The term “smart building” is often tossed around with plenty of enthusiasm by stakeholders hoping to meet or exceed their project objectives, which can include community engagement, financial, energy, and sustainability targets. But realizing a successful smart building needs more than good intent and financial backing. It requires a plan—preferably drawn up early in the project’s early stages—and team members knowledgeable on the building trades, systems, and components that must work together from a high level down to the exact wording that must be documented in that thick binder of specifications. A smart building exemplifies integration in all aspects.
Matt White has seen the good, the bad, and the incompatible in smart buildings. The New Milford, Conn.–based vice president of building solutions at Buildings IOT, headquartered in Concord, Calif., is a Master Systems Integrator (MSI) who sees intelligent, high-performance, and futureproof projects as the path for owners with high expectations.
SBT: What do you consider a smart building today, and what could it be in the future?
White: A smart building enables its disparate operational technology systems to not only communicate together, but also deliver that data to deliver meaningful use cases to the owner. This would impact their engineering and operations teams, as well as their real estate, finance, planning, and sustainability teams. A smart building delivers and provides value to the stakeholders who are going to live inside this building, use it, operate it, and make decisions regarding it.
With machine learning and artificial intelligence added in, those systems should help give recommendations and analyze that data so the owners don’t have to become experts on everything in the building.
We continue to see the convergence of groups [in the building ecosystem], from design and construction to IT, cybersecurity, and SaaS platforms. Eventually, we will be able to integrate a comprehensive BIM model with an operational data digital twin, so that the benefits converge from the construction side to the operational side.
Where does a master systems integrator fit in the building life cycle?
First, I want to distinguish a master systems integrator (MSI) from a systems integrator. A systems integrator tends to be a local contractor who focuses on one building, perhaps bringing together the HVAC and lighting systems. An MSI starts on a project with the MEP and design team—typically the earlier, the better—to bring the overall intent of the smart building to reality in collaboration with—or acting as—the smart building consultant. The role starts primarily as educational. Then in peer reviews, we explain how all the systems are going to tie together in a safe and secure way. We work with the owners, IT teams, and security teams to make sure we meet their needs and standards, and then help convey that in design and construction documents to ensure they get the right vendors putting in the right things.
We review the related specification documents and even help create a deep-level Division 25 [the Integrated Automation section in the CSI MasterFormat specifications standard] that eliminates scope gaps and overlap, and details to vendors how the system is going to perform. In doing so, we prevent vendors from creating their own one-off, shadow networks and from selecting a system based on what service contract they think they’re going to get. We dictate who’s going to own the network; how you’re going to engage on it; the types of devices you can use; and how they need to communicate.
And then we work with the procurement team as they go to bid. We vet vendors, do bid leveling, and interview contractors. We show examples of the things they’ll need to provide, or they may even send devices to us for testing. Then we provide a risk assessment to the owner.
By the time we get to construction, the vendors have a good idea of what they need to do and where they’re doing it. Throughout construction, we’ll police the spec and design, and document what’s being done and any exceptions that were provided. Toward the end, we bring all the data into whatever will be the integrated platform.
What is the difference between a smart building consultant and an MSI?
A smart building consultant is usually not diving into the weeds of the design to say, “OK, this is what it looks like on the network, this is how all these devices will interconnect and communicate, and this is where the data will live.” They are more likely helping the owner understand what use cases specifically apply to their building operation and their sustainability goals, and what this project needs to look like in order to meet these goals.
The MSI can then step in and say, “Here’s what’s available on the market, here’s what you need to go to bid, and here’s what has to be custom created.” They get into the technical details of how you make that vision work. How do you put it on paper? They can also help work through future goals on a road map: How do we add this to an integrated platform and continue to advance analytics as it relates to the sustainability goals?
Who typically hires the MSI?
They might get hired by an owner to work in an ongoing relationship that will often start on a large-scale project, which will then feed up into developing an overall portfolio approach and standard for future projects. They might get hired into the design team right up front by the owner or general contractor. They might then get a separate contract when it comes time to execute the platform, which will usually be a hiring of the general contractor because they have to coordinate with—and have a high form of oversight over—all the trades that are putting devices onto that smart building network infrastructure.
