thought leadership from the front lines of smart building technology, implementation, and long-term performance
Smart technologies of every sort continue to seep deeper into our lives, putting information, services, comfort, and convenience at our fingertips where ever we are. In today’s smart buildings seemingly, anything and everything can be automated. From individualized thermal comfort to supplemental lighting that responds to ambient daylight and increasingly untethered global connectivity the limits of technology are all being integrated to the point of becoming conventional. In a Round Table conversation, Colorado Construction & Design was delighted to discuss the amazing present and super bright future of Smart Buildings with a group of dedicated professionals committed to smartly engineering, efficiently building, and acutely commissioning technology-infused facilities in Colorado and across the country.
Renée Azerbegi, Ambient Energy
President and founder of Ambient Energy, Renée Azerbegi loves making a positive impact in the commercial building industry and on the environment through personal determination and her firm’s collective depth of experience. Ambient Energy offers a suite of services focused on building and system analysis to optimize new construction projects for operational efficiency and longevity; evaluate and improve the performance of existing buildings; or commission either as a third-party engineer. Utilizing fault-detection diagnostics and monitoring-based commissioning, Ambient Energy strives to ensure buildings operate as efficiently as possible through the whole of their lifecycle.
Co-founder of Control Solutions Inc. Bret Roberts relishes the thrill of making things work, planning and seeing a complex building together from start to finish is both his business and his gratifying reward. Along with partner, Ed Welch, Roberts established Control Solutions, Inc. in 2007 by merging a wealth of experience in building automation service and installation. Gary Bales became a partner in the practice in 2013. Control Solutions Inc. contends for smart system installation projects from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins and works with clients to update and retrofit existing buildings with more advanced systems as buildings age. The firm represents Honeywell Building Automation products such as Tridium/Niagara, Honeywell WEB’s, Spyder Controllers including the new CIPer product family of controllers and I/O Modules.
Ryan Sobeck, Siemens
A Territory Sales Manager at Siemens, Ryan Sobeck began his career in electronics working on M1 Tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles in the Army before getting into building automation systems implementation, design, and products 24 years ago. Today as a representative of Siemen’s Building Technologies, Control Products and Solutions, Ryan’s territory spans from Colorado north through Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and up to Alaska. Siemen’s showcases technology that integrates HVAC, lighting, shades, and plug loads from a single, ethernet-connected, terminal controller. Within the Building Technologies division of this global giant, Siemens is using integrated smart building technologies to optimize space and improve people’s lives.
While integrating systems and technology to enhance the user experience is fundamental to smart building design, bells and whistles alone aren’t enough to make a building smart. What does?
“It starts in design,” says Roberts. “If the design is well thought-out, the rest of the project will follow that path, but if you start with a poor design it’s almost certain the finished building will underperform.” Roberts and his firm Control Solutions Inc. are among those responsible for installing the systems that have been selected and as such often feel the brunt of any bad decision making related to systems chosen in design. The technology of controlled systems has changed significantly, and everyone involved needs to be thinking holistically about smart systems, smart design, and smart installation.
“Having an owner who is driven, experienced, and knows what they want in terms of building performance almost always sets the stage for success,” adds Azerbegi, whose firm, Ambient Energy, can find itself in both pre- and post- construction roles depending on the project. “Smart design isn’t just technology, it’s holistic strategies like envelope modeling and commissioning to determine if the building is well-sealed. If it’s not, the best systems in the world won’t make it a smart building for long.”
Azerbergi points out the need for better documentation on the intended sequence of operations from mechanical and electrical engineers in the design stage to eliminate the possible risks of misinterpretation during installation. Ambient Energy likes to incorporate a series of controls integration meetings both in design and during construction to ensure efficient systems are being implemented and everyone involved is speaking the same language. Roberts is excited to share that common language has arrived.
“ASHRAE’s newest guideline, issued in July 2018 establishes a set of standardized advance sequences of operation for common HVAC systems,” says Roberts with a copy of the new standards proudly at the ready. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers or ASHRAE, has been devoted to the advancement of indoor-environment-control technology since it was formed in 1959. ASHRAE Guideline 36-2018 provides uniform sequences of operation for HVAC systems that are intended to maximize energy efficiency and performance, provide control stability, and allow for real-time fault detection and diagnostics. “I’ve been wanting something like this for a long time,” continues Roberts. “We need more of a common language around buildings systems and this guideline establishes a starting point that will still allow for individual and situational customization.”
