For Big Business, Integrated Buildings Do the Work

Apr. 22--A fiber optic system sends a property manager an e-mail alert the second a bathroom stall runs out of toilet paper.

A swipe of a security card not only lets you into your building, but also turns on the lights and air conditioning in your office.

You can touch plasma screens scattered around a property to surf the Net, watch TV, order a sandwich, see what's on sale at the store next door or sample movie trailers and buy tickets.

A pair of Ballantyne entrepreneurs have launched a company, Intelligent Buildings, that pulls together those and related services for property developers.

Founders Tom Shircliff and Rob Murchison teamed up in 2004 and have worked on projects including Charlotte's Ballantyne Village Shopping Center and the North Carolina Research Campus under way in Kannapolis.

They're among just a handful of firms in the country to provide such a cutting-edge level of technology, industry insiders say.

"If you combine together the talents of maybe four or five firms, you'd get what Tom and Rob are offering," said Paul Ehrlich, principal of Building Intelligence Group LLC in St. Paul, Minn. Ehrlich's firm advises institutional owners such as colleges and universities on how to put together "smart building" networks.

But the Charlotte company is different because it advises developers even before they break ground. They figure out how best to wire up the buildings, oversee the installation, and then maintain the systems after the developments are complete. And they promise more than just fancy gizmos -- they say they offer cost savings from greater energy efficiency.

Investing roughly $2 to $3 per square foot at the beginning, they say, can result in savings amounting to that much each year. It's from the efficiency of controlling security, lighting, heat, air conditioning and even restroom management from a central point.

At the Ballantyne Village movie theater, for example, carbon dioxide sensors will be able to detect how many people are inside a theater and adjust the climate control accordingly. Automated restroom management is in the works there.

The idea of intelligent buildings has been around for at least two decades, but only recently has the idea of combining expertise in real estate development and technology grown popular, the company principals say.

In the past, most developers have left their tenants to figure out how to wire themselves up. Murchison and Shircliff argue their service is now as vital as basics like gas, water and electricity.

"We believe information is a utility," says Murchison.

It may be a relatively new approach in the U.S., but Shircliff and Murchison are getting many of their ideas from Asia, where capital is flooding in to build sophisticated office buildings. Shircliff cites a statistic from the Smart Growth Leadership Institute: 60 percent of the world's construction cranes are in Shanghai and Beijing.

"The things we think are interesting, they take for granted," he said.

The ideas are catching on here. Murchison and Shircliff won't specify revenues for their company, but they said the first quarter of this year has already doubled their revenues from all of 2005, and that anticipated work for 2007 is expected to quadruple that for 2006.

The company employs 12 in Charlotte and has a contract for 50 other workers from a joint venture partner, to deploy to projects in the works in Birmingham, Houston and Los Angeles as needed.

At the Ballantyne Village Shopping Center, they oversaw the installation of fiber optic and copper networks that offer tenants Internet, wi-fi, phone, television, security systems, digital signs, Muzak and more.

Soon, customers can also use touch-screen TVs to browse store directories, watch movie trailers or check on which retailers are having sales at the 160,000-square-foot shopping center. As the center grows, Intelligent Buildings can add to the system for new tenants. Condo towers will go online when they're added to the project.

The system even controls the lighting on the crown-shaped projection jutting from the top of the movie theater.

The company is in the early stages of planning similar services for the mammoth North Carolina Research Campus taking shape in Kannapolis.

Workers there might be able to use touch-screens to have lunch delivered to their desks; visitors can use them to find out about the tenants; and researchers can use the network to share data securely, said Lynn Beckner, chief financial officer of Castle & Cooke North Carolina LLC, the developer of billionaire David Murdock's $1 billion biotech hub.

The system is expected to result in annual savings of $1 a square foot in energy efficiency -- which adds up over 2.5 million square feet, she said. It might also go to the level of monitoring toilet paper in bathrooms.

"I think we're probably forging new ground here," she said. "(Shircliff and Murchison) are unique. There really isn't anyone else in this area who provides the type of value they do."

Intelligent Buildings Founders

TOM SHIRCLIFF

-- Age: 40. -- Education: N.C. State University.

-- Experience: 18 years marketing and selling technology to businesses for companies including BellSouth, BroadRiver Communications and Price Davis Building and Tenant Services.

ROB MURCHISON

-- Age: 36.

-- Education: Duke University.

-- Experience: 14 years in technology and voice data service industries for companies including Automated Business Systems and Cisco.

Leigh Dyer: (704) 358-5058

<<Charlotte Observer, The (NC) (KRT) -- 04/24/06>>

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