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Integrated design in a Web world


May 28, 2014  


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The promise of the Internet has hit a wall – not a figurative wall, but the real brick and mortar kind. Whereas greenfield design in state-of-the-art data centres and brand new hospitals and commercial high-rises are showing us that buildings can be very smart indeed, the truth is that the vast majority of structures in Canada were not built with Big Data in mind. The result is that although there is a lot of buzz around the standards that are being set with new builds, retrofits also represent huge long-term opportunities – and challenges.

“We are breaking new ground on greenfield sites like the Oakville Hospital we are building for Halton Healthcare Services, and with Waterpark Place Phase III in Toronto,” says Stephen Foster, Director of ICT at construction and building services firm EllisDon. “That massive demand is now in new builds, but over time there will be a backlog for retrofits to meet the needs and demands of clients and tenants.” “Over time there will be a backlog for retrofits to meet the needs and demands of clients and tenants, but now that massive demand is in new builds.” Greenfield sites like Waterpark Place Phase III are setting a new standard, exemplifying how an integrated approach can deliver results to a mixed residential-commercial environment.

The centrepiece of Waterpark Place Phase III is a 30-storey office tower that can handle over 10,000 occupants, with retail space below. At 550,000 square metres, Waterpark Place Phase III is being built with a LEED Platinum certification in mind, including the possibility of lake water cooling and steam heating systems.

“This is a $247 million project designed with a solid technological backbone – crucial to ensure the building can deliver the most to its owners and tenants for years to come,” says Foster. “It is expected to be completed next summer, but the ICT people have been involved for the past 18 months.

It is a great example of how ICT was engaged early on to ensure that the building has a strong infrastructure.” Projects like Waterpark Place Phase III are being built to take advantage of what is being called the Internet of Things, wherein all devices will have IP-based connectivity, with many being wirelessly-enabled. Power over Ethernet (PoE) can provide basic power to those devices with a physical connection, allowing for integrated designs that converge HVAC, security, entertainment – anything that draws power or interacts with humans. This is not just a technological trend; it is a societal one, too. The problem is that though we have the technology, most buildings are a long way out from realizing the benefits of having a robust, well-integrated IP-based network.

“The problem with retrofits is if they are approached in incremental stages, without an eye to the overall design,” says Piyush Bhatnagar, managing director at Accenture Canada. “The big retrofit opportunity is still a few years out, but we need to approach this with caution. You want to have the entire architectural diagram in hand before you start on the heating system, the foundation, or the roof.” Bhatnagar is warning of the dreaded ‘silos’ that have been the bane of systems integrators for years. In retrofits, this is complicated by limited capital budgets that, in effect, mandate a step-by-step approach. However, that can work out fine, as long as there is an eye to overall design integration so that at the end of the day HVAC, security, and future add-ons can be monitored and managed as one system. “Point solutions are the problem right now with retrofits,” he says. “The market needs people who can take a holistic view, including the business arguments, and integrate these into one implantation strategy.”

When devices outsmart buildings:  Devices in buildings that connect to IP-based and even cellular networks are, in essence, simple things: refrigerators, lights, security cameras. Most people have an ‘on-off’ relationship to such technology, but the role of these technologies in our built environment is becoming more complex.

The smallest appliance is able to communicate not only singularly, but as part of a larger view of how people behave within built environments. And these unassuming gadgets are doing this within highly sophisticated, automated systems, not only in new structures, but in retrofits as well. “As it stands, in most buildings the various systems are living on their own,” says Caroline Cadieux the director of marketing for Distech Controls in Montreal. “There are a lot of missed opportunities for control strategies that can increase efficiency and comfort, and this can actually become a main rationale for retrofits.”

To address the issues Distech, which develops building automation and energy management systems, promotes a multi-protocol, multi-system management system that can deliver offerings with wireless capabilities on numerous devices, including battery-less sensors and switches. “We only have to develop one control sequence to show a potential customer how they can be helped,” says Cadieux.

“For example, in a commercial building or an office tower we can demonstrate how a badged employee can enter a building, and a signal is sent to his office to start heating it and to turn the lights on. From there, our integrated room control solution can use a wireless sensor to monitor light levels in a room.”

The Distech system will continually adjust shades, dim lights, and control for temperature. This approach delivers as much natural light as possible, while also redefining the relationship between energy efficiency and comfort. And it does so with wireless as a central component to the strategy. Wireless makes sense when retrofitting older buildings made out of marble, granite, and stone, and is also relevant for new builds given that newer construction practices use a lot of glass.

