Get Smart

Jim Read, associate director at Arup Communications, shares his thoughts on what defines smart buildings, and what the AV community should be doing to make sure they are involved.

Jim Read has been championing the concept of intelligent buildings for many years. As we approach what appears to be the dawn of a second generation of the technology, I
asked him what exactly he understands by the term “Smart Building”, what’s driving the resurgence, and what the wider AV community can do to get involved.

“What is an intelligent building? That’s a really big question. It depends what corner of the market you come from. Whether you come from the building controls industry, or the telecoms industry, or the computing industry, or the AV industry, you’ve got a different view.

“I think it started with the controls and the IT industries saying, ‘ok what can we do to make the building more intelligent?’ That began with the control of the HVAC systems, and then extended to security systems and access and CCTV and then we got to ‘how about doing this on one common operating platform?’, which is when the IT industry got involved because it has had IP as a common system for years.

“AV has come late into the game here, and the potential hasn’t been realised until quite recently. Even now there’s a long way to go.”

But what do we mean by smart, I wondered? Is it just about the ability to transfer data around freely.

“I think the word smart actually came about as a replacement for intelligent, which has got a bit tired, and has a bit of baggage.

“They both imply that the building has had a lot of thought put into it, that it works well and that it’s efficient. In particular in the last decade as we’ve been thinking more about green issues, and climate change there has been a resurgence in thinking about smart

“The green issue has been the factor behind the resurgence of the intelligent or smart building industry. It has put its hand up in response to the green agenda, and exponents have said ‘yes, if you want to make a building more efficient and more green, and comply with the various rules and regulations that various countries statutory bodies are coming out with then you need what is after all, an intelligent building.’

“Interestingly, if you talk to an architect, then the definition of a smart building doesn’t necessarily include much technology. It has to be a building that’s responsive to what the people what, and a good architect will listen very carefully to what his client
wants from the building, and designs accordingly.

“If it works for the people in it, then they will be more productive and happier. After all, the business objective is to have good, productive happy people that stay working for you. A lot of that is about the environment so that people are not constantly worrying
about how hot or cold it is.

“But, you rapidly come to the conclusion that to keep all of those people happy and warm you need to harness technology. You start looking at the way that people’s expectations have changed, particularly in relation to advances in technology. And then you come to the more demanding requirements of buildings that have arisen from the green agenda, things like monitoring, or reducing, energy consumption.

“Where the AV scope starts to come in is in room booking systems, ubiquitous video conferencing, and standard rooms for AV presentation. The expected specification for such rooms has come on stupendously in ten years, from shared portable systems to fixed equipment in every room.”

“Very quietly the technology is getting more sophisticated and it’s blending into the design of a building. This is the smart bit as far as I’m concerned. When you’ve sorted out all of the components of a building right up front when you’re talking concepts with an architect and you build it in. You need use your imagination with the technology and your experience and knowledge of what the technology can do to drag those systems and components in and create that smart building to the specification that the customer wants.”

A lot of this presupposes that current building project practices will change. Even now, so many audiovisual installations suffer from an after the fact mentality. How often have you worked a job where you’re trying to route cables after the fact. Isn’t it time that cables were routed before concrete was poured?

“We’re fast getting to that point, even over the last two three years rapid progress has been made in conquering that ‘last in’ mentality. By getting the AV integrated as part of the building design. IT and AV cabling are now considered the fourth utility. They’re part of building services.

“When I first joined Arup I struggled for years to get this accepted. They said ‘no, no don’t worry about that the client will decide what they want when they move in.’ Of course they did – they ripped the floor up to add it! “But, if you go up a layer and start talking about systems and applications, we’re still lagging behind a bit. Particularly with the totally integrated building, when you’re talking about unified networks that monitor the building and provide business functions as well as business connectivity. There’s still a lot of nervousness about having a unified network.

“There are still a lot of problems to be solved about getting that integrated as part of a building contract. Does an incoming tenant want his data network to be part of his building contract and for that matter do we even know who the incoming tenant is? 

“Fortunately, a lot of projects that we get involved with tend to be owner occupied, so we don’t have that final uncertainty.” That’s not the norm in general though, notes Read.

“One of the things I think that has held up progress is that there’s so much speculative building going on. I’m not certain but it’s around 70% speculative to 30% owner occupied. A developer will always want to design to the bare minimum that he has to, he has to make it edgy so that it rents – he can’t make it a dinosaur building. But, on the other hand if he commits himself to fitting out, then he might be taking a step too far, and then he won’t be fitting out to what a client wants.

“The fact is that he probably is fitting out to what a client wants because everything is much more standardised now. Everyone expects more of the same sort of things at the same sort of level, but agents and developers are always reluctant to do anything more than the basic minimum because it costs them a lot more money that they are not sure they’re going to get payback on. And they’re not sure that the client’s going to want it.”

But where does that minimum lie?

“Fibre to every floor, and Cat6 to every room is pretty much minimum now, but in fact half of buildings don’t do that. They stop at the floor level and have very little secondary cabling installed. But it won’t be long before everyone accepts that secondary cabling is pretty much standard.”

So, given that AV is somewhat late to the party, what contributions do AV equipment vendors need to start making in order to get onboard? 

“If they’re going towards energy monitoring, as I know they are, then they’re crossing over a bit into the whole buildings area, which is a great start for them because they will gain experience.

“But most of the AV industry, and I mean this in a nice way, needs to grow up a bit and get into the building world. They’re not good at that yet. It’s a question of experience at management and product development level in terms of designing products to form part of a building services network.

“That means thinking about the data you can glean from equipment, and its reporting capability. But also, and what’s more important is the approach to being a part of a multidisciplinary project. They haven’t quite got that yet.

They need to take a leaf out of the building controls manufacturers’ book – the likes of Johnson Controls. They understand very well what the construction process is about – and if the AV world in general had more of a heads up on that, I think it would do them a lot of good.”
That’s great if you’re a big company, but I wondered
where the little man fits in.

“Well at the moment, they consult for the big boys. So if Honeywell or Siemens responds to a tender with an AV section in it they then go and look for an AV contractor to fulfil it. If a larger AV company could actually take a role like that, as Siemens and Honeywell do, then they could get ahead of the game.

“Another point to note for the AV market is that it has to do something that a Honeywell doesn’t. It has to get much more up front with the end user and the architects. The design has to be part of the interior fit out. If you’re a building systems company you are a little bit removed. Everyone wants good lighting and HVAC, but no one really cares about the specification of it. With AV it’s much more immediate. They could do themselves a favour by becoming more clued up in that regard, and by
developing soft skills.

“All these companies start from a technology base, which is absolutely right because they are technical products. And, like a lot of organisation they need front end people who know about what the end users want, and what the architects want. But, that really could be people who know nothing about the technology at all.”

So what’s the solution for AV manufacturers and integrators. How do the get to grips with all this?

“I think the major steps really are threefold. First give users a really friendly user interface. Even the leading manufacturers admit that some of their interfaces are really not good enough. That means getting much more feedback from users about what they want.

“Second, get an understanding of what interior designers
and architects want.

“The third and most important one is getting into the building contract themselves. Acting like a Schneider or a Honeywell who know exactly what Skanska or a Lang want out of a building project.”

Smart Buildings might appear to be a daunting market place, especially for smaller businesses. However, as you’ll see in the next feature, the technologies are familiar and the barrier for entry is no more challenging than a willingness to step out of the comfort zone.