Make the Most of Your Building’s Automated Systems

Written by: Johnny DeLoach, Client Services Advisor

Published in the Colorado Real Estate’s 7/1/19 issue of the Property Management Quarterly

In the commercial space, building engineers and operators are facing an ever-evolving challenge: How to keep up with and leverage technology to drive better asset performance and value for their owners. Technology changes the way we design, operate and experience buildings, so as technology has evolved our buildings so has the consumer expectation. For those of us left to operate these buildings it requires unique skillsets that were unheard of 10 or 15 years ago. So where do we start? Where is the litmus test for our technology preparedness? Recently during a Haynes University Webinar, a series of panelists from the industry addressed this issue and provided several perspectives on best practices.

  • Know where you are and where you want to go. While it’s important to have an idea of where you want your building to be, it’s critical to understand where your building is and what the path moving forward looks like. Since building systems can be expensive and invasive to replace, knowing what options are available to upgrade and enhance your existing systems are paramount. Asset plans should be holistic in nature and include an assessment of:
    • All technology infrastructure;
    • Operational risks or impediments; and
    • Remediation or improvement plans.

Typically, this requires engagement from the property team, facility team and a trusted technology partner or contractor. Once you have put together your asset plan, you can start to prioritize the right initiatives to keep your building up to date.

  • Change is hard, but not changing is harder. Older (and some newer) buildings may have an existing automation system that has had changes made to it throughout the years. These could include tenant finishes or improvements as well as multiple small changes to address daily problems or comfort complaints. As these changes increase in quantity or frequency, it’s important that an accurate list be kept to track these changes. Modifications to the original design intent or sequence of operation can have a ripple effect on the equipment upstream and degrade the efficiency and lifespan of these valuable systems. A master set of drawings should be kept that documents these renovations and additions as well as a list of system overrides that have been implemented and the reason they were instated so they can later be removed or corrected. Some automation systems can track these changes for you and store updated drawings electronically, saving you time and future headaches.
  • Interoperability. As more of our building systems come online and connect to the internet of things, it’s important that building engineers and facility staff have an opportunity to provide input on how these systems may interact or integrate into existing systems. We’ve all seen buildings that have had a handful of capital projects installed that have resulted in numerous control systems provided by multiple contractors. This may be the result of a plan and spec low-bid situation where a contractor provided whatever system is approved in a specification that is not current or does not match the owner’s true needs. This creates a huge challenge for the folks in charge of running the building because they now have to learn multiple systems that are not integrated. Luckily today, the industry has mostly moved to open-source, open-license and open-protocol building automation systems. With proper early collaboration between owners, building staff and designers, this problem almost always can be diverted. Master system integrators can be used and can allow up to 80% of the capital investment to be bid out competitively.
  • IT, OT and the IoT. Building engineers and maintenance staff may be comfortable with information technology networks. Typically all IT network tasks have special personnel to make changes, additions or troubleshoot anything on the building’s internet or intranet. As the internet of things grows and more of our building infrastructure and physical systems are added to it (lighting, security, life safety, heating, ventilation and air conditioning, etc.), it will become an increasingly necessary skill for engineers and staff. IT and operation technology will need to be separated in order to provide the needed security for business activities and the needed flexibility of daily building operations. Both require security measures and, as always, proper asset planning.
  • Analytics and how this is used (what makes it valuable). The use of analytics to advise building engineers and staff on how their properties are operating and provide recommendations to increase performance is being used today. Analytic platforms can provide guidance to troubleshoot underlying issues in building systems, saving time and money. Regardless of the brand of software or service, it’s critical that the result of an analytic platform provides information that produces results. If the information provided by the analytics is not easy to understand and use, then it’s not a good investment. Make sure to vet these options well and, if done properly, analytics can provide tremendous support for building staff.
  • Systems integration vs. replacement. Most of the existing legacy building automation systems in the field have the capability to be “integrated” as opposed to being upgraded to a brand new system, which can require a large capital investment. Integration allows these upgrades to be phased over multiple years, reducing the upfront cost. It’s very important to understand that when considering a system integration, the control devices that remain after the initial phase may still have operational issues. For example, if the first phase of the integration includes a new front-end user interface, system graphics and building supervisory controller, the field devices that remain and control the central plants or zoning systems may require additional commissioning or service until they can be replaced in future phases. Building engineers and maintenance staff should make sure to ask what next steps are needed after the initial integration to ensure they are not left having to explain why more capital is needed to finish upgrading the building automation system.
  • Next steps. Each of these topics deserve its own article and could fill up a weeklong International Facility Management Association conference. No building staff is expected to be an expert in each of these topics, but knowing where the majority of the risk lies and how to get ahead with proper questions and planning will put you in the best position possible to move forward successfully in today’s ever-changing building environment.

Laura Galijan