photo illustration by Clifton Stanley Lemon
Goldilocks Phone
Goldilocks Phone
Goldilocks Phone
Goldilocks Phone
Goldilocks Phone

From shiny objects to ROI: A primer on the evolution of building system integration

June 14, 2022
LightSPEC director Clifton Stanley Lemon reviews the prospects and outstanding problems of integrating smart building controls. But industry experts generally agree intelligent environments are the way of the future.

Your company has built fancy new offices intended to foster health and wellness, productivity, social interaction, a sense of purpose, equity, and energy efficiency. But the first time you visit the dashboard interface to make your workspace more comfortable, you can’t figure out how to use it. Cue the sad trombone. You wish for one big Goldilocks button labeled “Just Right” that lets you return to work instead of worrying about controlling your environment.

Occupants are demanding more healthy and comfortable workspaces, especially post-COVID. According to global real estate services company JLL, healthy buildings consistently show higher asset value. Smart buildings, enabled by integrated control systems, play a crucial role in the emerging smart grid and positive climate action. But controls are becoming increasingly complex and interconnected, and users want to feel more, not less, in control of their environments. Making better, simpler user interfaces is the tip of the iceberg. The real challenges lie in integrating building control systems within a timeframe consistent with capital investment requirements, as well as in making them serviceable by a workforce that remains largely undeveloped. These are less technical and more economical, behavioral, and cultural challenges.

From integrated to unified

At its most basic definition, an integrated control system is one in which lighting and HVAC systems share signals, data, and control interfaces. The ability to connect these two systems by, say, sharing an occupancy signal in the lighting with the HVAC control system is not new: Engineers have been doing it for decades. What’s different now is the level of interconnection, amount, and granularity of data shared between systems, and system topologies. Instead of simply connecting—or integrating—two or more disparate systems, building operating systems—also known as middleware—are evolving to unify and standardize communication between building equipment and accessible, actionable applications.

Managing risk in system or platform selection

For building design teams, equipment manufacturers, and owners and operators, risk management is key when choosing building control systems. Serious reality checks need to happen when the term “future-proofing” appears in marketing claims. We need to work on “present-proofing” first! Building controls have long been challenging to implement, and integration won’t happen if it exacerbates the situation.

Still, control-systems purchase decisions for owners and operators are becoming easier, from a standpoint of futureproofing. Kenneth Seeton manages energy a 1.5 million-square-foot portfolio at the California State University, Dominguez Hills campus. “There are enough control system choices now that if you do not put in one that can talk to your building automation system, then you're shooting yourself in the foot,” he says. “You're wasting your money because you will be doing it later down the road. We cannot run buildings efficiently if we don't have some form of advanced, occupancy-based controls in our buildings.”

Behavioral factors

A clear delegation of responsibilities remains largely absent in the smart building space. “Misaligned or overlapping contracting responsibilities present major hurdles to integrated controls,” says Joseph Dung, director of total solutions at the northern California lighting agency sixteen5hundred. “Also challenging are prevalent behaviors like designers overspecifying systems in anticipation of losing features and capabilities to value-engineering or unforeseen conditions during construction; and protective overpricing on the part of contractors unfamiliar with the technical requirements of integration.”

One way to avoid scope conflicts with contractors is to build responsibility matrices. But matrices alone are not always enough, says Lyn Gomes, a senior commissioning and MEP coordinator based in the Redwood City, Calif., office of DPR Construction. “They are a good start, but often allow the design team to chuck them over the fence,” she says. “What’s most impactful is working out the details with all parties in dedicated work sessions, which is time- and budget-intensive, so project owners need to be open to including this in scope.”

Post-occupancy evaluation of building systems is a widely underutilized process, says Boulder, Colo.–based WSP senior director Jay Wratten: “It’s one thing to put in a post-occ evaluation platform that can gather and present data to users. It’s an entirely different thing for our clients to hire, train, and maintain resources to take action on the insights that a platform’s analytics engine creates.”

Clanton & Associates CEO Nancy Clanton wants to change this. Her company, also based in Boulder, is engaged in extensive post-occupancy studies for the U.S. General Services Administration and conducts detailed studies of dozens of sites annually, as late as two years after occupancy. She says, “Post-occupancy evaluations need to be built into the scope for all design teams so they can be actively engaged in comparing the owners’ original project requirements to actual outcomes.” 

Integrated controls benefits

Among the benefits of smart building systems, energy efficiency is often the first to come to mind. With the emergence of renewables, advanced storage, and smart grids, energy availability and resilience are becoming vital. In a May 2021 article for LEDs Magazine (a partner Endeavor Business Media brand), I argued that real smart buildings are grid-connected—they use, generate, and store data and energy bidirectionally (between the grid and the building). Systems control integration, being at the root of smart buildings, plays an outsized role in sustainability in the built environment.

Integrated controls can enable better operational decisions for facility managers. Systems that collect and analyze data on room use frequency and duration, performance, asset tracking, and access control can provide insights into facility and equipment utilization, energy use, and capital expenditure.

Integrated controls also enable predictive maintenance. By gathering and analyzing sensor data, facilities managers can accurately estimate when and for how long system components are in use, monitor behavior, and proactively prepare for when replacement parts are required.

