their systems and between building native systems.

Author Bio: Owen Dalton is trained as a lighting designer and electrical engineer. He is helping grow Cannon Design Integration Services, a smart building consulting group at CannonDesign. Sal Bonetto leads the technology services group at CannonDesign.