Tips to design multifamily and mixed-use buildings: Controls and automation

Multifamily dwellings and mixed-use buildings are becoming more prevalent. Some best practices and tips are offered for engineering building automation systems and controls in these residential buildings.




  • Brian Berg, PE, LEED AP, CEM, Associate Principal, Glumac, Irvine, Calif.
  • David Crutchfield, PE, Principal, RMF Engineering, Charleston, S.C.
  • Kieran Healy, PE, Mechanical Engineer, CCJM, Chicago
  • Lui Tai, PE, Technical Services Director, JENSEN HUGHES, Toronto
  • Robert J. Voth, Executive Vice President, Bala Consulting Engineers, King of Prussia, Pa.

CSE: How have you worked with the building owner or facility manager to implement the Internet of Things (IoT) into their facility management? Have you helped catalog every device in multifamily dwellings and mixed-use buildings, such as lights, fire alarms, electrical outlets, room thermostats, and other products?

Tai: Staying to what we specialize in, virtually all fire alarm systems that we specify or design are intelligent systems, in that programming can be uploaded or downloaded through the internet, protected by passwords. This also helps to catalog every device on the system, allowing the characteristics of each device (i.e., sensitivity, type) to be changed by authorized personnel remotely, if required.

CSE: What are some of the challenges incorporating the IoT into facility design for existing buildings?

Healy: The IoT is, in theory, a great concept. Personally, I've adopted all sorts of gizmos and gadgets that adjust themselves based on whether I'm home or not, or that send me text messages when my laundry is done. In owned properties, the owner has complete control over security and who has access to settings and data. A challenge in incorporating the IoT into multitenant facility design is implementing it in such a way that privacy and security isn't compromised for the tenants. Maintaining firewalls for network security infrastructure and personal privacy within multitenant facilities will be a major roadblock in implementing these technologies on a larger scale.

Tai: For existing facilities, having a fully addressable system would sometimes mean complete replacement of field wiring, as the type and condition of existing wiring is not compatible for addressable circuits. Because the previously embedded conduit and wire cannot be reused, running new wiring throughout the building can be costly and may create unsightly conduits in open spaces.

CSE: When working on monitoring and control systems in multifamily dwellings and mixed-use buildings, what factors do you consider?

Voth: Primarily, central system reliability and performance; we typically do not reach into the occupant level of control. We are seeing a trend to submeter domestic water usage through the control systems. On higher-end work using four pipe fan coil systems, we are using the central control and monitoring system to submeter energy usage for chilled and hot water.The Coastal Carolina University Student Housing project involved 333,100 sq ft of facility, accommodating a total of 1,270 beds in a series of stand-alone buildings. Features specified by RMF Engineering’s team included dedicated outdoor units that provide code-required ventilation air and building make-up air including fan coils with heating and cooling coils, allowing for individual room climate control, wireless and hard-wired internet connectivity, access control and security systems, high-efficiency laundry machines, and more. Courtesy: RMF Engineering

Crutchfield: We always try to keep in mind that the staff charged with the maintenance and control of a facility could be any age and could operate at a variety of skill levels. There could be staff members who are fresh from a trade school where they were trained with an iPad and, therefore, have no desire for paper sets of drawings or operations and maintenance (O&M) manuals. Or, there could be more seasoned staff members who have worked on buildings for their entire careers and have no desire to use any device other than their own personal cell phone and a stack of manuals. Knowing that our systems must be easy to maintain by either type of person, using vastly different methods of troubleshooting, diagnosis, and repair is imperative to having a building that functions properly.

Berg: There’s a lot of submetering involved to charge tenants for the energy they use. On the HVAC side, these larger projects typically all involve some sort of central utility plant, and there’s a need for British thermal unit meters for condenser, chilled, or hot water to charge the tenants appropriately. We’ve worked with special submetering companies to set up a system of monitoring and billing the tenants for the energy they use. We’ve also set up all of the submetering through the building’s direct digital control system that the building owner uses to generate the tenant billing themselves. It all comes down to how the operator would like to handle their billing. So, we’ll make sure we have that conversation with the operator early in the project to identify the desire and design appropriately.

Tai: For retirement and care homes, we must take flexibility into consideration when designing fire alarm systems. For example, smoke-detector sensitivity and fire alarm audibility must be field-adjustable to allow changes to be made based on each tenant’s living habits. As an example, for a tenant who is always baking, the smoke detector installed near the kitchen must be adjusted so that it does not always go into nuisance alarm every time the oven is opened.

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