BUILDINGS - Smarter Facilities Management


Past, Present, & Future: Building Controls

Maximizing building performance through building controls: A perspective of past, present, and future.


AHR Expo Focus on Building Controls
Several educational activities during the 2006 AHR Expo in Chicago addressed building automation.

Mega Trends in Building Automation Center on Information Technology (IT), a session between David J. Branson, senior vice president at Compliance Services Group Inc., and Ken Sinclair, editor/owner at, introduced “virtual value vision” in which virtual was defined as “existing only in software.” Concepts discussed included:

  • Convergence in an IT-centric world will occur with or without us.
  • Our industry information will occur only in accepted formats.
  • Network knitting of open standards amplifies the virtual value model.
  • Web services will arm our virtual value tool kits.

The conclusion the two reached was that “virtual value and our command of it will determine our success for 2006.”

In the Integrating Intelligence session, the two noted that “a major intelligence integrator is XML. Web browsers can now interface with all types of energy and building systems - thanks to XML. XML is designed to store, carry, and exchange data.” The two also pointed out that the industry now has smarter field devices to facilitate the automation process and reduce project costs with little or no effect on functionality.

The two speakers also presented at the Growing Greener Buildings session, in which they told attendees that the building-automation industry must become part of the globally expanding green-building movement. Automation’s capability to provide significant change and its inherent ability to be easily reconfigured to grow and adapt with a building makes it the essential backbone of green-building design.

According to Wikipedia, “building controls” (a.k.a. “building automation”) are a “programmed, computerized, ‘intelligent’ network of electronic devices that monitors and controls the mechanical and lighting systems in a building. The intent is to create an intelligent building and reduce energy and maintenance costs.”

As a part of maximizing building performance, however, the idea of building controls has been around since Buildings magazine’s inception in 1906. The plan to monitor and manage HVAC began with pneumatic controls; then electric and electronic controls (particularly for industrial applications) entered the arena. By the mid-1960s, most facilities professionals were routinely involved in the operation of systems that used both pneumatic and electronic controls.

By the early 1980s, the term “intelligent building” tended to be linked to controls technology as the industry took a huge step forward with direct digital controls (DDC). DDC systems expanded both the energy-management capabilities of building automation exponentially, as well as ensured its more reliable performance. Around that same time, control companies began introducing affordable proprietary control systems that offered end-users exceptional levels of functionality for any facility - large or small.

As new systems became legacy systems, the industry recognized that the nature of such proprietary systems was too restrictive, opening up discussions about creating one standard or operating protocol that would have universal application. In 1987, BACnet was born when the first meeting of the Standard Project Committee 135P within the Atlanta-based American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) took place.

While BACnet was under development and review, LonWorks from Echelon Corp., San Jose, CA, was introduced, and other proprietary protocols remained, the result being a buildings industry that was divided. Most suppliers adopted both major protocols for their systems to address end-users’ concerns and preferences.

In recent years, talk of building controls has turned to systems interoperability and the newest player: oBIX, or the Open Building Information Xchange. This initiative, which came on the scene in 2003 within the XML/Web Services Guideline Committee at Toronto, Ontario-based Continental Automated Buildings Association (CABA), is attempting to define Internet standards (such as the programming language XML and Web services) for communication between building systems and enterprise applications. Presently, OASIS, the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (an international standards development consortium) serves as the governing body for the oBIX protocol.

Earlier this year, at the 2006 AHR Expo in Chicago, CABA conducted its Intelligent & Integrated Buildings Council (IIBC) meeting, which may offer the best perspective of the current state of building controls’ activities:

“In the building automation and control aisles of the 2006 AHR Expo, wireless systems and devices were seen in almost every booth. Wireless control is the direction in which the industry is moving. A couple of decades ago, building automation dominated the show. Then, once building automation became commonplace, the industry interest moved to open systems, including BACnet and LonMark. More recently, the Internet and Web services were the major building automation news at the annual meeting, including a concurrent XML Symposium. Now, wireless is generating all the industry excitement. This trend should continue.”

Linda K. Monroe ( is editorial director at Buildings magazine.



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