Smart building integration

Historically, the facility management challenge has been to do more with less. System integration provides a solution, and offers an opportunity to lower costs and achieve greater efficiencies.
By Sanjyot V. Bhusari, PE, CEM, LEED AP, Affiliated Engineers Inc., Gainesville, FL May 27, 2014

Learning Objectives:

  1. Identify what a smart building is, and the solutions it can provide.
  2. Learn how a BAS can integrate engineered systems within a building.
  3. Understand the role data can play in increasing operational and energy efficiency.

This article has been peer-reviewed.Typical facility management challenges associated with energy consumption, operational costs, and occupant comfort have been compounded by the growing complexity of the engineered systems designed to manage them. Operational budgets, staffing levels, and staff skill sets often fall short of need. Implementation of smart building solutions that can remedy these problems has been underexplored due to perceived lack of return on investment. Reinforcing this perception, the capabilities of smart building technologies, when employed, are commonly under-exploited for lack of capacity to do so.

Costs associated with system integration (data storage and communications interfaces) have been falling. The concept of the Internet of Things is gaining traction. McKinsey Quarterly defines Internet of Things as “objects becoming embedded with sensors and gaining the ability to communicate.” This trend is generating free-use analytical tools and processes for integration optimization, prompting building owners to increasingly concur with McKinsey’s opinion that “the resulting information networks promise to create new business models, improve business processes, and reduce costs and risks.” The two-part challenge is to better use technology and more fully leverage data.

Figure 1: Building and business systems integration offers an opportunity to enhance and automate business process. A process-oriented approach is required to fully exploit system interdependencies. All graphics courtesy: Affiliated Engineers Inc. What is a smart building?

The promise of smart buildings is to overcome facility management challenges and realize the potential of improved operational and energy efficiencies by leveraging interdependencies between building and business systems, leading to optimization or automation of facility management work processes and providing a wealth of data for analysis. Visualization and analytics tools reveal trends, patterns, and anomalies that can lead to better operational and energy management strategies, ultimately integrating facility management with the organization’s business objectives.

Of course, the ability to integrate building systems will be impacted by the building systems being employed and the extent to which they lend themselves to integration. Knowledge of the sheer variety of systems in the field, and the expertise to understand what can be accomplished by engineering design, software, or the boots on the ground, is fundamental to the optimal success of any smart building initiative.

Systems integration and data analytics are the fundamentals of smart buildings, but the industry lacks standards and guides to define a smart building, much less measure its relative smartness. Certain attributes are typically associated with smart buildings—systems integration, data analytics, open protocols, flexibility of use, adaptability to changing requirements, enhanced user experience, fault detection, diagnostics, energy efficiency, sustainable operations—but none of these constitutes building “smartness” in and of itself.

Remote monitoring, often erroneously equated to smart buildings, can also be one attribute; having the ability to remotely monitor a building does not solely make a building smart. Nor does simply acquiring a BAS make the building smart. How the BAS is configured and used is essential to making the building smarter. Furthermore, integrating disparate systems, while a step in the right direction, doesn’t render a building smart without leveraging the synergetic interdependencies of its systems. A smart building integrates disparate systems from a business case perspective, serving business case needs.

The technological state of existing buildings

Technologically, the building automation industry has progressed from pneumatic systems to direct digital control (DDC) systems to today’s open protocol controls loaded with functionality. Many existing buildings and campuses have been subject to the full spectrum. Yet building management improvements have not kept pace with technological advances for several reasons:

Multiple BASs: It is common to find multiple, disparate BASs in existing facilities. A low-bid approach to new construction projects is the primary cause of this. One university in the Carolinas had, until recently, eight disparate BASs. Any time building operators needed to make a common scheduling change, they had to do it eight times.

BAS functionality is not configured: Despite the degree of functionality with which new BASs are equipped, they are seldom specified and rarely configured properly. One health care provider with a 2-million-sq-ft campus in Florida averaged more than 900 alarms per day. Use of functionality such as alarm suppression resulted in a reduction of alarms from around 900 to around 90 per day—a 90% reduction. For the health care provider, this was equivalent to reduction of one full-time position. Because alarm suppression associates secondary or tertiary alarms with its primary source, a chilled water temperature in high temperature limit alarm will trigger secondary (air handling unit discharge air temperature) and tertiary (room temperature) alarms. With an alarm suppression scheme in place, the operator gets only the primary alarm while the others are suppressed.

Building systems in silos: It’s common to find a multitude of systems in existing campuses and major portfolios. Building systems typically include disparate building automation, security, fire alarm, power management, elevators, and lighting systems. Meanwhile, facility management business systems typically include work order management, preventive maintenance, scheduling, human resources, and utility analysis. Most of these systems have their own proprietary communications interface and operate in a stand-alone mode. The challenge for operational staff is to learn each system. Dedicated teams are formed to develop expertise in operating each system. Buildings within the same campus or portfolio are operated individually instead of as a group, leading to inefficient operational resource management.

Lack of standardization: Similar buildings on the same campus or even on different floors in the same building may end up with different systems, different operational sequences, or both. The same technician who configures a BAS on one building with a certain sequencing, software, and point naming scheme may have done the next building on that same campus completely differently.

