Your questions answered about smart buildings: Knowing what a client wants

Engineers should ask themselves and their client several questions when designing a smart building

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer April 25, 2024
Cybersecurity issues arise when smart buildings are connected to the cloud, or through the internet. Courtesy: Consulting-Specifying Engineer

Smart building insights

  • Two important aspects an engineer must know about smart buildings are integration and interoperability and data protection and security.
  • Engineers working with smart buildings must prioritize seamless integration of diverse systems through open protocols while ensuring robust data protection measures and compliance with industry standards and regulations, particularly in sensitive environments like hospitals.

A smart building is broadly defined as a building that delivers valuable services that make occupants productive at the lowest cost and environmental impact over the building’s life cycle. Simply put, the technology enables efficient use of the building’s resources. But how does a consulting engineer design this?

Watch this webcast and review the responses below to better understand how to know whether a client really wants a smart building.

Subject matter experts:

  • Jason Newhuis, PE, CxA, LEED AP, Vice President/Director, Building Solutions, NV5
  • Will Maxwell, SmartScore AP, Smart Building Consultant, Smith Seckman Reid Inc.

What is the accepted industry definition of “open” when it comes to systems on a network (i.e., building automation system, electronic access control, CCTV, lighting control, etc.)?

Will Maxwell: There is not currently a single definition that is widely accepted. Several different protocols are considered open, but the implementation of them by specific vendors may not be. The important questions to ask include:

  • Can data be continuously exported to an independent database?
  • Can third-party devices using the same protocol be used without a gateway? (i.e., connecting a sensor over BACNet IP)
  • Can it receive commands from other applications? (i.e., occupancy data from light system changing setpoints on HVAC)

What are the retrofit capabilities for smart buildings using existing BACnet networks?

Jason Newhuis: BACnet networks are the most implemented industry standard protocol for building automation and energy management systems. Generally, that network will be sufficient for upgrades within the HVAC and building controls space. However, other systems such as the internet of things devices, security, lighting controls and others use different communication protocols. The good news is that system integrators can use different communication gateways to talk with the various systems.

What are the lessons learned in interconnections and software?

Will Maxwell: One of the biggest we have seen is hidden fees. Different products will claim to work well together and use open protocols, but turn out to need a yearly license or paid API to make it work. There are a lot of SaaS companies in the smart building marketplace and it can be very difficult to get straight answers on their all-in pricing and the availability of their APIs so comparing different vendors is not straightforward. This is where mock-ups can be a big help in proving out the true compatibility of integration.

How many vendors or software suppliers use open source or nonlegacy systems?

Jason Newhuis: Many vendors are moving toward open protocol systems. The open protocol allows vendors equipment to talk with the integrator without proprietary interfaces or gateways. Closed protocol does not allow communication with other products without use of proprietary interfaces or gateways. Because the industry has been pushing for interoperability, most current systems have some options to have open protocol.

Third-party protocols and devices should be specified for a smart building. Courtesy: Consulting-Specifying Engineer

Third-party protocols and devices should be specified for a smart building. Courtesy: Consulting-Specifying Engineer

What direction is going to ensure data protection for hospitals and sensitive users?

Jason Newhuis: You are only as secure as your weakest link. In hospitals and health care systems it is always best to separate building management functions and network from patient records, billing and other HIPPA required secure information. The recent health care cyberattacks occurred through the nation’s largest health care payment system. It compromised patient records, billing and insurance approvals. Many hospitals lost access to the digital patient records during this time. This demonstrates that each software, system, and access point on a network needs to have security risk assessed.

Where is the commissioning segment started and then finished? Is a third-party vendor usually qualified and outside the subcontractors control?

Jason Newhuis: Commissioning for new construction starts during early design phase and should begin with helping the owner define the owner’s project requirements. After that the design team would prepare a basis of design document that will demonstrate how the design path will meet the owner’s goals. Then the design phase progresses with schematic design development. The commissioning should be engaged through the warranty period of the project at minimum and in best practice include an ongoing monitoring based commissioning (MBCx) process that stays with the project for the life cycle to help optimize the facility over time and provide ongoing cost avoidance from utility consumption increases as the building becomes untuned.

Generally, the commissioning agent is retained directly by the owner. In some cases, this could be through the program manager or developer. In any case, the commissioning agent acts as an advocate for the owner not the contractor and must remain in a third party function on how commissioning is delivered.

