Oct 31 2006

Buildings With Brains

The convergence of building automation systems and traditional IT infrastructure results in efficiencies for state and local governments.

David Morrison

IN THE SPRING OF 2001, when Aurora, Colo., officials considered the proposed costs of the new $70 million 285,000-square-foot Aurora Municipal Center, a decision on whether to merge the traditional IT backbone network with network-enabled building automation systems literally came down to the wire—or down to the Ethernet cable, to be precise.

“We knew we could save some money if we could get away from putting in separate wiring systems,” explains Russell Grant, manager of the city’s Facilities Management Division.

When the city building opened in December 2002, officials did end up installing Ethernet cable for the IT network. But they also installed “smart building” technology—heating and air conditioning, lighting, security, elevators and other building operation services— on the same gigabyte network that runs all the city business applications, thereby saving money on construction costs.

Those innovations were impressive then, but they seem simple compared to the convergence efficiencies Aurora’s IT and facilities management staffs have undertaken since. Today, converged building automation systems (BAS)/IT networks exist in eight new government buildings in Colorado’s third-largest city. Savings on cabling in those projects alone amounted to more than $350,000 in initial construction costs, Grant reports.

That’s not all. Grant estimates that having his Johnson Controls Metasys facilities management systems deployed over the ubiquitous Internet Protocol (IP) network and monitored from a central console saves an additional $40,000 a year in personnel hours, since staffers no longer have to travel to different locations to manually reset motor starters or adjust thermostats in public buildings that are scattered across the 143-square-mile city.

Also, building security personnel don’t have to rekey exterior building locks when employees leave city employ without turning in their access keys, which saves another $20,000 a year. The centralized monitoring and alert systems also enable Grant’s team to fix many problems remotely before employees are even aware of an issue. The improved security and customer service delivered by his department are important benefits of the BAS/IT systems.

In fact, Aurora city government is so committed to convergence that it’s already retrofitted 10 older buildings for BAS/IT convergences and has targeted 20 other buildings for retrofits. It also plans to install Johnson Controls’ centrally managed Pegasys security systems in 50 additional buildings, including fire stations, recreation centers, libraries and maintenance facilities.

Aurora is one of several municipalities on the leading edge of the yet-to-crest wave of momentum for the convergence of so-called “smart building” technologies and IT infrastructures. Though widely accepted in private enterprise and federal government, convergence strategies have yet to deeply penetrate state and local government agencies.

The Folsom, Calif., Center for Digital Government, a research and advisory institute, showcases best practices and advises local governments on how to use Internet technologies more effectively. As pressures mount on governments to be even more efficient, the next logical step is to throw building automation/network convergence into the mix, according to Paul Taylor, chief strategy officer. “The game moving forward is all about mining costs out of processes,” he says.

That’s what the Detroit-based Wayne County Airport Authority envisions for its proposed $418 million 700,000-square-foot North Terminal, scheduled for completion in 2008. In September 2005, the authority awarded a $2.85 million contract to Siemens Building Technologies to review, comment and make recommendations on the design, engineering and integration of special systems in the terminal, including all systems for electrical and mechanical fire protection/alarm, telecommunications, audio/visual paging and baggage handling.

The Cost of Facilities

Facilities costs are second only to personnel costs for virtually every organization, says Anto Budiardjo, secretary of oBIX, the Open Building Information Xchange, a Boston-based consortium formed in 2003 to develop a single Web-based set of building-control system interfaces. oBIX and some city governments are urging the BAS and IT industries to establish nonproprietary, IP-based open standards and communications protocols.

Plenty of potholes will have to be filled before IT networks become seamless superhighways, with one lane carrying traffic from e-mail applications, records databases, customer interface applications and other mission-critical government systems, and another lane transporting data from chillers, heat pumps, escalators, elevators, lighting, security cameras and building access systems.

Aurora, for example, still maintains its fire-alarm system on a separate network because local building code requires it. But Grant and his colleagues built a system that integrates the two networks for information sharing, so facilities staff can troubleshoot routine maintenance issues more effectively.

Another impediment to convergence is the ever-present lament that more stuff on the enterprise network increases security risks. And there still are turf wars between the IT and facilities departments, and between competing open standards and well-entrenched proprietary technologies.

Paul Bennett, the operations manager for WayPoint Systems, a BAS consultancy in Roswell, Ga., says Gwinnett County government in Atlanta aggressively assigns IP addresses for building automation systems throughout the county. But, with other government clients, he’s encountered resistance from various security-conscious and bandwidth-starved pockets of IT for getting IP addresses so his Alerton building automation controls can run on the network.

But recalcitrance runs both ways. “The building-side people are very protective,” says oBIX’s Budiardjo. “They’ll say, ‘I know how to balance the air flow in my building. Why should I turn that over to IT?’

“If you look at a facility from a business perspective, you’ll come to the conclusion that the IT standard and network are the things to use. IT is realizing that technologies like Web services and XML [Extensible Markup Language] will play a role in getting things together, and the building-systems industry has started learning that too.”

Not all are convinced that the expense is worth it. Selby Lucero, deputy director of the Building Services Division in New Mexico’s General Services Department in Santa Fe, says many state buildings there have IP-addressable facilities components linked on a separate network and could be merged on the IT backbone. But, he says, “The need to do that has not been totally demonstrated. It would be nice to do, but we have to ask, ‘Is it really cost-efficient?’”

For the city of Tucson, the answer is “Yes.” After being locked into proprietary building automation technology for two decades, the city four years ago insisted that future facilities development support the BACnet (Building Automation and Control Network) protocol for smoother transition. All environmental, lighting and access equipment had to be able to communicate with each other, and also had to be able to send data outside the building in the same open format.

David Molchany, CIO of Fairfax County, Va., oversees technology requirements and planning for more than 1,100 employees who serve more than 1 million citizens. The county already has a network that will merge voice and data capabilities for some 400 county-operated buildings. That infrastructure, he says, is a “building block” for future BAS/IT convergence.

“We’re beginning to look at technology in a more holistic manner,” he says. “How can we cut costs? How are we going to save money and make the bottom line better?”

Where’s Convergence Heading?

If you want to know where the convergence of building automation systems and IT network technology is heading, read what one expert has to say.

“We are heading to the point at which environmental controls, physical security and automated building management systems will all be on one shared network—several systems integrated into one cohesive technology infrastructure to control all systems in the building, from the front door to the elevators to the work spaces for heating and air conditioning, lighting, surveillance, phones and even computers,” says Joshua Aaron, president of Business Technology Partners, a New York consultancy that works with government entities on the design, construction and relocation of buildings and office spaces.

Here’s a scenario Aaron advances: Say you need to work on the weekend, but your office building is shut down tight, with even the lighting and air conditioning switched off. You swipe your ID card at the door to gain entry. That activates an elevator to pick you up in the lobby and deposit you on your authorized floor. When you get to your work space, lights and air conditioning are on. Your telephone knows you’re there, and your computer has logged onto the network. You plug in your password and start working.

Too futuristic? Not really, Aaron insists, although he adds that it might be a decade before most governments can afford such convergence. “But in terms of the technology, it’s there today,” he says. “You could put it together with a reasonable amount of customization.”

BAS/IT Checklist

Here are some tips for merging building automation systems and IT systems:

1. Find out what both the private sector and government agencies are doing in this area.

2. Evaluate the benefits of adopting open standards and communication protocols.

3. Include both security and environmental systems.

4. Find out whether local building codes will present any obstacles.

5. Encourage collaboration between the IT staff and facilities personnel to avoid turf wars.

6. Put together a strong business case to support convergence, including a projected return on investment.