Everything Old Is New Again

Even as structures age, tenants expect up-to-date building automation, lighting controls, security and voice/data information. This expectation creates a new niche for electrical contractors. Contractors who can comfortably handle an integrated building system (IBS) retrofit have low-voltage wiring knowledge in addition to specialized engineering and the flexibility needed to make a modern system fit into a not-so-modern facility.

Commonly, demand for IBS retrofits comes from hospitals and schools. Educational facilities, especially, must maintain modern amenities, and generally, the existing buildings are updated to fit current needs, rather than being replaced by new because of restrained budgets. For instance, most IBS retrofits that San Diego-based electrical contractor Dynalectric performs are in the educational market, said Bob Riel, vice president and division manager. In the past year, the company has upgraded heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) and lighting controls at College of the Desert, Palm Desert, Calif.; Citrus College, El Camino, Calif.; and El Camino College, Torrance, Calif.

Older commercial buildings also are being updated and integrated. In one such project, Diamond View Tower, a 14-story office building in San Diego, Dynalectric added fiber closed-circuit television (CCTV) and video conferencing, bringing the building tenants necessary capabilities for today. Older buildings tend to have single, stand-alone systems, which make these retrofits necessary, especially when building owners are trying to compete for tenants with new buildings.

“The new buildings tend to be more integrated,” Riel said.

Retrofit tips

Large IBS retrofits often are missed opportunities for electrical contractors. Construction Electronics Inc. (CEI), Poway, Calif., is one of the contractors that has focused on low-voltage work since its 1975 founding. CEI is an exclusive installer for Rauland-Borg nurse call systems and completes a large percentage of the area’s healthcare market. The company also performs new construction and retrofits for schools.

CEI specializes in the big jobs that other contractors may avoid, said Don Walters, the company’s CEO. Instead of taking smaller jobs, CEI electricians are more likely to be found wiring or rewiring large industrial and office buildings. They commonly retrofit security, including access control, CCTV and fire alarm systems.

At San Diego Gas & Electric’s 20-story building, CEI is supplying an entire fire alarm system upgrade. With older structures such as these, the project often begins with asbestos abatement teams. CEI arrives on the site ahead of those teams, marking the locations where the work will be done, and letting the asbestos abatement team remove what is necessary.

“Before we ever even order parts, we walk the building, lift ceiling tiles, open terminal boxes and look at it with engineering eyes,” Walters said.

Once workers understand how the conduit and raceway systems are mapped out, they come back in-house and work with the engineering team, doing CAD drawings and beginning to plan the new system.

With that process, Walters said, “We have 90 percent surety of the pieces and parts we have to order and how much labor will be needed.” Once the drawings are complete, they are presented to the authority having jurisdiction to ensure they meet codes.

“We can spend as much time like this upfront, doing the engineering and drafting, almost as we do pulling wire,” he said. “The low-voltage industry is different. We probably have as many people in house as we have in the field.” CEI does all its own engineering.

Also common in a building retrofit such as San Diego Gas & Electric, CEI has tenants to work around. The company moves its employees one space at a time.

“If we do the south-end second floor, they move their employees out of the area,” Walters said.

“[Tenants] don’t even want to know we exist, let alone work with us,” he said. CEI schedules shifts an hour after the office has closed, and workers begin cleaning up a few hours before the office reopens.

“We sweep the floors, put everything back. They want to come to work and sit at a nice, clean desk and not hear anything.”

Renovation from the ground up

Some retrofit projects can be huge. Egan Cos., Brooklyn Park, Minn., is completing a large scale IBS retrofit at Foshay Tower in Minneapolis. The company had already completed several building renovation projects that have included all new voice/data, security, fire alarm and building automation systems, said Ward Arms, vice president, Egan Cos., Electrical Construction. The company has a separate automation group (voice/data, fire alarm, security, and building automation/energy management) and an industrial controls group for jobs such as these.

Foshay Tower’s renovation project, transforming the building into an upscale hotel, includes gutting it completely. Egan was tasked with building new systems for the voice/data, security, fire alarm and audiovisual systems.

The 32-story Foshay Tower is a historic building in central Minneapolis and its design mimics the Washington Monument. Its construction offers some challenges since the sides of the building slope inward, and each floor of the Foshay Tower is slightly smaller than the one below it. In addition, it is set back from the street, with a two-story structure surrounding it on two sides. The other two sides are now surrounded by the 17-story TCF Tower.

