James Carlini: The Da Vinci of the Intelligent Building Movement

By Frank Bisbee | Aug 15, 2013
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Today, there are many companies and organizations struggling to keep up with technology and maximize their systems and profit potentials. In the public sector, local, state and federal government units are facing similar challenges dealing with efficiency, controls, and service through technology. Education facilities from K–12 to colleges and universities are addressing technology boldly in all areas of their operations.

The concept of building automation now extends to capabilities that were not even conceived of a few years ago. The world of commercial real estate (CRE) is adapting to a new set of competitive challenges by using technology in the buildings to serve the tenants. Technology is rewriting the book in healthcare facilities in so many ways that it is difficult to keep up.

As we marvel at the new designs of integrated systems in smart buildings, it is interesting to look at one of the visionaries that helped us see this future.

Defining new intersections of interest

In the great established and evolving domains of real estate, infrastructure, technology, and regional economic development, there is an intersection where all these diverse worlds of industries, as well as complex developments, meet.

At that multifaceted crossroad, you will come across James Carlini defining the undefined. You will find him classifying and constructing the framework of interrelationships of these four vast areas in order to crystallize a multidisciplinary approach and strategy for high-tech real estate. Understanding that strategy will enable organizations to develop and shape the structure that can be used effectively in today’s mobile Internet age.

His knack of being able to develop an understandable structure, where no logical structure has been available, has helped companies with improving their marketing strategies, broadening their offerings in real estate to a more sophisticated corporate tenant, and improving the impact of mission critical networks for both companies and municipalities. For a court case, he actually developed a model for evaluating the “virtual real estate” of banner ads and what their valuations should be based on where they were positioned on the website (home page, following pages, static ads and rotating banners).

Pioneer of measuring building intelligence

Carlini started back in the mid-1980s when he was given the task by a large, real estate firm to make sure they were getting their money’s worth on a $20,000,000 retrofit of one of their properties, the Seafirst Building in Seattle. By that time, he had already gained a broad knowledge of telephony and software engineering from Bell Telephone Laboratories as well as Illinois Bell headquarters. He was director of telecommunications and computer hardware consulting for Arthur Young when he embarked upon this project.

He developed the "Carlini Building IQ Test" to measure the amount of technology within the Seafirst Building and then compare it with the surrounding Class A buildings within the downtown Seattle area. This was a radically different approach to competitive marketing strategies that compared traditional amenities of one building to the other. His test actually measured and compared what technologies the buildings deployed.

He actually coined the phrase “intelligent amenities” that defined the new and emerging technologies that were starting to be placed in buildings: information, communications, and building automation technologies. These technologies became critical as more sophisticated tenants depended on communications-based information systems to support their core businesses.

He developed the initial framework of the concept and wrote about it in several publications in 1985. In an article for Real Estate Review, "Measuring A Building’s IQ," he set the foundation for what network infrastructure as well as other technologies would be in buildings of the future. With such a clear visionary definition, his words still ring true today.

Carlini further defined four levels of smart buildings from the lowest level, “The Frankenstein,” which offered basic and traditional amenities, to the highest level, “the Einstein,” which offered sophisticated network services as well as redundant power.

He pointed out, "As buildings become smarter, the cabling issue becomes critical. Such requirements would affect the architectural design of new buildings and impose a need for improvements on existing buildings."

Today, companies are still trying to find out the winning combination of wired and wireless transmission media to service the constantly evolving corporate workspace. His insights were before Wi-Fi, DAS and smartphones, yet his framework accommodates these new and emerging technologies.

Back in 1985, Carlini focused on the importance of having the right network infrastructure within the building and warned that existing building could become obsolete. In order to remain competitive, he suggested, "Cabling is also important to owners of existing buildings who want to turn their 'Frankenstein' into an 'Einstein' building."

Another concept that he pointed out is that the network infrastructure within the building should match up with the lifespan of the building and not of the technology that hangs off of it: "The wiring should try to reflect the building’s lifespan, rather than the communications/information system’s lifespan."

In other words, you should not be upgrading the wiring of a building every time you switch out technology. This practice has still yet to be fully adopted, and the waste that goes on with companies installing network infrastructure that becomes prematurely obsolete is widespread.

In 1985, Carlini concludes "Measuring A Building’s IQ" with this vision: "As more of the real estate industry becomes comfortable with the idea, sophisticated marketing approaches will be created and refined. The question, 'How smart a building do you need?' will become as common as, 'How much space do you want to lease?'”

In 1988, he was asked to write a chapter further defining, “Measuring a Building’s IQ” in Johnson Controls’ "Intelligent Building Sourcebook" (Published by Prentice Hall in 1988).

By that time, he had concluded the comparison of buildings and project work for the real estate company. He also had several other articles appear on the results of that project including one in commercial renovation. He changed the way buildings were assessed and compared, yet appraisers today still do not compare intelligent amenities when valuating buildings.

In 1990, Carlini worked with AT&T Network Systems to develop a better marketing approach for selling central offices. At $40,000,000-plus for each one, these were very sophisticated systems to sell to regional bell operating companies. Again, Carlini devised a better approach by developing a framework for features as well as a better naming convention for them.

He also developed the twelve criteria for RFPs that focused on twelve categories rather than just “price” in making a buying decision. All the criteria started with R, F, or P: reliability, redundancy, reduced operating costs, resources, risks, realities, functionality, flexibility, familiarity, price, performance, and personnel.

