Canadian Consulting Engineer

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Not Smart Enough

Slowly but surely, building owners and managers are realizing the many financial benefits associated with intelligent technologies — lower energy costs, lower maintenance costs, and lower repair and replacement costs.


Slowly but surely, building owners and managers are realizing the many financial benefits associated with intelligent technologies — lower energy costs, lower maintenance costs, and lower repair and replacement costs.

Take Greater Vancouver’s Kwantlen Polytechnic University as one example: since installing an intelligent building automation system (BAS) across its Cloverdale campus, the school has seen an operational cost savings of $2.7 million over the last decade, an energy saving of up to 45% annually, a yearly saving in natural gas by up to 25%, and an estimated reduction in GHG emissions by 20% over the next 10 years.

Given the many opportunities available to building owners from building intelligence, it is surprising that the incorporation of the technologies is not more widespread.

In fact, where building specification processes are concerned, the integration of smart technology is often either postponed indefinitely, or not considered at all. But why?

A disconnected industry

A study commissioned by the Continental Automated Buildings Association (CABA) based in Ottawa recently identified a few reasons that might help explain the slow widespread adoption of intelligent technology in North America.

Titled “Intelligent Buildings and the Bid Specification Process,” the study looked specifically at key aspects of the bid specification process, how decisions are made in that process, and the role of key influencers in such decisions.

Published in January 2013, the study included approximately 60 interviews with a broad range of construction players. They included engineers, architects, contractors and design-builders, real estate developers, OEMS/integrators, standards organizations and other influential agencies. Secondary research, including published sources from government bodies, think tanks, and industry associations, formed the balance of the report.

The report found that the industry is heterogeneous, fragmented, and increasingly complex in regard to the incorporation of new technologies into buildings. And it identified a disconnect among partners in the value chain which gave little scope for the incorporation of intelligent building solutions.

Lack of understanding

Building owners consider technology integration to be important, but they do not have a clear idea of the actual benefits of buying these products and solutions.

In order to make the “right” technology selection, the end users surveyed said they rely mainly on the consulting and specification engineers and the design-build firms who complete a final project design and its drawings and specifications.

Yet the report also found that while engineers and design-builders had significant influence on the building owner’s decision-making process, not all engineers appear to understand the technology or value associated with intelligent buildings.

Consequently, the end result obtained from the bid specification process did not often mirror the original project vision — particularly when it came to procuring the most optimal technology or service solution.

In most cases cost was the sole determinant for procurement, no matter what was the original schematic design recommended. The study found that low-cost technology, with a quick payback, was often favoured over smart controls and automated solutions.

While automated building solutions have a higher upfront cost, they could potentially lead to measurable returns in the long-term.  Yet the current disjointed and transactional model leads to low levels of adoption of the technology.

Engineers and design-build firms — key players in the value chain — can do a few things to increase the widespread usage of smart technologies. Among the suggestions to improve the bid specification process, the report made the following recommendations:

Take a unified view. It makes sense for the ultimate owners and operators to have better and smarter technologies in the building, and for buildings to be looked at as an ecosystem rather than a series of systems or contracts.

Collaborate more. Getting to know more about intelligent building technologies can also be done by working with vendors, and with associations like CABA to determine where to situate new partners in the value chain. One important — and fairly new — partner in the bid spec process is the technology integrator. This is an expert who understands how different technologies can be integrated into a building to make it smarter, and who is involved in the procurement process.

Educate the end user. The engineers’ role is not just to deploy and specify what goes into a building. They must also educate the building owner or operator about considerations apart from budget, such as how any advanced components that go into a building will enhance its performance and value as an asset. Engineers must be able to demonstrate to building owners the value of implementing smart technologies from the very beginning of the project.cce

Lindsey K. McCaffrey is a freelance writer based in Ottawa.