How can an MSI help with retrofit projects?
Oftentimes, the long-term goal—such as carbon neutrality or a sustainability target by a certain date—can be overwhelming, especially if you’re looking at a portfolio or a building wherein you have all these legacy systems and who knows what kind of networks. Then the approach is to start with low-hanging fruit. An MSI will help consult on where it makes sense for building upgrades. They can help identify local incentives to help fund projects, or how they can ride on the back of tenant improvements and upgrades as those are made. They then create a custom road map for each building and each system that says this is where we are now, and this is how we get to where we want to be in X years. And here are the different ways we can pay for it out of different programs, revenue streams, or capital expenditures.
Many owners try to take this on themselves and say, “We’re just going to start upgrading the building management system.” And while the BMS might be new and work well on the network, they still have the same problem: The data is not going anywhere else or being used for anything. Then the ROI is never realized, and now nobody wants to do any other projects.
What are common client concerns?
What they do with the data is a concern. A smart building consultant’s job is to present all the options, but that doesn’t mean they have an ROI. Sometimes they want to integrate everything because it can be integrated. But what are you going to do with the data? What is the actual value to your company?
Security is another concern, which is why we have an in-house lab to provide testing and give certainty to what it looks like to operate in your building before it even turns on.
The other concern is relationships with vendors. Will what you end up with, when the building is handed over, meet your design and intent? Historically with building systems, contractors might technically meet a specification requirement, but that doesn’t mean it will provide the functionality. For example, you might say your system has to be BACnet. Well, yes, it can talk BACnet, but that’s not actually what the contractor is going to do, but the system is capable of it, right? Or we’re not going to allow you to have access outside of the system to that BACnet, to that data.
Then the owner is terrified they’re going to get stuck with a never-ending service contract or vendor for the building’s existence until they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to rip and replace it later on.
What is considered a futureproof platform?
Futureproof means that nothing in the system is restricting the owner from doing anything they want to do—and that they can do it without major cost or renovation. For example, the IT infrastructure can be updated or improved without an impact on the systems that are running in the building. [The smart-building platform] keeps the building systems secure. It doesn’t care what the manufacturer, sensor type, or device is—all it wants is the data. The owner could switch to another best-in-breed provider down the road. The platform is not going to care.
Instead of trying to stuff a building into the box of an existing product, you have a [platform] architecture that can support any type of building. You can say what out of the architecture do we need for this building? It’s adaptable, it’s not dependent on any specific technology, cloud service, or analytic rule. All of it can evolve as the building changes and fluctuates.
Are smart building deployments more prevalent in any particular building typology or market segment?
We’re seeing them across the board in increasing numbers. Individuals looking at their carbon footprint and trying to understand how they’re going to meet local regulations or their sustainability goals are realizing, “We don’t actually have this data, and we have no way of getting this data out of our systems.” Then they want to know why and start realizing they have these little standalone systems all over the place—and some local contractor has complete control and access to them.
Or the systems are out of date and have never been maintained. Perhaps they’ve done a cyber-risk assessment on their networks and buildings, and they realized they have a huge risk potential because of how their systems were installed, or that their devices are open and vulnerable to threats and attacks.
You have others who have a Class A high-rise, mixed use, and they’re trying to [understand tenant flow, or address] return to work. Now with the pandemic, knowing the indoor air quality and building occupancy and use are important.
The investment for many of these things is substantial, so since you’re spending all this money on these individual efforts, why not leverage the opportunity to get the most value? Why don’t we tie those sensors into sequencing and analytics, look at efficiencies and optimizations to make effective change within the building, and help you make decisions on capital projects?
Our favorite kind of client is one who is intent on wanting a smart building from the get-go. They understand what it is and what it means for their portfolio. They know that it attracts good tenants and occupants. It increases the resale value of the building. It makes a great investment. And it makes you a good human on Earth.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Read the first conversation in this series, featuring Perkins&Will architect and director of innovation Yehia Madkour.