New building construction challenges

Energy conservation, whether associated with environmental or commodity fuel concerns, has been a significant focus of the past decade. Codes and standards such as ASHRAE Standard 90.1 are becoming increasingly stringent, and rating systems such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED continue to raise the bar for performance, specifically as it relates to energy. Advances in technology are allowing design engineers to meet these stringent goals with increasingly complicated building systems employing complex operational strategies to save every last bit of energy possible. High-performance design does not always result in high-performing buildings in operation. In many cases, buildings that were designed to meet stringent codes and achieve lofty ratings were found to have significantly greater energy use intensity than anticipated. Typical causes include:

Operational challenges: In new buildings, it is common to find multiple energy conservation strategies or setpoints in override mode. A health care provider summarized the consequences of override mode of operations by saying that “it solves short-term problems but causes long-term energy nightmares.” Issues such as lack of understanding of facility design intent and inadequate training can result in operations staff struggling to operate the building as designed.

Limited performance measurement and controls: Metering makes it easy to determine whether a building is performing as designed, and submetering enables further isolation of problem areas or systems. However, design projects frequently include only the bare minimum instrumentation required to accomplish control, largely preempting instrumentation necessary to measure performance. The fact that performance measurement instrumentation often falls victim to value engineering remains one of the key challenges in managing new high-technology buildings.

Lack of energy management tools: Instruments and devices generate data. Most design projects fail to specify tools that can convert data into information. As a result, the BAS continues to generate and store effectively unusable data.

Systems integration without use cases: As technological advancements in standardization of communications protocol have occurred over the past decade, most building systems now can communicate with BACnet, LonWorks, or Modbus communications protocol. New building designs include these interfaces allowing building systems to communicate with each other. However, integration scope is rarely specified from a use case point of view. The real benefits of systems integration—process optimization and connecting and analyzing disparate systems to improve operational and energy efficiency—rarely come to fruition. Integrated smart buildings are a rarity rather than a norm. To date, the industry appears to have not standardized a process of developing use cases and lifecycle costs for systems integration. The Continental Automated Buildings Association (CABA) recently published a landmark research study, “Life Cycle Costing of Intelligent Buildings,” that should help fill this void.

The solutions

The challenges faced by facility management are, for the most part, not unique. Facing similar challenges, the business world remains on a constant mission of increasing productivity and efficiency; doing more with less is a universal desire. Similar to buildings, businesses also have multiple, disparate, siloed systems. Where buildings have mechanical, electrical, plumbing, electronic security, safety, and vertical transportation, businesses have human resources, financial management, purchasing and procurement, quality assurance, customer support, production, and planning systems. Like building systems, these disparate business systems are to differing degrees incompatible; and hence did not communicate and share information with each other. Multiple platforms needed specialized skill sets that ended up creating disparate departments.

Businesses adopted the enterprise concept to overcome these challenges, finding previously unknown efficiencies between and among them, and were able to increase the bottom line. Enterprise concepts center on integrating disparate systems, converting data into information, overcoming incompatible systems, optimizing work processes, analyzing data, and making informed business decisions. As data across information silos became available, patterns and trends emerged that businesses could strategize on.

Applying an enterprise solution to either a new or existing building follows this roadmap for development:

  1. Ideation workshops: Critical as a first step to prioritize facility management goals and objectives and align them with business objectives.
  2. Organizational skill set analysis: Smart building solutions involve an investment in technology. Before this investment is made, the organizational chart should be evaluated to understand existing staff skill sets, and present roles and responsibilities. Results of such evaluation usually reveal additional training requirements, missing skill sets, or necessary realignment of organizational structure to capitalize on the technological investment.
  3. Work process documentation: Facility management work processes as they relate to key goals and objectives should be documented. Automating or optimizing these work processes provides the best opportunities to reap the benefits of smart building solutions.
  4. Building systems evaluation: At the heart of any smart building solution are the building systems. Correctly selected, sized, and implemented building systems are critical in terms of energy efficiency and operational efficiency.
  5. Technology evaluation: Technological evaluation of existing systems can reveal easy opportunities for improvements in operations and energy management. The use-what-you-have-first philosophy helps maximize existing BAS usage. After existing technology is maximized, additional investment in new technology can be considered. New technology solutions can involve systems integration, deployment of energy management, and fault detection and diagnostic tools. Existing technology evaluation should also include determination of instrumentation required for performance measurement. Having the right data set allows for optimal use of energy management tools and fault detection and diagnostic-type solutions.
  6. Use case development: When selecting systems for integration, automation of work process should be considered paramount. The more that process integration can be automated, the faster the payback will be.
  7. Business case development: Use CABA’s recommended tools to determine economic value by evaluating net savings, savings-to-investment ratio, internal rate of return, net present value, and lowest life cycle cost.
  8. Specifications development and implementation: Once objectives, goals, and requirements are assessed, a detailed set of specifications can be developed and implemented.

Business world solutions can be applied to solve facility management solutions. Systems integration and data analytics can help facilities be more operationally and energy efficient. These solutions can be applied to both new and existing buildings. Return on investment for smart building solutions is getting increasingly attractive and will become more so as efficiencies of scale emerge in the era of big data. Defining and identifying use cases will be a critical strategy to establishing the business case for systems integration.


Sanjyot V. Bhusari is Affiliated Engineers Inc.’s intelligent buildings practice leader. He has more than 15 years’ experience optimizing existing BASs, improving facility management business processes, and developing system integration solutions and data analytics for health care, higher education, medical science, and research facility projects. He is the project manager for Santa Fe College’s continuous data analytics initiatives.