Aesthetics are a concern as well: newer builds want a clean look, and many retrofits leverage the historical beauty of brick and wood beam lofts. “You don’t want to dig through those materials,” says Cadieux.

“Wireless allows us to put our sensors in the wall, or in another location – a nice option given that they are not that visually pleasing. We then have a web interface so that they can be controlled with mobile applications.”

Living on the edge: Wirelessly enabled devices, combined with a web-based management system, can propel buildings new and old into the 21st century and beyond. But each edge device is also a potential security threat.

This is a new concern for experts in HVAC and building maintenance who are used to having their systems operate in silos. Now, in a networked world, the risk is real and ongoing. “Security is a key concern for our customers,” says Greg Turner, vice president of Honeywell Building Solutions.

“Building systems have been hacked; this is essentially an offshoot of hacking industrial control systems. We have been addressing these system design requirements for years, and now have a software update service that will push a solution automatically to our customers, if they desire, or that can be downloaded and installed when appropriate for them.”

Turner says that Honeywell takes a three-pronged approach to the problem. Crucially, this includes education to reduce human error, and also addresses the need for security to be a consideration from the earliest stages. “First you have to start with training your people with an eye to a secure design that includes virtual private networks [VPNs] and firewalls,” he says.

“Second, you make sure that even during the construction phase all flash and dump drives are scanned and cleaned, because at this stage a lot of IT monitoring is not yet in place, and you don’t want to hand over a contaminated site to the customer. And third, you need to be on top of how the building is accessed and serviced, especially if there is remote access.” Covering off these main areas is a big undertaking.

Honeywell has a guide that runs over 400 pages to help clients with issues around security planning and access; it covers everything from the design stage, to installation, to the care and feeding of an integrated building. Such a thorough approach is a necessity because the proliferation of end-points (many of which – like flat screen monitors in hospital rooms – were initially designed as consumer grade) can be a headache when trying to put in place a fully-secure system.

“The number of endpoints we are facing is truly staggering, and that includes BYOD,” says Turner. “You have to start thinking of how to tier the infrastructure, and how to isolate some of the devices. Fortunately, the move from IPv4 to IPv6 dramatically reduces the cost per endpoint to our customers, and the security protocols are built in, which makes device management easier.”

Like Foster, Turner says that it is crucial to get the ICT infrastructure people involved in a project as early as possible. Getting security right – or wrong – has huge cost implications for a project, particularly for the first five years after a build or retrofit.

The societal trends driving the move toward building integration are much bigger than the oft-quoted “low hanging fruit” that come from having green building practices and energy savings. Buildings are now expected to support human activity that is Internet-dependant and that can securely support a never-ending stream of new technologies.

There is simply no way to succeed in this market without involving a range of stakeholders and vendors. “The reality of the industry today is that you have to work with multiple vendors,” says Cadieux. “Some industries have stringent requirements, and require specialized systems. For those there will be different manufacturers, but everything can still be brought into one interface for analysis and reporting.” Knowing how to approach the problem requires having designers, architects, engineers, ICT, and HVAC and security people on the same page.

It also means listening to users, particularly if they have job-related or industry-specific requirements, such as doctors or floor managers. Each building location will have a unique profile. An airport, for example, will have high volume wireless traffic from thousands of short-term users. “We are seeing that some verticals such as airports, hospitals, and data centres are ahead of the pack,” says Bhatnagar. “In these examples, integration can build significant value. But to get the job done we must partner with construction companies and others to see what they are trying to achieve.” Not surprisingly, in order to succeed in these environments, standards can be crucial.

Increasingly, vendors and customers are embracing industry protocols such as BACnet, which allows a range of building system control devices to interoperate as one, including lighting, HVAC, security, and access. The real value then comes in being able to manage a diverse and growing ecosystem of devices.

“Now, with edge devices being everything from lights to blinds, to door hardware, with all of them residing on the IP network, and all of that data flowing upstream, the real value comes when managing the data,” says Foster. “All that data has to serve a useful purpose to anyone who needs to use and enjoy a space.”

That means having diverse product sets that can roll into one digital interface, which can then be of use to facilities managers and tenants, and also available as a web interface that can be accessed on mobile applications.

This is an almost utopian vision of what our built environment will look like in the years to come, reminiscent of the catch phrase from the 1970s TV show the Six Million Dollar Man: “We can rebuild him. We have the technology.” And yet it is a near certainty that it will come to pass. C+