Technology Integration: Building Controls

The Evolution of New Building Technologies


By David L. Brooks

Facilities managers must manage ongoing preventative maintenance, energy demand, and occupant comfort issues with budgets that are continually challenged. Typical of most service professionals, they are challenged to provide excellent customer service by providing safe, healthy, comfortable environments while keeping costs down. To help achieve these goals, various hardware and software technologies address needs such as comfort management, preventive maintenance, hot/cold call resolution, energy management, and operational budget planning.

Technology to promote smart buildings was first introduced in the 1970s. Its high cost initially limited use to large government/state-funded facilities. This early technology could monitor many key building conditions from a single location and minimize the labor to check building environmental conditions. The memory needed to store data over the long term was also expensive, limiting the ability of facility staffs to evaluate building trends. This early technology could not execute the most basic energy strategies commonly employed in today's buildings.

Around the 1980s, the decreasing costs of technology allowed facilities professionals to automatically control all aspects of their buildings. While memory and managing large amounts of data were still difficult and expensive, building systems of the 1980s sufficiently provided the basic tools to minimize resources and manage energy consumption effectively. The technology satisfied the goals of the typical facility management model.

Then technology began its acceleration, leaving the traditional facilities manager "in the dust," so to speak. The facility management model remained as it was 30 years prior. Preventative maintenance, repair, and complaint resolution are still the model for many facilities today. This stagnant evolution can be attributed to a few key industry conditions:

  • The cost of energy has remained relatively low, thereby reducing the incentives to aggressively manage/challenge the typical facility's energy consumption.
  • The cost of computer memory prevented long-term data storage (mass storage) and associated systems analysis. The cost of memory has only recently become a nonissue.
  • There has been little desire to change the status quo, especially in large organizations. This can be attributed to departmental silos and the inability of a few people to create change in an organization.

The "Technology Gap" curve (Figure 1) shows an almost flat innovation line for both facilities management functions and the traditional mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) design industry. The technology curve followed a similar flat profile until the '80s, when DDC systems hit the scene, becoming affordable to medium to large facilities. As noted in Figure 1, technology has grown exponentially, leaving the facilities management industry to carry on the status quo.

It is important to note here that the current technological state of smart building technologies has advanced well beyond the technical capabilities of the traditional HVAC mechanic. This gap will continue to grow larger until the facilities management industry begins to look at new models and take advantage of all technology available to them. There is plenty of blame to go around, but it is everyone's responsibility (architect/engineer, owner, and vendors) to begin the long road of catch-up. Facilities managers must be encouraged to consider new processes and business models, designers and consultants must be educated on the technologies available to their clients, and vendors must focus more on applications and solutions and less on product throughput.

David L. Brooks, PE, is a project manager for the technology group of the Gainesville, FL, office of Affiliated Engineers Inc. (AEI), a consulting, engineering, and technology firm. He is a participating member and consultant for the recently formed Building Automation Institute.