Take the Plunge

Become an IBS contractor:

The term, integrated building systems (IBS), refers to the trend in the building industry where building systems are becoming increasingly interdependent; “Integration” and “interoperability” are also heard in the building industry today. In modern buildings, it is recognized that the operation of each system impacts all others. Security is no longer just about access control and intrusion detection. Security is becoming an integral part of the building’s overall life safety system that includes not only protecting occupants against fire but also a variety of other potential physical, biological and chemical threats. This shift is also blurring the line between life safety systems and building management systems, which are becoming increasingly intertwined. Similarly, there is a trend toward a single building network that supports not only data communications but also voice and video communications as well as provides the needed communications’ infrastructure for all other building systems. All of this is creating an opportunity for the electrical contracting firm.

What’s an IBS contractor?

An IBS contractor is responsible for ensuring building systems effectively communicate with one another and work together as a system to provide a safe, healthy and productive environment for building occupants and an economical and efficient building for the owner.

Under this definition, there is a wide range of services that could be provided by an IBS contractor, depending on the needs of the owner and the technical and managerial capabilities of the IBS contractor. On one end of the spectrum, the contractor could be what is often referred to today as a systems integrator who provides the technical expertise needed to bring diverse building systems together through 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 self-perform some of the work but would subcontract most of the work to other specialty contractors. In this case, the IBS contractor would operate as a specialized general contractor and his managerial expertise would be as or more important than their technical expertise. In either case, the IBS contractor is providing single-point responsibility for building system operation to the extent defined in the contract documents.

What’s driving the market?

IBS is not a new concept. It is essentially the “intelligent” or “smart” building concept that has been around for decades; it now exists under a new name. The intelligent building concept never really took hold because the needed technology was not available or economical until recently. It was pushed by manufacturers and others in the building industry but never embraced by building owners because the payoff was just not there. Today, however, the needed technology is becoming commercially available and increasingly economical. In addition to technology, there are a number of other economic and social drivers also making IBS increasingly attractive to building owners, operators and tenants.

With energy and other building operating expenses rising along with increasing public interest in environmentally friendly or “green” buildings, owners are beginning to see both the economic and operational advantages of building systems’ integration. Furthermore, open-architecture control systems are becoming increasingly easier to implement, and there is a greater emphasis on building security and life safety systems that require interaction with all building systems in order to maximize their effectiveness. Once-“dumb” building materials, such as glass and ceiling tile, are becoming intelligent and need to be tied into other building systems to be effective. As a result, it is no longer a market push by the building industry but instead a market pull by building owners and occupants for effective building system integration and operation.

CSI Division 25/integrated automation

One of the major IBS market drivers may be the breakup of the traditional specification sections that occur in the 2004 edition of the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) MasterFormat. In the new MasterFormat, the old Division 15/Mechanical and Division 16/Electrical have expanded to seven separate standalone divisions that make up the Facility Services Subgroup. This subgroup addresses fire suppression (Division 21), plumbing (Division 22), HVAC (Division 23), integrated automation (Division 25), electrical (Division 26), communications (Division 27) and electronic safety and security (Division 28).

CSI Division 25 addresses integrated automation and is really the linchpin of IBS because this is where the integrated building controls are specified. The Level 2 subject titles in Division 25 are as follows:

This new CSI division is where specification occurs for the hardware and software needed to integrate mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) and other related building systems. Integrated automation covered in CSI Division 25 should lead to integrated and optimized building communications and control systems. CSI Division 25 can be used to specify either open-architecture or proprietary building systems.

Open-architecture versus proprietary systems

An important consideration for the electrical contractor planning to evolve into an IBS contractor will be whether building systems will remain proprietary or shift to open-architecture systems. With an open-architecture control system, the hardware and software specifications are public information and available to anyone who wants to manufacture hardware components or develop software for the system. In proprietary or closed-architecture control systems, the original system developer maintains control of the system specifications and is the only entity that can supply hardware or software for the system.

Today, proprietary building automation, fire alarm, security and other systems are the norm, and suppliers not only provide the system but also do the original installation and provide ongoing maintenance. Proprietary control systems make integration difficult and require hardware and software gateways to bridge between systems, which can limit the amount of work available to the electrical contracting firm.

The adoption of open-architecture building control systems such as LonWorks or BACnet over the traditional proprietary systems will significantly influence the future of IBS. The impact will be similar to what is happening with building communications systems where structured cabling systems and standard protocols provide a platform that can accommodate any compatible equipment. This convergence of voice, data and video is resulting in new technologies such as voice over Internet protocol (VoIP). The result is a shift from yesterday’s proprietary stand-alone voice, data and video systems to today’s open communications’ systems that are based on industry standards rather than proprietary hardware and software.

Electrical contractor qualifications

Electrical contractors are uniquely qualified to provide IBS services to owners because they understand power, communications and control systems and how they are installed and operate. In addition to technical expertise, the electrical contractor has the management expertise, qualifications and financial ability to see that the job gets done right. If specific expertise or knowledge is needed that the electrical contractor does not have, the electrical contractor can identify other specialty contractors with the required expertise and coordinate the work for the owner.

In the end, the customer has only one entity to deal with, and the electrical contractor has sole responsibility for the operation of the customer’s building systems. The owner never again has to put up with extended periods of down time and additional service costs that result when multiple service firms argue about whose part of the system is causing the problem.

But how does the electrical contractor become an IBS contractor? The first step the electrical contracting firm needs to take toward becoming an IBS contractor is to become familiar with the systems and market, including the potential for building system integration and open-architecture control systems in its service area. Electrical contracting firm personnel at all levels in the company need to understand IBS, the potential benefits for its customer base and how the electrical contracting firm can market and deliver IBS services to its customers. Being knowledgeable about IBS will not only allow the electrical contracting firm to perform the work but, equally important, market its IBS capabilities to its customers, architects, engineers and specialty designers and consultants, such as lighting and security.

At this stage of IBS market development, building owners and designers are just becoming aware of its potential, and the electrical contracting firms’ marketing efforts should involve educating them about IBS and the potential benefits of open-architecture control systems.

The electrical contracting firm should start with familiar building systems when building its IBS expertise and track record. These systems include lighting control systems, electrical power monitoring and control systems, security systems, fire alarm and other familiar systems. Except in the simplest cases, the electrical contracting firm should not branch out into unfamiliar systems such as HVAC or other facility-specific systems until it fully understands the systems and needed controls.

The best place for the electrical contracting firm to build its IBS market is its existing customer base. Regular customers and particularly those that it performs design/build projects, maintenance or service should be targeted. Design/build is an ideal way of getting into the IBS market because selection of the equipment and systems for the project is usually left to the design/build contractor. In addition, existing customers that have confidence in the electrical contracting firm’s abilities are more likely to consider an open-architecture control system proposal or entertain a voluntary alternate on a competitively awarded contract.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 in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering at The University of Kansas. He can be reached at 785.864.3435 or tglavinich@ku.edu.

About the Author

Thomas E. Glavinich

Freelance Writer
Thomas E. Glavinich was an associate professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering at the University of Kansas. His tenure as one of Electrical Contractor's most trusted and reliable source of industry research end...

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