The term “integrated building systems” (IBS) refers to the trend in the building industry where systems are becoming increasingly interdependent and need to work together and communicate with one another seamlessly. Once “dumb” stand-alone building systems now are able to communicate and interact with other building systems to improve operation. Power, communications and control systems bring buildings to life and provide the vehicle for systems’ integration. Where communications and control systems once were considered optional amenities, today they are essential to the operation of a building and the well-being and safety of its occupants.
Currently, building owners are struggling with the need to integrate environmental systems to achieve needed system functionality, interoperability and efficiency. This need will only increase as more buildings incorporate intelligent materials, distributed generation and open-architecture control systems. Since all intelligent building systems will rely on power, communications and control systems, the electrical contractor is in a unique position to assume the role of IBS contractor.
An IBS contractor can be defined as the firm responsible for ensuring building systems effectively communicate with one another and work together as a system. The purpose of IBS is to provide a safe, healthy and productive environment for building occupants as well as an economical and efficient building for the owner. Under this definition, there is a wide range of services an IBS contractor could provide, depending on the needs of the owner and the technical and managerial capabilities of the IBS contractor.
On one end of the spectrum, the IBS contractor could be what is often referred to as a “systems contractor.” The systems contractor provides the technical expertise needed to bring diverse building systems together via a hardware and software solution. At the other end of the spectrum, the IBS contractor may have some of the needed system integration expertise to perform some of the work but would subcontract the balance to other specialty contractors with other needed expertise. In this case, the IBS contractor would operate somewhat like a general contractor, and its managerial expertise would be as or more important than its technical expertise. In either case, the IBS contractor is providing single-point responsibility for building systems’ operation to the extent defined in the contract documents.
Electrical contractors are uniquely qualified to be an IBS contractor. Electrical contractors understand power, communications and control systems, and how they are installed and operate. In addition to technical expertise, electrical contractors have the management expertise, qualifications and financial ability to see the job gets done correctly.
Many electrical contracting firms are developing in-house communications and control systems expertise in order to make the transition from traditional electrical contracting to building systems integration. However, becoming an IBS general contractor can greatly expand the electrical contracting firm’s capabilities and market with minimal investment and risk.
Operating as an IBS general contractor allows the electrical contractor to offer more and varied technical and systems integration services to its customers than it could if it tried to develop all the needed expertise in house. Adopting the general contractor model will make the electrical contracting firm much more agile and able to respond to changing customer needs and technological advances.
As an IBS general contractor, the electrical contracting firm would no longer have to invest the time and money necessary to become proficient in a particular technology or system. Instead, the electrical contractor would find individuals and firms that have the necessary knowledge and expertise today and team with them to meet the owner’s current needs.
The general contractor model should reduce the electrical contracting firm’s overhead and risk as well as make it more responsive to its customers. Instead of investing the firm’s resources in learning systems and technologies that are constantly changing and may become obsolete overnight, the electrical contracting firm can focus on developing its core competencies. This would include an understanding of IBS market and systems integration as well as the ability to manage the work successfully for the customer. EC
This article is the result of a research project investigating the emerging IBS market for the electrical contractor that is being sponsored by ELECTRI International (EI). The author would like to thank EI for its support.
GLAVINICH is an associate professor of the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering at The University of Kansas. He can be reached at 785.864.3435 or firstname.lastname@example.org.