Canadian Consulting Engineer

Intelligent Buildings

August 1, 2006
By Bronwen Parsons

The movement to make buildings "intelligent" has been around for decades, but its proponents are frustrated by how slow the construction industry has been to adopt the technologies....

The movement to make buildings “intelligent” has been around for decades, but its proponents are frustrated by how slow the construction industry has been to adopt the technologies.

According to Ron Zimmer of the Continental Automated Buildings Association (CABA) of Ottawa, there are still far more “dumb” buildings than smart ones. Zimmer was the keynote speaker on day two of the Strategy Institute’s Intelligent Buildings Summit 2006 held April 25-26 in Toronto.

In the first rush of enthusiasm about computerized systems in the late 1980s, popular articles would gush about the futuristic potential of intelligent buildings. They would predict how your residence would soon “know” when you were coming home, would have the fridge filled, the lights on and the coffee already percolating. The reality so far has been rather different, with most of us having only too often been in buildings where the lights refused to go on or where the automatic toilets embarrassingly did not flush.

What is it?

Even the concept of what is an intelligent building remains nebulous. In his presentation, Zimmer gave a simple definition. For him, an “intelligent building” is any application where two systems are linked — be they HVAC, lighting, elevators, fire protection, communications, security, access or energy management systems — and where such integration “makes sense.”

Other people in the industry attempting a definition of intelligent buildings have cast the net much wider, going beyond the electrical-mechanical engineering field to encompass sustainable building, site and maintenance aspects. One recent article listed 50 different attributes to intelligent buildings.

Convergence “whether you like it or not”

The title of Zimmer’s address was “Building for the 21st Century,” but it seems that many buildings are stuck using 19th century technologies such as pneumatic transmission. At the other end of the spectrum, Zimmer said, “whether you like it or not,” the trend for the most advanced intelligent buildings is for the integration or convergence of buildings systems and controls based on IT and internet-based communication networks.

The myth that’s preventing a more universal adoption of intelligent building technologies, suggested Zimmer, is that they are expensive to incorporate. But even though intelligent systems do carry extra capital costs, those costs are offset over the life of the building in energy savings. And with oil at $65 a barrel, Zimmer said, “people are starting to take notice.”

“We have not communicated these [ lifecycle cost savings] well,” he added, “but I believe the issue is starting to resonate — maybe not for the whole building, but definitely in energy.”

Developing a rating system

To educate the industry better, Zimmer’s organization is developing a tool for analyzing the lifeycle costs of intelligent buildings. CABA’s partners on this project are Reed Construction Data, the U.S. Department of the Environment and various building system manufacturers.

Also under development is something called a Building Intelligence Quotient (BIQ). It is a tool to rank intelligent building performance. CABA has commissioned three Toronto area companies to develop the tool: Sustainable Environmental Solutions, ECD Energy and Environment Canada, and IBI Group. The BIQ tool will also provide design guidance for integrating building systems and for retrofitting existing buildings.

Another CABA project is to update a document it produced four years ago in collaboration with Industry Canada. The Technology Roadmap for Intelligent Buildings Technologies was a $700,000 research project that surveyed what level of automation and integration existed in buildings. The 2002 report also analyzed future trends. For the update, CABA has found 14 sponsors, including California’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories.

CABA itself is a somewhat unusual organization. It began its life as the Canadian Automated Buildings Association and it still leases space from the National Research Council of Canada in Ottawa. However, over a decade ago, CABA broadened its scope to North America and Mexico and changed its “Canadian” moniker to “Continental.” It claims to be the “only industry association to offer industry intelligence to stakeholders in all areas of home and building automation.”

Still too many standards

In order for building systems to be integrated, they must be able to communicate with each other through a common language such as BACNet or open system such as LonMark. Zimmer said that in the past two years the industry has made great strides towards interoperability. Instead of jealously guarding their proprietary equipment, he said, manufacturers are moving more to open systems, and saying, “Let’s fight it out over other things, such as durability, aesthetics, service, etc.”

However, without more streamlining and open standards the industry will continue to be hampered. At present, CABA has to deal with 40 different standards organizations, said Zimmer. He noted that the consumer electronics industry realized years ago that their systems must be open and interoperable, which is how home TVs, VCRs and DVDs all work together, whether they be Toshiba, Sony, etc. “We as an industry have to do that,” said Zimmer.