AT&T shared this with all its RBOC customers to distribute to those making decisions on premise-based versus central office-based phone systems. He later used these twelve criteria for RFPs framework in courses he taught at Northwestern University both at the undergrad level and the executive masters level.

Knowing that you needed to have a well-defined capabilities framework to sell complex systems and services, Carlini devised a way to market complex systems by providing a yardstick to measure the competition. His advice to AT&T was, “If you don’t give them a yardstick, your competitors will, and you will never measure up on their yardstick.”

Carlini became an advocate for using fiber optic networks in communications long before most companies were even thinking about implementing fiber optic networks in campus environments. He believed changing and upgrading the network infrastructure would “transform organizational Titanics into Starships” by adding huge amounts of bandwidth capacity and provide capabilities that were not attainable with copper-based media.

One of James Carlini’s largest projects was also one of the most significant projects utilizing SONET networks.

In his role as consultant to the Mayor’s Office on the Chicago 911 Emergency Communications Center, he recommended to go with fiber optics to connect to the central offices feeding the center as well as connecting all the police and fire stations with fiber. In the end, Chicago had more than 176 miles of fiber optics connecting more than 80 buildings. This was long before any company even thought about undertaking this big an implementation of a fiber-optic based campus network.

Carlini worked on other projects including multimillion-dollar lawsuits involving network infrastructure and mission-critical networks. He was an advocate of using fiber optics and worked on the planning of the 800-acre DuPage Business Center, which has multiple network carriers coming into the campus with speeds in excess of 40 gigabits per second. (This was at a time supposed "in-the-know" associations, like Educause, were coming out with whitepapers advocating a very obsolete 100 megabits per second as a baseline for enterprise network transmissions.)

In his research, while working on this project, he came up with several white papers defining this next-generation real estate as well as finding matching endeavors in Asia (Hong Kong, mainland China, and Taiwan).

Classifying next-generation real estate: intelligent business campuses

Around 2006–2008 is when Carlini started to see that single disciplines were merging and overlapping to create next-generation real estate. He defined intelligent business campuses (IBCs), intelligent retail/entertainment/convention center (IREC) complexes, and intelligent infrastructure in a series of white papers. The whitepaper on intelligent infrastructure was written and presented for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security at Columbia University in 2009.

He has spoken in different international conferences on Intelligent Infrastructure as well as 21st century real estate pointing out these huge paradigm shifts in real estate.

He has developed numerous rules-of-thumb within his 100s of articles and whitepapers. He has actively pursued replacing obsolete rules-of-thumb that some in the industry still cling to.

His advice to projects in the planning stage has always been to look at broadband connectivity as a must-have, and not a hoped-for.

Quotes and Carlini-isms

James Carlini is a firm believer of gaining wisdom through other leaders’ quotes. He shared some of them with me. Here are some that have influenced him throughout the years:

“He, who has the wheel, sets the direction.”
"Any fool can handle the helm in calm seas.”
—Malcolm Forbes

“A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”
—General George S. Patton

“Words are words, explanations are explanations, promises are promises, but only performance is reality.”
—Harold Geneen, former Chairman, ITT

He has many quotes and his own, “Carlini-isms,” as he put it. He used them in classes to point out things that practicing professionals should be aware of as well as things they should avoid.

I asked Mr. Carlini what are the ones he is most noted for or ones he thought were significant. He gave me some of his quotes, the year he first said them and a brief comment about them:

"Leading-edge organizations do not maintain their position using trailing-edge technologies.” When Carlini said this to Arthur Young, he did not know how timeless this observation was. It really speaks volumes.

“There are no experts in this industry. The best you can be is a good student—always learning.” Carlini used to start all his courses at Northwestern University with this to put people at ease.

“There’s no such thing as a new $5,000 Rolls-Royce. You get what you pay for.” Carlini used this one a lot in class as well as its converse logic: “If you only have $5,000, there’s no such thing as a Formula 1 Yugo.”

“You cannot get Superman by paying Jimmy-Olson wages.” This was a comment Carlini first made in a job interview where they were looking for a very dynamic vice president but did not want to pay for all the skill sets they were looking for. Carlini later taught executives in his courses at Northwestern University that you pay for what you get and that skilled people do not come cheap.

“The three most important words in real estate today are, 'Location, Location, Connectivity.'” Carlini was quoted in an article for Business 2.0 on issues with locating a business outside of Silicon Valley. He said this would be important to the success of the business and since then decided to write a book about this shift in real estate priorities.

"Economic Development Equals Broadband Connectivity, and Broadband Connectivity Equals Jobs” This is Carlini's conclusion after working on and researching several next-generation real estate projects.

Carlini has worked on international issues and developed a course on international applications of technology long before anyone had international courses in their curriculum. Some people in grad programs took this Northwestern undergrad course and transferred it to their university for graduate-level credit.

His latest endeavors include putting all of this logic, wisdom and defining frameworks in an upcoming book, “Location, Location, Connectivity.”

James Carlini will be the keynote speaker at AGL Magazine’s Seminar in Chicago on September 19th. Details at:

Carlini can be reached at 773-370-1888 or [email protected].

About The Author

Frank Bisbee is with Communication Planning Corp., a telecom and datacom design/build firm. He provides a free monthly summary of industry news on





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