Post-pandemic, the evolution of smart buildings enabled by integrated controls plays a larger role in the changing nature of work and the repurposing of offices. In its 2022 report “Navigating the New Economics of Place,” global creative consultancy Streetsense describes the “need for substantive investments in the technological infrastructure necessary to support all that the future holds in store—from employees working remotely, to new forms of transportation, to businesses that require connectivity to support [their] online presence.”

From use cases to case studies

Long-standing challenges to system integration linger, but solutions are emerging organically, driven by market demand, hands-on innovation, new business models, and approaches that may not yet be best practices, but are better practices.

“[C]ontrols integration has gotten significantly more attention across the broad spectrum of projects that we do, and we’re very much in a transitional mode,” WSP’s Wratten says. “Our clients have been saturated with presentations of tech-enabled shiny objects they can put into their assets. While many of them are now recognizing that these are only, in fact, shiny objects, this has created strong market awareness and an expectation that the data these systems create is valuable.”

System integration trends to watch

In discussions about the future of controls integration, experts in the HVAC and lighting industries have shared several consistent observations. First, schedule-based controls, which have been common in HVAC systems, are giving way to occupancy-based controls, which have been common in lighting. Energy is wasted when people in buildings don’t behave according to schedule, which is fairly often. Occupancy-based controls are inherently evidence-based and can reveal whether a space is in use, as well as count people and track movement patterns. This data can then inform predictive controls intelligence.

Second, wireless topologies are rapidly gaining ground for many reasons, starting with material- and labor-cost reductions in installation. They can also reduce commissioning time, streamline software and firmware upgrades, and ease system reconfigurations to adapt to changing space uses. With wireless systems, building users and operators will have access to more options for system data and control, from desktops to mobile devices.

Third, smart integrated control systems enable self-reporting and internal diagnostics, which can measure not only energy use, but also other equipment performance criteria, such as useful life, wear and tear, and interactive effects on other systems.

New service models are emerging as the building design and engineering disciplines find themselves reaching the limits of their expertise, in areas like IT. Manufacturer representative agencies are developing in-house controls integration project management teams. And full-service firms are emerging that offer everything from master systems integration and contracting to system support, preventative maintenance, and energy management.

Building owners are driving the demand for integrated systems. Often an owner request for integration comes through instituting a lighting design for new construction or retrofit. According to sixteen5hundred’s Dung, “Facilities like campuses, Fortune 500 company buildings, and hospitals—spaces where facilities and operations teams manage multiple systems within the building—need to bring everything together under one platform, or at least under one system that they can manage and maintain.”

Small building projects and even retrofits are leap-frogging integrated system applications. Until recently, only clients with multiple properties or technically complex buildings could afford integrated systems. “We're now putting Bluetooth technology and smart sensors into a 30,000-square-foot library renovation in Eau Claire, Wisconsin,“ says Brennan Schumacher, a Denver-based associate principal at national MEP design firm Mazzetti.

Innovation from outsiders

Integrating building systems is “not technically difficult,” says Kandice Cohen, the Atlanta-based director of electrification of heat at Trane. “Because we’re controlling the HVAC, we just need to plug in data from the lighting ... to do a useful merge. In the long term, technology from outside the building industry will introduce something completely different that will dramatically change the way we do it now, instead of taking a bunch of broken toys and trying to figure out how to make them work together.”

Historically, innovation often comes  from unexpected places, says Louis Lerman, CEO of Las Vegas–based QuarkStar, a winner of this year’s DOE’s L-Prize Phase 1. “Discoveries made in one area can end up being used in completely different and unexpected applications,” he notes. “The aeronautics industry, for instance, solved fully unified, highly fault-tolerant controls systems long ago as a matter of necessity. Aircraft are basically flying buildings in a way, so we might look for useful strategies there. In our L-Prize submittal, as part of our whole-system approach, we developed our own innovations on open-source building integrated control systems for lighting that are easily integrated with HVAC and other systems.”

Making buildings “just right”

The use of artificial intelligence in running buildings today or in the future has become a popular notion. The underlying assumption is that controls have become far too complex for a typical human to use, so we should automate them. Are we slipping from human-centric systems to human-free systems?

Machine learning and AI can solve many problems, but we have yet to understand the optimal balance between automation and hands-on user control of building systems. I still prefer to manually open a window for fresh air or turn up the desk lamp for more light. If forced to use a fancy new mobile app, I simply want to hit a Goldilocks button.

Though integrating control systems is and will remain challenging for the near future, it will ultimately make buildings more robust, effective, and easier to use.

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About the Author

Clifton Stanley Lemon

In addition to his roles as conference program director for LightSPEC West and LightSPEC Midwest events, Clifton Stanley Lemon is a contributor to LEDs Magazine and CEO of Clifton Lemon Associates, a consultancy providing strategy, marketing, and education services to the lighting and energy industries. He was formerly business development director for the California Energy Alliance; marketing communications manager for Soraa; director of business development at Integral Group; and founder and CEO of BrandSequence. An active writer and speaker and a past president of the Illuminating Engineering Society, San Francisco section, Clifton has extensive experience in curriculum development for professional training in lighting and energy efficiency. Along with Randall Whitehead, Clifton is the co-author of Beautiful Light: An Insider’s Guide to LED Lighting in Homes and Gardens (Taylor and Francis, 2021).

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