The advantages of high-tech digital connectivity, functionality, and comfort have been realized in office environments and homes for some time. Where are we going next?
“Individualized controls and data harvesting are starting to be integrated into smart-phone platforms,” says Sobeck of Seimens, a technological pioneer of electrification, automation, and digitization systems and products. One such system called Comfy Comfy allows users to request heating or cooling changes, via a smartphone app, directly to the building automation system. This data can then be used to tell individuals which spaces in the office best suit their needs at any given time, ideal for free-address offices on the design desks today.
The ability to gather an immense volume of data on a smart building is what allows it to be customized around the user experience. However, analyzing and appropriately reacting to that same abundance of information is central to ensuring a smart building operates effectively day-to-day. The ability to detect, identify, and individually correct faults within a smart building system is an advantage that is easily mitigated if the building’s operation team isn’t actively monitoring and fine-tuning the system. Operators have to wield the building’s technology to save effort, expense, and all three of the Round Table participants agree there is definitely a cost of doing nothing.
“Buildings will drift upwards in energy consumption by some 2- to 3- percent a year if they aren’t actively managed,” says Azerbergi, whose role in commissioning buildings has her firm on the front lines of evaluating long-term operational expectations as the building comes to life. Though commissioning is generally required by code, most owners would probably be surprised to know that typical commissioning processes actually only test a sampling of unitary equipment rather than 100%. Perhaps more importantly, commissioning of a new building does little to account for the building’s performance once commissioning is complete unless the building operator actively monitors and controls it. “Monitoring-based commissioning integrated with fault-detection diagnostics is what we recommend,” continues Azerbergi about the need stay on top of what is happening as users occupy and make spaces their own. “Continual monitoring has been shown to save 5 to 15 percent on annual energy costs, eliminating energy drift, improving performance, and increasing user comfort.”
What does the integration of all these technologies mean for designers and builders?
The answer, it seems, is the need for yet more and better integration among the industry’s diverse range of professionals to match the requirements of changing technologies.
“For the last forty years or so, controls were the responsibility of the mechanical and lighting was the responsibility of electrical engineers,” says Roberts of a dichotomy that feels needlessly siloed, occasionally detrimentally. In today’s smart buildings’ just as systems need to talk to each other and be monitored holistically and individually, the design, implementation, commissioning, and operations processes also need to be more seamlessly integrated.
“Investing an afternoon in making sure the sequence of operations meets the owner’s objectives and the designer’s intent is essential with the systems going into today’s smart properties,” says Sobeck. Azerbergi agrees, adding that a commitment to collaboration on the technology choices and expectations will greatly reduce issues found during the commissioning process. Pre-thinking challenges together focuses the whole team on developing the best possible building for the owner’s investment.
As user expectations of workspaces have grown beyond simply hot or cold and on or off, product manufacturers have continued to push toward integrated solutions. Siemen’s DXR Controller is a single-source, remote-monitored control unit for the building’s temperature, lighting, window shades and electrical loads. On the building side, more complicated systems don’t necessarily mean more complicated construction, as long as advance coordination and an appetite for new knowledge are fundamental to the builder’s goals.
“Owners have been installing two, three, and sometimes four different control systems in a single building,” continues Sobeck, adding depth to the need for better integration in all aspects of the industry. “Single-system solutions mean one product, one installation subcontractor, and a more integrated, informed understanding of systems for optimal performance.”
Control Solutions Inc. competes for systems installation opportunities and also represents Honeywell building automation products including the CIPer product family of controllers and I/O modules. As a subcontractor helping designers understand smart systems, install, program, and start them up, Roberts sees a commitment to continuing education as essential for his firm and staff
“You can’t have too much education on all of this,” says Roberts of the continued trend toward more integrated systems requiring highly specialized and multi-faceted experts. “The systems are getting so complicated that finding enough skilled people capable of putting these systems together is my biggest challenge.”
Roberts nudges the green ASHRAE Guideline 36-2018 on the table forward as a next step that can be taken, immediately, industry-wide to facilitate better communication and collaboration. The complexity of systems and what is required of the professionals who design, sell, program, install, commission, or operate them will continue to increase as smart buildings and smart people get smarter out on the edge of technology and convenience.
About the Author
Sean O’Keefe is an architecture and construction writer who crafts stories and content based on 20 years of experience and a keen interest in the people who make projects happen. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.