The stakes are high. In 2004 the worldwide market for building automation systems was $22 billion and it is forecasted by the ARC Advisory Group to exceed $25 billion in 2009.

IT people should be involved in building design

During the question and answer session, one of the prevalent issues that emerged from the building engineers and designers in the room was on the need to have IT experts involved in the building design team early in the process so that they have input in the location of the communications infrastructure, risers etc.

Another attendee pointed out the importance of having building operators who are skilled and educated in the building automation systems. You might have a fully integrated intelligent system in a building, but if it is not managed properly it won’t work efficiently. The attendee said they had been called in to fix buildings where the operators had the air conditioning blasting and the heating on at the same time.



The MaRS Centre in downtown Toronto was named the “Intelligent Building of the Year” at a ceremony held in New York City on June 12. The award was given by the Intelligent Community Forum, an international organization dedicated to promoting broadband and information technology in communities.

The MaRS centre was cited for: “leading the new field of convergence innovation by connecting and fostering collaboration between the communities of science, business and capital.” By leasing space to technology companies along with other business organizations, the goal is to foster “synergies” and help commercialize the technologies the tenants are developing.

The MaRS organization that runs the centre is a not-for-profit corporation founded in 2000 by business and civic leaders. It receives funding from all three levels of government as well as other donors.

MaRS bought the old Toronto General Hospital building on College Street and surrounding lands in downtown Toronto for the development, renovated the historic building and built two towers on its flanks. The former hospital building contains office space, while the new 15-storey Toronto Medical Discovery Tower on the west and new 8-storey South Tower also have wet laboratories. The South Tower has a 350-seat fully equipped auditorium.

Opened last September, MaRS now has 50 tenants, everyone from hospital researchers, to pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, to software developers and financial institutions. Over 2,000 people work in the centre. The “incubator” space might be as small as 300 square feet, while the hospital research laboratories t
ake up multiple floors. An additional tower scheduled to be completed in 2008 will add another million square feet, bringing the total cost of the facility to $450 million.

Pushing the boundaries of convergence

The MaRS centre provides a high-speed broadband and IT network that tenants can hook into. The infrastructure is described as “pushing the boundaries of convergence utilizing technology as a true collaboration platform.”

Rob Smith, technology consultant for MaRS, explains that the video, voice and data services all run on one common network, whereas in a traditional building they would each run on separate cabling and equipment. All the communications technologies — instant messaging, audio conferencing, video conferencing, VoIP (voice over internet protocol) and voice mail — are converged and delivered by a Nortel Multimedia Communication Server 5100. The MCS5100 has a single, web-based “dashboard” that provides access to all the converged applications.

The cabling system includes multi-strand single mode fibre optic cable (10,000 ft.), audio visual cable (60,000 ft.) and CAT 6 copper wire (300,000 ft.). It supports a 10 Gbps (gigabits per second) network speed across the core, and I Gbps to the edge of the network. The VoIP (voice over internet protocol) capacity is for 60,000 users.

There are two main telecommunications hubs, as well as ancillary back-up hubs in case of failures. The communications, power and other building systems are monitored 24/7 by third party service providers, with Smith and MaRS staff notified by Blackberry if there’s an emergency.

Audio-visual conferencing can be held anywhere or any time in the complex, involving up to 80 simultaneous participants and another 48 audio participants.

A WiFi wireless network serves the common areas, and the centre is now installing cellular repeaters to boost signals in areas of the building with poor reception, which are mostly underground.

Smith says the MaRS Centre’s convergence strategy represents a paradigm shift in the way technology is integrated. This kind of building intelligence is not on most developers’ radar, says Smith, because it involves higher capital costs to install. What they need to remember, he says, is that with this kind of infrastructure, a building owner can reap recurring revenues by providing high-end services such as voice, video and data that can be run on top of a single network.

The mechanical and electrical consulting engineers on the MaRS Centre are Smith and Andersen Consulting Engineering (David Mewdell, P.Eng., Kevin Farbridge, P.Eng.). The architects are Adamson Associates.


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