Top smart building system essentials

These three critical considerations, three best investments and three common pitfalls will help in the design of a smart building

By Aaron Szalaj February 9, 2022
Courtesy: Stanley Consultants


Learning Objectives

  • Understand the essentials to smart building systems.
  • Learn about the three considerations, investments and protocols.
  • Review examples of smart building design.

Whether a building owner manages a hospital campus, military base or college or corporate campus, they all want the efficiency and resiliency that modern smart building control systems bring. How does the choice of systems get made? The answer is to study the details. Not every investment adds up to a positive return and there’s a lot of noise to sift through before the final buying decisions are made.

As part of a consulting engineer’s work guiding clients through implementing smart building control systems, our team has identified three essential guiding principles that would be beneficial to explore, three best returns on investment and three most common problems that arise in a typical installation.

Critical considerations when implementing smart building controls

1. Data highway capability: The data highway is the ethernet and fiber network to share data from end devices to the building automation system. It is highly likely that individual building systems were implemented a la carte rather than as an entire system that links all buildings. It is also common to see different generations of automation systems between buildings, with different vendor equipment and various levels of functionality. Success of a building’s new smart system depends on having a big picture plan of how the owner is going to move data between facilities using ethernet and fiber.

Ethernet switch channel availability and network data transmission rates are two other elements of the data highway assessment. Ethernet switching is at the central hub where internet protocol devices connect. Older systems did not have ethernet switching requirements. With new systems, end devices require ethernet IP connections.

Electrical engineers and information technology network engineers must increase the number of IP ports or channels in a building so that designers can incorporate the end devices into the building automation system. Security protocols are continuously developing as more layers of protection are added to switching hubs. Modern IP switches will provide the capability needed to meet cybersecurity policies.

System architects also need to understand network data transmission rates. Huge amounts of data passes over the network to the control system. The better and faster the network is, the more capable the data management. Component speeds need to be similar or the system will be only as fast as the slowest component.

Engineers should review the original equipment specifications and perform a visual walkdown. Look at the database and discover where the weak points are. Though the entire process, including installation of new equipment, keep the database up to date. It may be surprising that few building operators keep these records. Modern building information modeling systems are designed to address this issue.

2. Cybersecurity policy: System designers and operators need a thorough understanding of security policy and needs of different users. Each campus will have different security policies, for example a university versus a hospital or military base. The complex may be served by a microgrid, which has its own security issues. What are the rules, requirements and firewalls the communication system has to navigate?

Vendors, for example, routinely need to troubleshoot their systems. How does that vendor gain access, remotely or do technicians need to physically access the facility and plug into the system? All this needs to be thought out and well-defined for each stakeholder.

3. Develop stakeholder profiles: How will each stakeholder be using the data produced from the controls system and what does each interface look like? The best way to accomplish this is to ensure that each stakeholder group has a representative on the project team.

For example, if it’s a university, what is the faculty usage profile? What do they see and control? Look at it from the building engineer’s perspective. Is mobile access allowed? How are alarms responded to? How is instrument technician access handled versus mechanical repair? Anyone who might be involved or impacted needs a profile, including building engineers, owner staff and tenant users.

Figure 1: Modern technology allows owners to consolidate controls into a single management center that acts as a gathering point for data produced by essential property systems. Courtesy: Stanley Consultants

Figure 1: Modern technology allows owners to consolidate controls into a single management center that acts as a gathering point for data produced by essential property systems. Courtesy: Stanley Consultants

The best returns on investment in smart building control systems

1. Utility management: Most building and facility management energy systems are not “smart,” in that they don’t have automatic controls and motion sensors on lights or on heating and cooling. Systems are typically manually controlled and have many different versions of switches. Owners can install a seemingly limitless number of sensors and smart devices to improve energy management. Occupancy sensors can tell a system whether to heat or cool a room, lights can be activated by motion and water leaks can be detected by tracking flow anomalies.

Once the system designer understands how the building is being used, he can optimize the energy use profile for that building and choose which devices to optimize. Even older equipment can produce usable data. The smart building automation system can use present data combined with older information to tell a more in-depth story.