How do we deal with replacement of equipment with short life span after the lifetime? The integration will be a major challenge.

Jason Newhuis: Developing a schedule of expected replacement and cost for the different equipment and devices should be focused on. The manufacturer may have expected life guidance. In lieu of that, BOMA has published a Preventive Maintenance Guidebook that lists industry average useful life of certain equipment. The second piece is making sure preventative maintenance and routine inspection, testing and calibration occurs regularly. Once lifetime has exceeded the intention should be to replace the equipment.

Who do you see as the solution providers that deploy and deliver the integrated operational technology (OT) network approach you spoke to on slide 19?

Will Maxwell: I do not think there is anything stopping existing structured cabling vendors from delivering the wired infrastructure, it just requires more coordination with the designers and building systems vendors to identify endpoints. As far as coordinating the OT network, this is where we are seeing master systems integrators (MSIs) step in to work with all the different controls vendors. There are many types of MSIs, some selling controls themselves, some selling managed services once the building is open, and others that are independent and just focus on coordinating integration. Determining the best fit on specific projects will come down to the use cases, complexity of the integrations, and sophistication of the owner.

Any suggestions for best practices in coordinating multiple vendor’s training sessions for owner’s personnel as part of the commissioning and hand-off (be effective without overwhelming the customer)?

Jason Newhuis: Coordinating multiple vendor training sessions should be part of the design process. Classically design specifications have just noted to provide training. However, the commissioning agent, and design engineers should work with the owner to define a training program and have that incorporated into the contract documents. Identifying the number of sessions, order of training, repeat for different shift work, and guidance on schedule should be through.

I recommend not thinking about training as an event at the end of the project but a process where knowledge transfer occurs throughout the entire project. When possible, the operations and maintenance team should be incorporated early, have them review the design and provide input from their experiences. During construction have them walk the site with the commissioning agent so they see how the building systems as put together before the walls and ceilings are put in.

Probably one of the most key aspects is to have them participate with the commissioning functional testing process. They will see the system go through different operating modes, transitions, safeties and failures and gain a great understanding of the intent and limitations. Then the vendor training would occur after this, when they already understand what is there and can be guided to a deeper syllabus rather than introductory training. Finally, engagement through the MBCx process provides reinforcement of training throughout the life of the facility.

What is RTLS?

Will Maxwell: Real time location services. It is often used in health care settings to track equipment and sometimes people. Some can run using just Wi-Fi infrastructure, but accuracy is limited. Others use beacons to locate objects to within a few inches, but this requires a dedicated infrastructure. For the application I discussed in the presentation, the beacons were installed into standard 2×4 light fixtures, giving a very high degree of accuracy throughout the facility.

What platform is the digital twin based on?

Jason Newhuis: There are many different digital twin platforms. Some are proprietary built by the provider; others are commercialized such as Autodesk Tandem or other BIM software. The second part is the analytics engine that are tied into those BIM models. The analytics engines are also either built by the provider or commercially available.

What are you seeing with fire controls and safety within smart buildings in the future?

Will Maxwell: Fire alarm controls can be a touchy subject due to all the related codes and oversight from local fire marshals. Most applications currently for smart life safety live on top of or besides an independent fire alarm system and include things like digital signage automatically updating in emergencies and push notifications to people in the building.

Cybersecurity issues arise when smart buildings are connected to the cloud, or through the internet. Courtesy: Consulting-Specifying Engineer

Cybersecurity issues arise when smart buildings are connected to the cloud, or through the internet. Courtesy: Consulting-Specifying Engineer

I think as we see people counting sensors become more common in the future, it will be a big help to first responders to have a way to quickly share that information so they know exactly where to look for people in the building. I also think we will continue to see advancements in enhanced wayfinding using digital signage and lighting. One thing I expect to remain the same is that authorities having jurisdiction will continue to require the base life safety system to run independently of any OT or IT network.

What criteria do you use to decide on local/on-premise software versus cloud hosted software?

Will Maxwell: This is mostly an owner-driven decision, but there are a few factors to consider. For applications that require extremely low latency (think lighting controls), you want to make sure commands do not have to go through a cloud server to get to the fixture. Another concern could be the country in which the servers are located from a cybersecurity perspective. Most often, the decision will come down to whether the owner has the resources, both in server equipment and staff, to run an application on-prem and whether it is worth the cost. If the client still owns their own data, there is usually not going to be an issue going cloud-based for noncritical software applications.