Students, tech, COVID drive higher ed design of automation and controls

College and university building design is being driven by student needs, technology and new air quality demands

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer October 28, 2020


  • Patrick McCafferty, PE, LEED AP, Associate Principal and Education Business Leader, Arup, Boston
  • James Michael Parrish, PE, Associate Vice President, Department Manager Electrical, Lighting, Technology, Dewberry, Peoria, Ill.
  • Tom Syvertsen, PE, LEED AP, Project Manager, Associate, Mueller Associates, Linthicum, Md.
  • Kristie Tiller, PE, LEED AP, Associate, Team Leader, Lockwood Andrews & Newnam Inc. (LAN), Dallas
  • Randy C. Twedt, PE, LEED AP, Associate Principal/Senior Mechanical Engineer, Page, Austin, Tex.
  • Casimir Zalewski, PE, LEED AP, CPD, Principal, Stantec, Berkley, Mich.

From your experience, what systems within a college or university project are benefiting from automation that previously might not have been?

Tom Syvertsen: Since providing energy metering can help secure LEED credits, we have seen more projects with metering that provide the owner with energy usage data that they may not have previously had. Recently, we designed a few projects with a system that would allow the university to reduce air flow during favorable CO2 conditions.

Casimir Zalewski: With the advent and acceptance of BACnet, more and more systems have a common method for communication. Whereas in the past, there could easily have been multiple control systems within a building and even more monitoring systems at the institution’s central control. Today, many of these separate HVAC, plumbing, fire protection, security and similar systems can now communicate with one another. As colleges and universities continue to struggle with the dollars associated with maintenance staff, the ability to simplify control and monitor with tiered notification and alarms helps combat reduced maintenance staff levels and budgets. Monitoring and automation technology has continued to expand and with it, the buildings have continued to become smarter. Memory and data storage have continued to become more economical allowing greater amounts of information to be tracked, stored and compared. This analysis has allowed for greater real time diagnostics of a building’s health and efficiency, potentially reducing the overall operation cost.

What types of system integration and/or interoperability issues have you overcome for these projects and how did you do so?   

Casimir Zalewski: Many projects have multiple manufacturers and automation systems operating within a project. The existing communication infrastructure, computing power and storage capabilities of these automation systems can be a roadblock with integration and automation. Typically, engaging industry experts on the equipment, legacy controls and communication and trade professionals who will be responsible to tie the system together is essential to overcome integration and interoperability on partial reuse projects. These individuals can help the engineer understand the existing system capabilities, the products that are compatible with existing equipment and infrastructure and what information may need to be shown in the construction documents for a successful project.

Is your team using building information modeling (BIM) in conjunction with the architects, trades and owner to design a project?           

Kristie Tiller: Yes, we use BIM on every project we design. This allows better coordination across disciplines, therefore reducing change orders during construction.

Casimir Zalewski: It has been common practice to utilize BIM in our everyday project development. The extent or depth of how much detail is reviewed on a project by project basis. The type of project, the design and construction team and the client all play a role in what is the appropriate amount of BIM.

Tom Syvertsen: Yes, BIM is used on nearly every single higher education project we engineer and it aids in coordination with the architects and other disciplines. It can also be used as a tool to demonstrate the design to the owner as the design process progresses and ultimately, for ongoing stewardship and maintenance.

Have you included virtual reality or augmented reality in the design of such a project? Describe the application of such tools.     

Casimir Zalewski: AR and VR continue to become more prevalent in our design process. While spaces were once traditionally defined as lines on paper with some renderings or sketches early in design, the use of 3D modelling and AR and VR have helped facility and user personnel understand what a space could be. It has allowed us to receive real-time feedback from the different stakeholders on how the space could be improved to help them do what they need to do. Our design charettes are featuring use of AR/VR more prominently in lieu of static images.

Tom Syvertsen: VR technology has been used by the design team to help walk clients through their buildings. These clients are able to make design decisions by what they can see while “inside the building.”

What types of smart building technologies are you specifying to allow for remote monitoring or to combat COVID-19 challenges?

Kristie Tiller: The biggest issue with controls and technology is making sure the existing systems are working as expected. COVID-19 is shining a light on all the things that were just a little bit out of spec and now must be addressed. There’s so much data coming out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization that it’s difficult to determine the best path forward from day to day. So, we suggest to owners that they get everything working as designed as a baseline and then modify operations based on the latest findings from the experts.

How has “bring your own device” affected the design of technology systems in campus buildings?          

Tom Syvertsen: The electrical and HVAC capacity of classrooms, breakout rooms and even lounge spaces has increased. We have designed buildings where there are receptacles at every classroom seat and every lounge seat. We have increased HVAC loads due to the heat output of laptops that are now brought to class on a regular basis.

How has your technology team worked with facility managers to implement security technology (biometrics, card-scan, etc.) in college and university projects?   

Casimir Zalewski: The use of card readers and building/room level access continues to become more and more prevalent. Many buildings are moving to extended operation with more and more restrictions on free access to either the building in general or regions/rooms within the building. More planning is required earlier in the project to determine what infrastructure is needed at which location for when the building first opens and over time as technology continues to evolve and more and more focus is placed access control.