Building System Integration Faces Challenges

This holistic approach to building integration, where security and access control align with systems such as fire, HVAC, lighting and audio


Picture this: The CEO of a major corporation arrives early at his company's 40-story office building. He swipes his access card and the door from the underground parking garage immediately unlocks, the elevator bank serving his floor activates and the lights in the hallway leading to his top-floor executive office are turned on. When he arrives in his office on this chilly morning, the room is already filling with warm air, since the HVAC system was activated in his building quadrant the moment he swiped his access card.

If this sounds like a compelling work environment and a model of building system integration, it is. But it's also the exception, rather than the rule, as the industry cautiously looks at the prospect of integrating multiple building management systems.

This holistic approach to building integration, where security and access control align with systems such as fire, HVAC, lighting and audio (intercom/paging), still represents a small piece of the overall market. Unlike the integration of security systems with information technology functions, which is occurring rapidly throughout the industry, it still remains to be seen when or even whether the integration of multiple building systems into a single control unit will become an industry norm. Currently, such efforts are occurring mostly in high-end or specialized settings such as government buildings, high-rises, data centers and museums or in new construction of very large office complexes. The reasons for slow adoption of this seemingly desirable model are both managerial and technology related. Despite this, many believe some level of integration will occur among the various systems in the next few years.

Why Is Building Systems Integration Desirable?
Although multi-system integration may sound new, it's a concept that's been around since the last century. Its first wave started about 10 years ago with the advent of "smart" buildings. These high-tech wonders of the construction industry sought to bring together all the various building systems under one operational umbrella. For those who have been successful in these endeavors, the benefits are many. Tying in the fire system with access control has obvious advantages, such as automatically disarming doors when a fire alarm sounds. Also, the integration of fire detection with HVAC can help control smoke by using air vent systems to contain it to a particular floor. Meanwhile, integrating CCTV surveillance systems with fire systems allows end users to view footage to discover the cause of a blaze as well as to monitor and view the fire as it occurs.

The list of pluses would not be complete without economics, since cutting costs by streamlining building operations is a major attraction of system integration.

A 1999 study conducted by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology estimated that building automation-another term for integrating multiple building systems-could reduce the annual operating costs of buildings by an impressive 3.6 to 7 cents per square meter.

The importance of comfort cannot be underestimated. Employees and customers enjoy a regulated environment, where temperature and humidity are carefully controlled. And who wouldn't enjoy having their office lit, the elevator waiting and the heater already pumping warm air the moment they swipe their access card?

Some Trouble Points
While the advantages are impressive, some have found the road to multi-system integration a bit bumpy. The first and most obvious problem has been the complexity of linking together disparate systems from numerous manufacturers. Each of the systems has proprietary hardware and communication protocols specific to its vendor, and each essentially was designed to work on its own. Enabling all the various mechanical and electrical systems to work from a single building control point is not a simple task and requires specific knowledge in a broad range of areas.

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