Engineering flexible office buildings: automation and controls/codes and standards

Office buildings need to have the ability to accommodate myriad types of businesses and activities to meet the needs of tenants. Here, engineers with experience on such buildings share their knowledge, lessons learned over the years, and trends for automation and controls and codes and standards.



Cory J. Abramowicz, PE, HBDP, LEED AP, Associate, ESD (Environmental Systems Design), Chicago.

Matt Chandler, PE, LEED AP BD+C, BEAP, Senior Engineer, KJWW Engineering Consultants, St. Louis.

Andrew B. Horning, MS, LEED AP BD+C, Associate & Project Manager, Bala Consulting Engineers Inc., King of Prussia, Pa.

Julianne Laue, PE, LEED AP, BEAP, BEMP, Senior Energy Engineer, Mortenson Construction, Minneapolis.

Matthew Pastore, CxA, Director of Design-Build Services, GHT Ltd., Arlington, Va.

John Yoon, PE, LEED AP, Lead Electrical Engineer, McGuire Engineers Inc., Chicago.

Mike Walters, PE, LEED AP, Campus Energy Market Leader, MEP Associates LLC, St. Paul, Minn. 


Work at Kohl’s Innovation Center in Menomonee Falls, Wis., transformed an existing 300,000-sq-ft manufacturing building into a new corporate office space for more than 1,650 employees. The building’s open concept features modular cube-type workstations, cCSE: When working on monitoring and control systems in such facilities, what factors do you consider?

Matthew Pastore: From working within the Washington, D.C., commercial office-building market, our engineers have found that the level of openness and interoperability of monitoring and control systems is critical to our clients. It is of paramount importance that the building is easy to operate, maintain, and service, as properties frequently change hands in our region. Affordability is always a critical factor, as well. When evaluating any monitoring and control system, we first determine its level of openness and, second, its ability to interoperate with other building systems in a secure and nonproprietary open-platform environment. Through clever interpretation and adoption of ASHRAE Standard 135: BACnet-A Data Communication Protocol for Building Automation and Control Networks, manufacturers have created new structural and product-distribution mechanisms that frequently restrict competition and free market access to maintenance needs, particularly for the building's end users. Simply specifying products with BACnet protocol functionality doesn't resolve the installation of proprietary systems. As the world continues to adopt an Internet of Things (IoT) approach where all systems collect and exchange data, the need for engineers to specify and design truly secure, open-platform control systems cannot be emphasized enough. By designing with principled and disciplined guidance, engineers will collectively be able to specify systems that promote competition and free market access for all monitoring and control systems.

Laue: Owner preference is the most important aspect in designing, specifying, and integrating a control system. It is key that the MEP designer understands what the owner wants and what their team is capable of doing. Do they have someone in-house that is qualified to run the system you specify? Will they outsource? How do they intend to use it today? How might they want to use it in the future? Having answers to these questions before beginning the design of the monitoring and control system will help to put everyone on a path to success.

Chandler: It's important to consider what system components and features will be useful to the operation of the building as well as those that will be useful for ongoing maintenance and diagnostics. The cost-effectiveness of each enhancement needs to be considered to avoid adding too much complexity without a justifiable purpose. It's also important to analyze the owner's basic goals for the building and develop simplistic and cost-effective solutions to improve on the owner's basic needs. Measurement and verification techniques can be implemented to monitor incoming utility data and system-level utility usage to better understand building energy usage and provide opportunities for trends and improvement.

Yoon: What functionality is needed by the client? The temptation is to overspecify systems, which may potentially give building owners abilities that they don't need or want. Overspecifying systems not only impacts initial installation cost, but more important, increases their overall complexity. Building operations and maintenance staff have to wear many hats and often don't have the time or resources to properly train on or maintain complex systems.

CSE: What types of system integration and/or interoperability issues have you overcome in such projects, and how did you do so?

