Integrated Building Systems and You

Advancing technology is allowing the integration of power, communications and control systems to improve building performance. Owners understand the operational and economic advantages of systems integration and are looking for help in achieving these benefits in both existing buildings and new construction. Systems integration represents a potential new market for the electrical contractor prepared to enter it.

The purpose of any building is to provide people with a controlled environment where they can live, work and play. A building is really just a collection of systems that together provide a controlled environment for its occupants. These systems include not only the mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) systems, but also architectural systems such as the building envelope that establishes the boundary between the interior and exterior environments.

Systems integration has long been recognized as the key to effective and efficient building operation. Design decisions such as the physical layout and orientation of the building along with building materials impact heating and cooling loads as well as artificial lighting needs.

It has been common practice to design and specify building systems based on averages and tradeoffs because building materials have been “dumb” and unable to adapt to changing environmental conditions and occupant needs. All of this is changing with advancing technology and its commercialization in the building industry.

Advancing window technology is an example of the transition of a once “dumb” building material to an intelligent material. Smart windows are under development that will not only control the amount of visible light entering the interior of a building but also the amount of non-visible light, which increases the building’s heat load. Similarly, windows are being developed that have integrated photovoltaics that not only generate useful electricity but also reduce building heating load as a result of converting solar radiation to electricity. Today, passive window treatments or mechanical blinds and shades are used to control incident solar energy. Tomorrow, intelligent windows and curtain walls will allow the dynamic control of incident solar radiation to provide year-round visual and thermal comfort for building occupants along with increased energy efficiency.

The 21st-century building will be an integrated group of subsystems aimed at providing an environment that promotes the well-being and productivity of building occupants. In the past, all building systems were viewed as independent systems that needed to be optimized individually, which typically led to the suboptimal performance of the building as a whole. This is changing with the advent of distributed communications and control systems. “Interoperability” is a word that is heard more often than ever.

The criteria for optimizing building performance will not only be focused on the cost of building operation and maintenance as it is today but also on the productivity and well-being of the inhabitants remanded to its care. This is the heart of the “intelligent” or “smart” building of the future and the opportunity for the electrical contracting firm. The term “intelligent building” is defined by the Building Industry Consulting Services International (BICSI) in its Telecommunications Distribution Methods Manual as follows:

“[A] building that operates a productive cost-effective environment through the optimization of its structure, systems, services and management as well as the interrelationships between them.”

Systems integration is not just about voice/data/video (VDV) that includes building communications and control systems. Power supply and distribution will also be a part of future systems integration as distributed generation (DG) plays an increasingly important role in meeting the growing demand for electric energy in the United States.

Technological advances that are improving the economics of small-scale alternative power sources, concern about the availability of reliable and economical power from the utility grid and increasing constraints on the siting and operation of needed power plants and transmission lines are driving the move toward DG.

Systems integration will provide a new and expanding market for the electrical contractor prepared to take advantage of it. The demand to integrate building power, communication and control systems including small-scale, on-site power generation will grow as the benefits to building owners and occupants become evident.

As power, communications and control systems and their integration become more complex, owners will want single-point responsibility for the installation and maintenance of these systems. The electrical contractor is uniquely qualified to provide owners with the services they need to install and maintain the integrated systems for 21st-century buildings. EC

GLAVINICH is an associate professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering at The University of Kansas and is a frequent instructor for NECA’s Management Education Institute. He can be reached at 785.864.3435 or

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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