In the case of distributed generation management, the new system can manage different generation assets, such as solar or gas-fired combustion engines, under one smart system. Adapt controls to individual driving factors, such as lowering fuel costs and promoting efficiency, using green energy, maintaining a net zero carbon footprint or guaranteeing resiliency.

2. Security: Access management provides a bulwark against unauthorized access theft or vandalism. Like with energy, security often falls into separate systems that don’t have management capabilities. For example, security and video monitoring would be on different systems. Today it’s all included in one.

Health-related security — say, when air exchanges and filtering being strengthened to fight the spread of airborne viruses — provides a high degree of confidence by users, which pays off in lease renewals.

3. Emergency response: The third bang-for-the-buck investment is made in emergency response technologies. Various alarm and response systems — fire, active shooter, natural disaster — can be reported to the same head end and single control. Managers can optimize a response with text messages, building messaging boards or voice over loudspeaker notifications that can direct people to shelters or identify threat areas. Doorway access can be managed centrally.

For example, an active shooter, shot detection system can have both video and audio components that track a shooter. It turns on lights in exit areas, making it safer for people to get out. Occupancy sensors know how many people are in a given space and the threat can be assessed.

Figure 2: Whether it's temperature, room occupancy centers, lighting, air handling exchanges or security, a smart system allows owners to monitor and control from a single point. Smart systems must be customized to adapt to the property's unique characteristics and owner's priorities. Courtesy: Stanley Consultants

Figure 2: Whether it’s temperature, room occupancy centers, lighting, air handling exchanges or security, a smart system allows owners to monitor and control from a single point. Smart systems must be customized to adapt to the property’s unique characteristics and owner’s priorities. Courtesy: Stanley Consultants

Three common smart building pitfalls

1. Third-party devices don’t always follow smart building industry protocol: If designers are working to save major headaches, ensure that third-party devices follow industry standard protocols. One example is BACnet, developed by ASHRAE to facilitate common standard communication between control devices and sensors.

It is recommended that devices be certified by regulatory agencies to meet contractual obligations, such as guarantees that third-party products will communicate to a building control system. In one project the Stanley Consultants team worked on, the vendor had stopped paying to certify its system because of the expense involved. When the third-party device was added to the system, there was no initial confidence it would communicate correctly and it failed. It turned out the field installer made an error in ethernet login settings. Extra expense was incurred when it required two technicians two days to troubleshoot the problem. If the device was certified, the issue would have been much simpler and less expensive to resolve.

2. Hot technology of the moment: Although there is significant flexibility when committing to a high-performance building management system, “internet of things” vendors will try to convince owners that they must have the vendor’s latest widget and will perish without it. Some technology will indeed last and become valuable, while others will be a flash in the pan. How do owners decide what will stick?

Owners must do their own research. Talk to both other peer owners and experts for their opinions. Go to conferences and seminars and canvass the room. Explore user groups online. Most importantly, install a test bed in one of the buildings as kind of a technology nursery. Test the system’s value before you make a larger commitment. Don’t overlook the old system vendor, as it’s likely they offer a new system you can migrate to because new devices will communicate to older equipment.

3. The danger of overpromising: The internet of things world makes almost anything possible, given money and time. Once designers and owners open the door with a state-of-the-art building management system, temper the desire to say that all the smart building goals and wishes will be fulfilled immediately. With sophisticated smart system controls, the details matter. Focus on providing a strong, well-defined backbone of data flow along with a unified control concept with easily deployed security capabilities and the end devices will come and go much easier. Take the time to understand them and the chances of success will multiply.


To watch a discussion on this topic, see Video: Designing smart buildings with Aaron Szalaj and learn more about smart buildings.

Aaron Szalaj
Author Bio: Aaron Szalaj, PE, is a principal control systems engineer with Stanley Consultants, Denver. He has more than 20 years of professional engineering experience. His project experience includes renewable energies, water and wastewater, energy systems and federal installations. He specializes in control systems and project management, providing a unique perspective on each project to which he contributes. Szalaj has extensive experience with control systems and electrical engineering.