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Aligning Smart Building Implementation with Performance Expectations 

By Drew Deatherage, ESS/RTPM

The smart building market continues to grow, with expectations that it will be a $304.3 billion market by 2032, reports Market.US. Yet once in operation, many building owners find these investments don’t live up to their promise. Instead, smart building sensors become one more burden to maintain. This difference between expectation and a positive ROI often lies in the implementation of smart building technology. 

A smart building isn’t the result of installing more sensors and adding more intelligent systems. It’s the result of a strategy that begins with understanding the desired user experiences, is followed by choosing the right technology to deliver those experiences, and ends with delivering that experience through a platform that integrates building systems. With the right systems and appropriate integration, systems are ultimately easier for owners to use and maintain. The right systems integrated with the right software can aggregate data that helps building owners make more informed decisions. Engineers can help achieve this level of system interoperability by bringing technology infrastructure earlier into design conversations.

Define system integration based on end-user experience 

MEP systems are often at the center of smart building performance, which makes it critical that engineers be involved in early discussions on integration. However, these discussions should focus less on specific systems and more on the experience the building owner wants to create for building occupants. This big picture perspective can help identify the appropriate technologies to install, and the level of integration required to achieve the targeted end-user experience. 

The SPIRE Smart Buildings Program by UL, an independent assessment and rating program for smart buildings, identifies six key building experiences enhanced by smart systems:

Power and energy: In addition to tracking and analyzing energy use, integrated systems support grid interoperability and help manage distributed energy resources.

Health and wellbeing: These systems manage indoor air quality and thermal comfort, control light and noise, ensure potable water, and reduce odors. 

Life safety and property security: Integrated systems can enhance situational awareness and emergency communications. 

Connectivity: In addition to ensuring accessibility, integrated systems can bolster security, extend coverage, and operate more resiliently.

Cybersecurity: Integrated systems can more proactively identify threats and protect, detect, respond, and speed recovery. Good cybersecurity hygiene is a must for hyper connected buildings.

Sustainability: This goal becomes much easier to achieve with systems that ensure metrics established by leading global sustainability programs are being met.

Improvements in any one of these areas can lower a building’s operating costs, among other benefits. However, performance can degrade over time. This is particularly true of complex systems that may require ongoing monitoring or add to maintenance demands. This performance drop can be prevented with a more holistic approach to smart building design. 

When design teams plan systems based on use cases for each type of building user, they can reduce the potential for system and infrastructure duplication. This can actually reduce complexity and cost and  makes it easier to maintain system performance over the life of the building. However, the deeper the integration required, the more complex this work becomes. It is here where smart building goals tend to lose momentum.

A smarter strategy for achieving smart buildings

When great technology is poorly installed and maintained, it contributes to the perception that there’s a problem with the technology itself. An experienced smart building design partner can help overcome this perception and ensure owner-defined benefits are achieved. These experts can help identify opportunities to maximize system value. They can also work with the design team to create the technical documentation required to define how these systems must connect. 

In an ideal situation, project partners would hire a smart building design specialist known as a Master Service Provider (MSP) to write Division 25 documentation, which clearly specifies the level of integration required between every piece of smart hardware and software to be installed in a facility. This documentation would include details on systems from life safety to lighting control, irrigation control, building automation, audio-visual systems, and security systems, as well as details on low voltage network cabling. This document would also explain how these systems interact with one another. 

The next critical step is to encourage owners to move away from a traditional design-bid-build approach. The integration of smart building systems and installation of low voltage systems requires specialized skill. Because smart buildings use materials that may be different from what contractors are familiar with, it can be beneficial to require early involvement from qualified systems integrators and electrical contractors. This can secure more appropriate bids that ensure owner investments are going where they can provide the most amount of value. 

An MSP can work with a general contractor to find and vet a Master Service Integrator (MSI) with the skill sets needed to achieve your defined level of integration. A certified MSI with experience installing low voltage networks can ensure you deliver the high-end integrated experience owners expect.

In addition, these complex system designs may require advanced coordination with code officials. For example, electrical designers may need to coordinate with code officials before designing to switch to low-voltage DC power. 

Obstacles to smarter buildings 

System duplication, increased costs, and poor performance are typical results when upfront integration is omitted. This was the result for a Texas utility that made the decision to invest in a low voltage lighting system. The owner’s goal was to reduce its energy usage and gain the ability to connect lighting to building systems such as window shade controls, among others. During this journey, it encountered a great deal of frustration as the contractors hired for the project lacked experience with smart lighting systems and how to navigate the complexities of integrating lighting with other building systems.

Low voltage Power over Ethernet (PoE) lighting systems are gaining traction but, as this utility learned, still remain somewhat misunderstood. These systems reduce energy usage by eliminating the power loss that occurs at every LED lighting fixture where AC power is converted back to DC.  The systems also extend the life of LED fixtures. When done well, low voltage systems also lower initial construction costs by shifting lighting to a PoE system that uses Category 6 cable, rather than more expensive line voltage electrical wiring. 

Shifting lighting systems to low voltage networks opens the possibility to use the lighting system as a hub for a Building Internet of Things (BIoT) network because PoE cabling can work double duty as a data connection system. This can provide powerful, cost-effective opportunities to integrate a wide range of systems. However, in this particular case, some of the infrastructure needed to support traditional line voltage lighting solutions remained in place, inflating the overall cost of the project. 

Problems mounted during the installation phase. Following the traditional design-bid-build process, the approved smart lighting network design moved to the general contractor, who hired an electrical contractor without experience installing low voltage systems. Because a year and a half had passed between design and installation, technology had changed. The outdated equipment installed by the electrical contractor led to months of connectivity issues, until the hardware could be replaced and the system reprogrammed.  

Stronger advanced coordination between the architect, engineer, and smart building network designer might have prevented these issues. An integrated design-build team could have the conversations early about the need to use a qualified and experienced smart lighting network installer. Without an integrated team, the smart building integrations were bound to fail. 

A smarter strategy for achieving smart buildings

It’s tempting to believe that more systems lead to smarter buildings. The truth is that an overabundance of complex systems can have the opposite effect. Without effective system integration, more systems can overwhelm building owners and managers. A truly smart building uses less infrastructure to connect more critical building systems together in a single view of system operation. 

While these integrated systems may shift portions of the electrical design that engineers are used to overseeing, it’s a shift that allows all parties to increase the value they provide to clients. Stronger integration helps all systems perform better.


Drew has spent more than 25 years innovating in the telecommunications and security industries. He works tirelessly for clients, identifying and tapping into emerging trends to design solutions that solve critical challenges. His experience with network infrastructure, physical and electronic security, and specialized low-voltage systems enables him to expertly advise on risk mitigation, lifecycle management, and master planning.