The concept of what a building is and how it should function is changing rapidly in the 21st century. Traditionally, a building is simply a physical object composed of a structural skeleton, an outer skin that provides a boundary between the building occupants and the outside environment, and a collection of independent systems that establish the building’s internal environment. The primary building purpose—providing people with a safe environment that promotes inhabitant well-being and provides a space that supports the intended building use—has not changed. Today, however, buildings are increasingly being viewed as a whole system rather than a structure.

This seemingly subtle change in the concept of a building really is a major paradigm shift in the construction industry, and it is beginning to have a major impact on how buildings are being designed, constructed and operated. Once a building is viewed as a system, the concept that a building is just a collection of independent systems, including everything from the building roof to lighting controls, is no longer valid. As a result, the focus in building design, construction and operation shifts from optimizing individual and independent building systems to optimizing the building as a whole system. This change in perspective turns previously independent building systems into interdependent building subsystems that must communicate and work together to provide an optimal environment for inhabitants. The emerging integrated building systems’ (IBS) market is the result of this paradigm shift in the building industry and will provide growth opportunities for electrical contracting firms prepared to take advantage of it.

Why IBS today?

The question that the electrical contracting firm contemplating entry into the IBS market needs to ask is “Why IBS today?” What has happened to make IBS a growth market today? For decades, the building industry has talked about “smart” and “intelligent” buildings, but little has happened. Buildings continue to be built as a collection of independent systems. Why should the electrical contracting firm consider investing time and money in the IBS market today?

The answer to these questions is a number of factors have come together in recent years that currently are driving the IBS market and will continue to do so in the future. These factors have resulted in the IBS market evolving from a “push” market to a “pull” market.

For years, a push market existed, which was driven by equipment and system manufacturers that were trying to sell IBS to building owners. Building owners did not see the value of IBS or the payback resulting from an investment in systems and technology. Today this has changed. IBS has become a pull market with building owners demanding buildings that operate efficiently and provide a safe and productive environment for building occupants. IBS depends on building power, communications and control systems, and as a result, the electrical contracting firm is perfectly suited to take advantage of this emerging market.

As noted above, there are a variety of factors that have come together to make IBS a growth market for electrical contracting firms. These factors include the following:

  • Advancing technology 
  • Energy efficiency
  • Environmental concerns 
  • Security and life safety needs

The following paragraphs will discuss each of these four market drivers.

Advancing technology

First and foremost, rapidly advancing power, communications and control technology is driving IBS. The advances are not only about the technology embedded into the component, equipment or system but the manufacturing technology that produces it. For instance, photovoltaics (PV) provide a prime example of how both advancing product and manufacturing technologies are coming together to make PV both a technologically and economically viable form of distributed generation (DG). Advances in PV technology have improved the efficiency of converting sunlight into electricity and allowed the integration of PV into a variety of building materials using thin film. Integrating PV into building materials, such as glass and roofing, reduces installation cost and has the potential of turning the entire building envelope into an electric power generator. In addition, advances in PV manufacturing technology are increasing production efficiency, which will reduce the cost of PV materials in the future as new PV facilities come on line.

Energy efficiency

Energy costs continue to climb, and building owners are looking for more efficient buildings to lower their operating costs in order to stay competitive. In addition, many federal, state and local jurisdictions are adopting energy codes such as the International Code Council’s (ICC) model International Energy Conservation Code or jurisdictional-specific energy codes, such as the California Energy Commission’s (CEC) Energy Efficiency Standards for Residential and Nonresidential Buildings.

IBS is the key to high-performance buildings that go beyond using more insulation or installing energy-efficient lighting and mechanical equipment. High-performance buildings require that building systems be interoperable and work together in order to optimize the building as a system and significantly reduce energy use. In the future, building components that are considered “dumb” today will become intelligent, which will allow further gains in energy efficiency and increased occupant comfort. For example, the ability to control the transmittance of a building’s glass curtain wall via IBS will be a way to reduce the amount of light and solar heat allowed into the building.

Related to energy efficiency is the fact that the public is becoming increasingly concerned about the environment. Commercial buildings use a significant amount of the energy produced in the United States that results in the production of a large amount of greenhouse gases each year. As a result, federal, state and local governments as well as private owners now are requiring their buildings to be certified or certifiable as green buildings, using third-party criteria such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System. LEED requirements for certification as a green building state that the building meets the provisions of ASHRAE/IESNA Standard 90.1, titled Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings, as a minimum. Accruing more points toward certification requires further optimization of building energy performance, which includes integrated control of lighting, HVAC and other related building systems. Additionally, LEED includes points for integrating on-site renewable energy sources, such as PV into the building and comprehensive building commissioning. IBS is a key element in sustainable buildings.

Security and life safety needs

Concerns about security and life safety also are propelling IBS growth because these systems must be integrated with other building systems to be effective. Expenditures on security and life safety systems by building owners have been on the rise since 2001. Investment in security and life safety systems by building owners will continue to increase because of the public’s concern about crime and terrorism. Today, these systems use state-of-the-art access control, surveillance and intrusion-detection systems and are found in public and private buildings of all types and sizes.

Increasing the effectiveness of building security and life safety systems requires them to be integrated with others, such as the HVAC, building management, lighting control and other related systems. It no longer is enough to be vigilant about fire and physical intrusion. Security and life safety systems today need to be able to detect chemical and biological threats, automatically take action to isolate and contain these threats, evacuate noncontaminated areas of the building, and notify the proper authorities. Modern security and life safety systems are not possible without IBS, because the effective operation of these systems is dependent on building system interoperability.

IBS market participation

The shift in paradigm—from a building being viewed as a collection of independent systems need to be individually optimized, to the building itself being the system that consists of a number of subsystems that need to be optimized collectively—has created the IBS market. Achieving energy efficiency, addressing environmental concerns, and providing a secure and safe environment for building occupants, in conjunction with advancing technology, makes IBS a growth market for the electrical contracting firm. In order to profit from this emerging market, the electrical contracting firm needs to understand the market’s direction, its customers’ needs and its ability to meet those needs.

The important thing for the electrical contractor to understand about the IBS market is that they do not have to know how to do everything. In fact, with rapidly changing technology, it is not possible for the electrical contracting firm to do everything. Even if it wanted to, by the time the firm had acquired the necessary in-house technical expertise, the market and its customers may have moved on to a newer technology.

A more effective way of approaching the IBS market is for the electrical contracting firm to identify and stick to its core technical competencies and capitalize on its project management abilities. The electrical contracting firm’s value lies in its ability to find specialized individuals, contractors and manufacturers who understand the technology and can perform the work; subcontract the specialized portions of the work to them; and then manage the project to ensure that it is completed on time, within budget and meets the needs of the customer. EC

This article is the result of a research project investigating the future of the IBS market that is being sponsored by ELECTRI International Inc.

GLAVINICH is an associate professor of the Department of Civil, Environmental & Architectural Engineering at The University of Kansas. He can be reached at 785.864.3435 or tglavinich@ku.edu.