Smart Building Essentials

July 28, 2021

In a world where we increasingly hear the importance of implementing “smart” concepts—smart buildings, smart technology, smart cities—it can be difficult to decipher what it all means. What actually makes a building smart, and how is it all connected?

The answers to those questions will not only help owners determine the needs of their buildings, but it will also improve the users’ experiences, keeping systems connected and running seamlessly to create a positive, efficient environment.

That’s where Aptitude, a strategic trade partner of JE Dunn comes in – to connect those crucial systems for a truly smart, seamless technology experience. To support the growing need for smart buildings, JE Dunn launched Aptitude: Intelligent Integration in January 2021. Leveraging the nearly 100 years of design-build expertise to deliver built environments, the team not only helps owners determine what is best for their buildings, but they also help them understand the scope and ramification of those needs.

Smart technology involves connecting multiple low voltage systems within a building and can meet needs ranging from security and access systems to nurse call stations, all the way to complex audio-visual and lighting structures. Though smart building is a highly complex process, it really boils down to three main components: Infrastructure, Cyber Security, and Utilization of Collected Data.

Infrastructure is the super-highway in which the data travels throughout your building and beyond and is a complex network of low-voltage connections. Infrastructure is made up of jacks at the desk, cabling between there and the active network gear in a telecommunications room, and the wireless access points that employees connect to when not at their desks. With more devices than ever before per person—typically a personal computer, desk phone, cell phone, and tablet—there is increasing stress both on current infrastructure in many buildings as well as the need to improve it.

Up until the early 2000’s, our industry attempted to improve the speed of data transmission in cable on an almost bi-yearly basis. We quickly passed through standards for Category 3, Category 5, Category 5E, Category 6, Category 6E, Category 6A, and shielded versions of each. The industry was hungry to continue to make the cable faster with every new category. CAT6A had achieved 10 gigabits per second, which was great, but it required that users were connected within the building. When the industry started to virtualize their network services purchasing it through a SaaS (Software as a Service) program that we marketed as “Cloud,” the internet connection became a choke point. As a result, many customers only bought cable with speeds compared to the internet connection they could achieve.

Internet speeds have improved in recent years, and we are finding owners follow suit with their pursuit of a faster infrastructure. More and more emphasis is being placed on a wireless network. More than just the humans in the building are connecting to wireless access points, and there are now countless IoT (Internet of Things) devices also depending on this wireless infrastructure to report vital statistics about the building. Infrastructures are now one consolidated network, as opposed to many independent purpose-built networks. Each of these systems now utilize an IP (internet protocol) connection in order to share a common network, which allows for these systems to interact with each other.

Past examples of independent networks now utilizing the one consolidated approach include:

  • PBX (Private Branch Exchange) telephone system
  • Video Surveillance
  • Access Control
  • Intrusion Detection
  • Audio Visual
  • BMS (Building Management system) typically HVAC controls
  • Lighting Controls
  • Countless medical related systems

A notable change today is the widespread use of video conferencing, both in the office and for remote work. Before the COVID-19 virus sent everyone home to work virtually, video conferencing was minimally used. No one used a camera, and in-person meetings were preferred. During COVID, employees depended on video conferencing for every meeting. We were encouraged to use webcams to make it feel more personal, but even now as we return to the office, more and more meetings remain virtual.

In addition, users are expecting more and more out of a cell phone. They are being used as a credential to enter the building instead of a badge; to interface with a conference room to control speaker volume, input selection, or even just share content to a screen; to interface to the BMS to influence the temperature; and to detect presence and location within the building. It has required the industry to improve how many users can connect to a Wireless Access Point (WAP) simultaneously. and it has driven us to install them closer together, considering less the square-foot coverage range of the WAP, and more about the number of possible connected devices within its range.

The increase in internet usage and the added bandwidth requirements that comes with it means that owners must be even more vigilant when it comes to cyber security. With the one consolidated network approach, it introduces countless intrusion points. The risk with having everything connected is the weakest device in the system could allow a “backdoor” into another more sensitive system on the same network. A simple ransom virus can lock down an entire corporation, as their networks likely extend beyond a single building or campus. Because of this, cyber security is more important than ever when consolidating to one network, and it is imperative to collaborate with IT departments when building or connecting the network.

So, what benefits do owners get from making a building smart and enabling connected technology throughout? IoT devices are everywhere throughout the building and can provide owners and building facilitators with valuable information on how employees are using the both the space and the network. Collecting the right data and making use of it is integral to aid decision making—though challenging, it is an important piece of getting the most out of smart technology.

For example:

  • Occupancy could be used from a safety perspective, allowing emergency teams to have an accurate headcount and location during an emergency event. Occupancy information also plays into space utilization. Knowing how a building is used, how often, and by whom can help with decisions to offer assigned work stations or a hoteling approach. It could also aid in the decision to acquire or build more space.
  • Allowing systems to communicate on one network allows for these systems to be integrated together, to allow for certain interactions. For instance, a badge swipe at the front door could begin a chain of events, all possible by having one connected system.
  • With a simple swipe, it could send a request to the access control system to grant access to the building, request the intrusion system to disarm, and at the same time turn the lights on and change the BMS controls to occupied allowing the air conditioner to turn on. This could all occur simultaneously while it also requests that the video surveillance system take a picture to verify that the rightful owner of the badge was the user.

As more building owners seek smart, connected buildings, early involvement is key to ensuring a customer receives the features that they want while not sacrificing their security. When on board early, JE Dunn’s Aptitude group not only ensures systems work seamlessly together, but it also helps clients lower cost, boost performance, and create efficiencies that improve the overall end users’ experience.