There’s some good news in the construction arena: A significant number of new college dormitories and multifamily residential properties have recently broken ground or will do so soon. Reports indicate that more projects are in the pipeline. In this regard, I have a question: Will you approach these opportunities as you have in the past and simply bid for the new work, or will you seize the opportunity to tackle such new projects in a more global fashion?


In many cases, these new buildings will become part of a multibuilding campus project. That presents some system integration opportunities. So, you need to approach your analysis of these opportunities and craft your bids based on your review of all the necessary building systems and how you might integrate them for greater efficiency and enhanced safety.


The owners of these multibuilding projects increasingly want better integration of the building systems to reduce the total cost of installation, operation, testing and maintenance of the systems over the life of the buildings. You can play a key role by carefully analyzing each project’s low-voltage electrical systems to maximize the integration of these systems. You may then approach the owner with a plan to integrate all of the low-voltage systems throughout the university campus or multibuilding apartment complex.


Examples of systems that could be integrated include fire alarm systems, mass notification systems, building security, panic alarms, closed-circuit video monitoring, access control, heating/ventilating/air conditioning control, and lighting control to name just a few.


One of the first discussion points with an owner or campus facilities director will undoubtedly revolve around the fact that the owner or university has not budgeted for integrating building systems throughout the entire campus all at once. Prepare yourself to suggest a long-term solution whereby you will integrate the new building systems and offer a step-by-step process to upgrade all existing buildings on a scheduled basis. This will demonstrate to the building owner, or the owner’s representatives, that you are interested in more than a “quick buck.” Instead, the owner will see you as someone who can look at the bigger picture over the long term.


For example, many universities have both academic and research missions. Many of these research projects have a carefully scheduled long-term plan to reach stated goals and objectives. The costs of the research include projections based on the long-term scope of the research. Nothing can interrupt the plan without affecting the research and causing the expenditure of unbudgeted costs in order to recover from the interruption. Your long-term plan for the integration of building systems can help ensure that costly interruptions will not derail these research projects.


Analysis and planning must involve a careful study of the systems infrastructures in place at the facility. You may find wholly inadequate infrastructure. Or, you may find that the infrastructure anticipated growth and development of the facility.


Carefully study the power distribution systems to determine their level of reliability. Eliminating power interruptions must have a high priority for a research facility. In your bid package, you could propose the installation of a system to monitor the power to ensure the power distribution system will remain interruption free and to prevent any electrical spikes that could affect expensive research equipment.


The operational reliability of other low-voltage systems, especially the fire alarm system, can also affect an ongoing research project. An alarm condition can not only cause researchers to leave the building, but may also affect the HVAC system—possibly changing the environmental conditions in the research area, thus compromising the work. These interruptions could also invalidate scientific investigations and disrupt and inconvenience the routine classroom functions in the educational portions of the facility.


In research buildings, security and access control can play an important role in protecting occupant lives, property and the integrity of the facility’s mission. Integrating these systems with the fire alarm system, and possibly the building management system, creates an infrastructure that could inherently prove more reliable and robust, thus saving the facility owners and managers a great deal of money in operational and maintenance costs.


But, to integrate these systems and meet the goals of reliability, robustness and maintainability, you must understand the functional operation and requirements of each system. In addition, you must possess a thorough knowledge of the applicable code and standards requirements. This means that your detailed analysis will have three parts. You will need to analyze the systems currently installed in the other buildings—either on the campus or apartment complex. You will need to analyze the systems proposed for the new single building project for which you will submit a bid. Finally, you will need to evaluate the other buildings’ code compliance to determine if any issues exist that would affect the integration of the systems in all the complex’s buildings.


Once you have completed your analysis, you may discover that your design for the systems integration will need to exceed the requirements of the applicable codes and standards to meet goals for system reliability and maintainability.


In addition to integrating the systems within each building, the master plan for facility integration may require the monitoring and, possibly, the control of some or all of the building systems at some central location. Generally, you would locate the monitoring and control features at some focal point on the university campus, such as a security operations center or a maintenance office on a multifamily apartment complex.


You may choose to use a dedicated network as one of the methods to monitor and control each building’s systems. This network could consist of fiber optic or Cat 5 cables. If you use an existing network, you will need to review it for its reliability, dependability and maintainability. Performing maintenance on the network must not affect the life safety, security or reliability of the systems that you monitor or control through the network.


A word of caution: a contractor recently discovered on a large campus—which had integrated all of its fire alarm systems into one life safety network—that impairments caused when performing routine maintenance on the network or on an individual building on the network significantly threatened the operational reliability of the entire integrated system. Even when the contractor attempted relatively simple items such as renaming a device or device location, the contractor had to take the entire system out of service. Address issues such as these early and develop a plan to ensure minimum system downtime during routine maintenance. Remain alert to the fact that, although systems integration can increase overall systems capabilities, reliability and maintainability, you must evaluate the infrastructure as one totally integrated, operational system.


Please do not think that I believe the integration of all of the low-voltage systems is an easy task. It will require a working knowledge of each system planned for the integration. If you do not feel you have a strong enough knowledge base with one or two of the systems proposed for integration, partner with others who bring that knowledge to the table.


The key to building your business on the integrated systems opportunities comes through increasing your knowledge of which systems can be integrated easily and reliably to ensure the owner’s goals are met.


Which brings me to the most important part of developing this opportunity: meet with the owner—along with the systems operators and maintenance team—to ensure you thoroughly understand their needs. For example, when integrating the fire alarm system with the security and access control systems, you will need to balance strict security requirements against the code-required operation of a fire alarm system that might adversely affect the security. These kinds of issues will need the involvement of the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) to avoid later surprises when the AHJ refuses to accept the system as designed. Obviously, systems integration should not compromise the effective operation of the individual systems that are integrated. After reaching a complete understanding of what goals and requirements the owner and the AHJ will insist on, communicate to them how you can meet their goals through systems integration by monitoring and controlling the systems through a robust and dedicated network.


The good news is that, when you approach the original singular building bid with an open and inquisitive mind as to how systems integration will save the owner money—both in installation and long term operational costs—you will always stand out from the crowd of bidders who simply bid the project without thinking globally.