Yoon: One surprising challenge that we've encountered with system integration is the issue of trade jurisdiction in large metropolitan areas. We have multiple MEP systems with multiple installing contractors-electricians, low-voltage security contractors, mechanical contractors, etc. While the concept of integration/interoperability seems like a great idea, many contractors may feel like they are losing control of the systems that they are installing-or, at the extreme end of the spectrum, they are giving away work that they would normally be "entitled" to. There is a ring of truth to these statements, and we haven't found a good solution to this issue. Any solution must find a way to motivate the contractors to accept this potential exposure. One interesting proposal is a limited application of IPD concepts on the subcontractor level so that the risk and rewards associated with integration can be shared between the various subcontractors.

Chandler: Some projects require integration between multiple controls systems and contractors. These issues are addressed with proactive planning during design while creating the construction documents and by following up with coordination between the design team and the controls contractors to minimize the potential for scope gaps. As an example, fire alarm integration for a joint emergency response center was required for six different fire alarm systems on a recent project. Multiple coordination meetings were held with all stakeholders, and fire alarm vendors and systems were reviewed in detail. The meetings were documented and reviewed prior to each successive meeting to confirm the previous direction was still valid. Changing technologies further complicated the design, but all options were reviewed from a feasibility and cost standpoint.

Pastore: Our company has educated owners during the earliest stages of design to the issues surrounding the selection of proprietary systems. To overcome interoperability issues, we have specified on past projects that the front-end system, or human- machine interface, is an open system to allow increased operability from the various systems that all follow BACnet protocol. Through this education, our clients have developed a greater understanding of the complexities surrounding the current market situation. They appreciate the flexibility to select the best and brightest companies, service providers, and systems that will ultimately achieve their performance goals. This allows us to reach across company and manufacturer lines to select the best option for each building's unique situation.

CSE: What unique tools are the owners of such projects including in their automation and controls systems?

Chandler: Owners are including utility monitoring features to help understand utility usage. The utility data can be used for comparison against energy models created during design and to monitor ongoing building performance.

Pastore: In this region, Tridium systems are preferred by an increasing amount of owners who are seeking an open system and a unique solution to this current market situation. Tridium and other related open-platform controls are able to be installed, serviced, and maintained by many different companies, which is a primary objective of owners seeking cost-effective solutions for their buildings. By designing and specifying systems like Tridium on the front end, secure open-platform controls are able to be openly licensed and freely distributed, removing past obstacles for owners to remain locked into a single service provider or manufacturer.

Yoon: While not necessarily unique, we are receiving an increasing number of requests by large tenants in multitenant buildings to have HVAC automation systems that are independent from the rest of the building. The basic motivation for these tenants is a desire to have more direct control of their environment and to mitigate what they perceive to be "nonresponsiveness"' on the part of the building's operation and maintenance staff. This can be a significant challenge for building operations and maintenance staff in large high-rise buildings with central plants.

CSE: How have you worked with the building owner or facility manager to implement the Internet of Things into their facility management? Have you helped catalog every device in an office building, such as lights, fire alarms, electrical outlets, and other products? How has implementing IoT strategies improved cybersecurity in your experience?

Pastore: Our company has worked with multiple building owners who seek to implement an IoT approach into their facility management strategies. We begin by creating a master controls integration plan (MCIP) that is tailored to serve as a site-specific set of design guidelines and includes accompanying specification language for each set of systems. The MCIP is fleshed out as the building's design develops and systems are selected. Core direct digital control (DDC) system elements are also defined including interoperability, security procedures, network isolation, and security hardness testing. Finally, we use the MCIP to define the physical and local requirements for the IoT layer and its security. Our owners who have implemented the MCIP approach have reported that they enjoy improved cybersecurity, in addition to easy operability and maintenance.

Walters: IoT application has entailed a focus on client education and integration needs with pre-existing control systems. IoT applications that can leverage original building components have been the products that we've seen most readily adopted, such as Enlighted.

Yoon: We've experienced significant resistance in implementing IoT into facility operations in owner-occupied facilities. The root issue is that network security is typically managed by an information technology (IT) department, but IoT devices (including associated network-attached servers) are typically managed by operations and maintenance staff. Many IT departments are reluctant to allow Internet-enabled devices that they don't directly control to be connected to their networks. The primary fear is that every IoT device has a potential hidden backdoor that will allow hackers access to their network. We've gone as far as to specify independent/isolated networks just for IoT devices to address these concerns.

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