For the renovation, Egan Cos. is a subcontractor to Ryan Cos. U.S. Inc.—the developer and part-owner of the project. In addition to the IBS, Egan Cos. is providing a new electrical system, including new incoming services; normal power; lighting, including lighting controls; and emergency generator and power distribution. Demolition started February 2007 and the project must finish up by the end of June 2008.

“Right now, our greatest challenge [with the Foshay Tower] is the fact that construction is advancing faster than some of the design, decisions that probably should have been nailed down several months ago,” Arms said. Those decisions are still being made, but the finish line hasn’t been moved.

To stay on schedule, workers have to be organized.

“We have to be flexible, work on parts of the project where the design is complete, and come back to other parts later. This often requires doing work out of sequence,” he said. “If in a normal project you would do things 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, we may have to do things 1, 3, 5, 2 and 4. Not nearly as efficient, but it’s the nature of this kind of work.”

Working around tenants has not been as much of a challenge, Arms said, because most of the tower has been vacated for reconstruction. One tenant, specifically, hasn’t vacated.

“There is a street-level restaurant that we have to keep up and running the whole time, except for a two-week window that we were given last month to cut-over their new systems,” he said. To keep the restaurant operating, Egan removed all the building systems and kept the restaurant running on temporary systems.

In addition, there is the added challenge of working with a historic building, with different parties weighing in.

“We had to adhere to the hotel operator’s specifications and requirements, while simultaneously meeting the owner’s and developer’s aesthetic and budget goals,” Arms said. Even more challenging, since the Foshay Tower is a national landmark and the National Park Service has jurisdiction over many aspects of the renovation, the company had to satisfy demands related to historic preservation. To make it all happen, Egan Cos. chose products that would help the company meet performance and budget requirements.

“Everything on this project is unique,” Arms said. “Taking a national and community landmark that has fallen on hard times the last two decades, and turning it into a jewel that the city can be proud of, that will be very rewarding.”

And when it comes to working in the middle of downtown, Arms said, staging becomes a challenge.

“We often have to shut down half a street in order to receive large material and equipment,” he said.

Also, he said, movement up the tower has been a challenge. The building has four elevators; however, all four are being replaced, and at any given time, workers may be down to only one or two elevators, which are shared by all the trades.

Altogether, Egan Cos. will install 10,000 feet of speaker cable, 8,000 feet of line-level audio cable, 8,000 feet of Category 5 cable, 500 feet of mini high-resolution cable and 500 feet of RG 6 video cable. The voice/data work was subcontracted to Structured Network Solutions Inc., Golden Valley, Minn. For the voice/data system, the company will run 125,000 feet of Category 5e and 1,300 feet of six strand 50 micron fiber. For the fire alarm, Egan Cos. is installing 15,000, 2 No. 16 twisted pair and 23,000, 4 No. 16 notification circuits for fire alarm communications. Bosch installed its own security system.

What renovation means today

The growing move to integrated buildings creates a drive to update older buildings to fit today’s needs and requirements, incorporating sophisticated voice and data and streamlining other systems, such as fire, security, lighting and HVAC, for efficiency.

Integration can mean installing one network for building automation and control, another for the IT functions, and another one for voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) and then tying all these systems together through a single control system. In the case of a single network control, data and voice communications are all on one network, instead of multiple independent networks, which can serve to reduce the owner’s cost of installation and management.

With all sophisticated systems being installed in historic or decades-old buildings, the electrical contractor called on to install IBS must figure out how to approach these projects.

“It’s an expertise all on its own,” Walters said. For instance, he pointed out that many contractors do work with fire alarms, the fire marshal and other intricacies involved, get fed up at some point.

“Well, they’ve all dabbled and undabbled,” he said.

Training in fire alarm systems as well as training in how to work better with building owners may offset some of that frustration, especially since these projects could lead to a constant stream of revenue. For example, CEI seeks work where the company can secure a long-term relationship doing maintenance.

“We look for recurring revenue,” Walters said, adding that his company also seeks to keep its suppliers happy (i.e., finding work in which their suppliers can have a part).

Follow-up maintenance on IBS systems is a huge spot for future growth, Walters said.

“Big customers don’t want to fool with it at all. They want to be able to pick up the phone. Those are the kind of customers we look for,” he said.

The concept of a building, as has been said before, is changing, and new buildings must be updated to fit that new conception. For instance, a building was once thought of a series of independent systems, and now the building itself is being regarded as a system. With this shift, comes a greater push to renovate and a greater need for a contractor that can make integrated building systems a reality.

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.


About the Author

Claire Swedberg

Freelance Writer
Claire Swedberg is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com .

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