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Smarter Than the Average Building


Smart phones, smart TVs, smart homes and now smart buildings. This rapidly expanding trend changes the way builders construct and owners manage their buildings.

“It’s an amazing transformation, and it’s moving quickly,” says Ryan Abbott, senior vice president of Sundt Construction in Phoenix, a member of multiple AGC chapters. He adds that the technology has taken off during the last five years and is now “coming of age. We are living in exciting, exponential times.”

Paul Boucher, national director of systems integrated solutions at JE Dunn Construction in Denver, a member of multiple AGC chapters, also reports buildings are getting more intelligent, with an explosion in growth of Internet of Things devices and sensors in building systems.

“There is more machine-to-machine learning, with equipment talking to each other, without human intervention,” Boucher says. “The way we build has to change. No longer can a general contractor ignore technology. Everybody is talking about it.”

Pat Rodgers, president and CEO of Rodgers Builders in Charlotte, North Carolina, a member of Carolinas AGC, describes a smart building as “one that can help the occupants of a building and say things about itself that help the people occupying it do what they do better.”

Rodgers recommends anticipating and collaborating when building a smart structure. Smart buildings require many components and the involvement of a variety of subcontractors working
together. Rodgers uses a 3D model. She sees smart technology being integrated into every discipline.

“Technology changes every day,” adds Drew Robinson, vice president at Rodgers. “We need to embrace it. If we do not stay on the forefront, we will be left behind.”

Susan Heinking, director of high performance and sustainable construction at Pepper Construction Co. in Chicago, a member of multiple AGC chapters, adds that smart buildings are more complicated to orchestrate during construction and require different planning that lends itself to early collaboration between the owner, architect and construction firm.

“The most crucial part to building intelligence is the early commitment from ownership,” adds Mark Drury, vice president of business development at Shapiro and Duncan Mechanical Contractors in Rockville, Maryland, a member of AGC of Metropolitan Washington D.C. “As an afterthought, it does not work. It’s extremely expensive after the fact.”

Smart buildings can include security systems, internet connectivity, lighting, HVAC, plumbing with sensors on pipes to detect a leak, fire alarms and systems to reduce phantom loads on electricity.

“All technology is trying to make our lives more convenient,” Heinking says. “Smart systems are not going to go away.”

Owners are trying to improve the client experience by using technology, Abbott reports. Sundt, in a joint venture with Hunt Construction of Phoenix, is renovating Sun Devil Stadium at Arizona State University in Tempe. The team has incorporated fiber optics, 785 wireless access points, 273 antennas and a cellular (distributed) antenna system throughout the stadium, so 55,000 people can use their smartphones to watch replays, check scores on other games, post on social media or call home at the same time.

“You have to have the infrastructure and backbone to support that,” says Abbott, who chairs the AIA-AGC Joint Committee. A patient at a hospital or guest at a restaurant can check in and then get a text on his or her phone when the appointment or table is ready. Building systems now provide queuing information, digital signage to get people to where they need to go. All require more bandwidth to handle the digital traffic.

Boucher adds that healthcare facilities could have 50 or more low-voltage systems, including LED lighting and power over Ethernet, in need of installation. Retailers are getting in on the smart building technology, with sensors that can pick up someone’s location in the store through smartphones and send messages about products looked at.

“Smart intelligence is here, and we’re seeing it deployed in all kinds of ways,” Boucher says.

Smart buildings have building automation or control systems, with alerts to warn facilities managers if the HVAC system is not functioning properly. Then managers can zero in on the exact part, such as a motor, Drury says.

“On a campus, each building can have its own system, but they all come back together and can be shown on one dashboard where someone measures the energy usage and efficiencies and make changes,” Drury adds. Owners develop project requirements, which will include the amount of water and energy to be saved. Pepper will set up a building to meet the parameters.

“A smart building is one that helps our behaviors as an occupant be more efficient and aware of how we are using our building,” Heinking says. “My role is helping owners look at their investment and how their buildings can perform most efficiently.”

Sensors will identify when someone is in the room and adjust the temperature and lighting accordingly. A carbon dioxide sensor will detect rising levels and the system will bring in fresh air. At other times, the system will circulate existing air.

Rodgers has built smart central energy plants, in which sensors can detect air temperature leaving the chiller and arriving at the air handler and determine if the differential does not meet a predetermined threshold. At that time, maintenance can assess.

Lighting also can adjust to room occupancy. And blinds can close when the sun shines on a window. Dynamic glass or intelligent glass is another example of technology in buildings saving costs. The glass automatically darkens when the sun hits it. View Dynamic Glass of Milpitas, California, estimates an average 20 percent energy saving with its glass windows. But it’s more expensive up front, since a glazer installs the glass and an electrician the wiring.

It’s difficult to quantify costs of a smart building. Drury calls the difference marginal, perhaps 10 percent more. Although it may be more expensive to build a smart building, because there is more labor on the front end to run wires and install sensors, the systems deliver a return on investment in saved energy costs and reduced labor to manage the building.

“The systems pay themselves off pretty quickly,” Heinking says. “The market is trying to bundle systems together. That will be the next evolution.”


Hepta Systems of Detroit serves as a master systems integrator. All building systems are built into one platform. Jason Houck, chief information officer, advises using an open technology and considering the protocol, procurement and licensing.

“It’s a change in design,” Houck says. “It’s important to get the right platform from day one.” From one computer or tablet dashboard, the facility manager can control everything from lighting to security systems to exterior irrigation to electrical use. More data is available as the manager dives deeper into the dashboard.

As technology changes, owners can upgrade the systems. Owners can change the software whenever desired. Hepta also offers hosted services and will keep the systems updated.

WiredScore based in New York offers owners and developers Wired Certification after evaluating a building’s internet connectivity and infrastructure. Its engineers will work with architects and contractors during the planning stages to recommend specifications for telecom-room size, cabling, riser pathways and other elements. Engineers also assess building resiliency and options to increase technological capacity at a later date.

After the building is constructed, a WiredScore engineer confirms the building was built as designed. The company also offers guidelines for designing buildings with future-proofed telecom infrastructure, which can be downloaded for free at the company’s website. John Meko, WiredScore director of engineering, says they often prove helpful to designers trying to convince owners to build smarter buildings.

“We ensure they are designing to future proof for new technologies,” Meko concludes. “It’s important for them to understand the most important components needed to adapt during the next 50 to 100 years.”