Past, Present, & Future: Building Controls

June 28, 2006
Maximizing building performance through building controls: A perspective of past, present, and future.

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 ([email protected]) is editorial director at Buildings magazine.

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