QSE Logo

LetsTalk2015@QSEng.com
612.308.4716

Can we be Intelligent?

I was inspired by the Engineered Systems November, 2005 special section about Intelligent Buildings. The efficiencies and performance available through integrating building systems of all types is very enticing and exciting. Systems such as HVAC, security, lighting, life safety, employee time tracking, paging, white noise, etc., to say nothing of building-specific systems such as process utilities and medical communications, can share data and make decisions based on the information available from all systems.

However, the design and construction industry struggles with delivering standard, uncomplicated buildings that function properly. The industry has a very poor track record in delivering facilities with today’s version of complex systems, e.g., integrated HVAC and lighting controls, HVAC and life safety controls, etc. How do we think we can design, construct, start up, and train future operators on buildings that go to the next level and beyond?

Building systems commissioning exists in part because traditional project delivery processes don’t address the critical need for communication and coordination between divisions of the traditional CSI specification. Lip service is paid to the legal fact that the general contractor is ultimately responsible for delivering a building that works and meets the contract document requirements. However, the day of the master builder is far behind us, and most (but not all) general contractors simply rely on their subcontractors to do their individual jobs without the general contractor having a strong technical understanding of or appreciation for the requirements on those subcontractors. There is still the expectation that everyone can work in their own “silos” or “chimneys,” and when everyone’s individual work is complete the systems will automatically communicate with each other and function properly.

That may be possible, if not entirely desirable as a process. However, in order to achieve that outcome the construction documents prepared by the design team would need to be far more detailed and prescriptive than any building design I’ve ever seen. Individual system design – whether it is HVAC controls, lighting controls, nurse call, security, etc. - is not currently being performed by many design professionals. Instead the designers either overtly or covertly allow the individual system vendors to design-build their systems with a cursory review of shop drawings in the construction phase. In the best of these cases, the design professional provides a performance specification that the vendors need to meet. In the worst of these cases, the designer includes boiler plate system design and control sequence details in the bid specifications that have little or no bearing on the specific systems and design intent of the project.

In both the designing and contracting sides of the business, we have lost or suppressed the skill sets necessary to design and construct a sophisticated building with integrated systems. This hasn’t happened overnight but is, in my opinion, an outcome of the design/low-bid/build project approach combined with a design engineering market which has become more commodity than professional service. In the competitive design world, architects are shopping for low cost engineering firms and driving everyone to cut costs and services if they want to survive in that market. Much of this is the result of owners with very high expectations and low budgets being told by hungry and ambitious design teams that they can have it all.

So, before we can think about successfully delivering the next generation of intelligent buildings, we need to learn how to deliver the basics of integrated systems. Using an educational analogy, we wouldn’t ask 1st Graders to perform Calculus, because there are so many steps in mathematical development that lead up to the ability to solve Calculus problems. How can we ask today’s design and construction industry to deliver truly integrated building systems without learning and implementing new processes and procedures?

Commissioning is critical to the successful delivery of smart buildings for all the same reasons commissioning is important to any complex building project. As building complexity increases, the value of commissioning to everyone on the project increases – at least linearly, if not exponentially. However, even commissioning will be stymied without the designers and contractors learning new skills or dusting off dormant ones – and being paid to do so.

In the industrial world, the role of “system integrator” is commonplace. This is because a process line is typically made up of equipment and systems provided by multiple vendors that need to communicate with each other in unique ways. Manufacturers understand they won’t produce a thing if they can’t get all the parts and pieces talking and working together.

Buildings are becoming just as complicated. Without an experienced integrator on the project team from the beginning of design, we are destined to spend a lot of money for non-intelligent (is that the same as stupid?) buildings full of very sophisticated and expensive equipment. At least in the short term building systems integrators are likely to be specialty consultants to a design or design/build team. I envision these integrators and commissioning professionals being key project team members if we are to realize the dream of truly intelligent facilities.

 

COMMISSIONING: GETTING IT RIGHT

Engineered Systems, January, 2006

by
Rebecca Ellis, PE, LEED AP, CCP, CxA
President
Questions & Solutions Engineering
1079 Falls Curve
Chaska, MN  55318
rteesmag@QSEng.com