Editor's Pick

Master of All Trades

With the economy still reeling from the effects of recession, unemployment, and wavering business and consumer confidence, electrical contractors (ECs) are re-evaluating their businesses and taking on new and different roles and business models in an effort to remain competitive.

“We see more contractors providing additional services in order to preserve their customers and the value being provided, which translates to greater revenue,” said Heath Klein, director of Austin, Texas-based Siemens Building Technologies Division–Retail & Commercial Systems. “The contractors who don’t provide such services are finding that they become engaged in a very competitive and commodity-focused business.”

There’s no shortage of new roles that ECs can fill or additional services they can provide to strengthen their competitive advantage and add greater value within the retrofit and new construction markets. Industry experts have indentified some roles that are reshaping the traditional contracting business—building information modeling (BIM) expert/modeler, energy management solutions (EMS) provider, master systems integrator (MSI), building energy modeling expert, commissioning agent, energy solutions provider or auditor, and energy service companies (ESCOs)—and why ECs are ideally positioned to provide this expertise in the new market paradigm.

Role call
Here, our experts discuss and outline some of the dynamic new roles today’s proactive generation of “super contractors” are assuming in the construction industry.

BIM Expert
“BIM experts are tasked with the challenge of creating computer simulations to virtually design, analyze, build and operate buildings, and their role is a critical step in helping to eliminate problems and obstacles before construction,” said Melissa Golden, market segment manager—contractors for Schneider Electric. “The role of the BIM expert is to be familiar with all of the disciplines of BIM, which can stretch across all trades on the project and also into the overall construction process itself. This role is typically filled by the general contractor because they have the responsibility to coordinate and integrate all trades into a single, overall BIM project model.”

According to Dave Bradley, PE, LEED-AP, technical development manager for Siemens Infrastructure & Cities, Low and Medium Voltage Division, “The use of BIM continues to become an integral part of contractors’ work. This is especially true for design/build firms based on the control BIM offers in reducing the cost of changes in the field. The ability of the design or other specialized software to identify collisions and conflicts in equipment placement is key to eliminating these changes. With a properly designed family of BIM ‘blocks,’ these conflicts are easily spotted and avoided,” he said. As an example, Bradley offered a piece of mechanical ductwork that was drawn in the same space as an electrical switchboard. “They may have appeared on separate drawings in different packages, but the collision was detected. And, the possible collisions aren’t limited to just two pieces of equipment sharing the same space,” he said.

BIM Modeler
“The BIM modeler is the role played by a BIM user within a single trade or contracting field,” said Wendell Leisinger, consulting engineer segment manager for Schneider Electric. “The term BIM modeler refers to the designated BIM user at the electrical contractor who is responsible for the electrical system model of the project only.”

Energy Management Solutions Provider
Typically involving wireless building solutions, which include control and optimization of heating and cooling, lighting, and monitoring of energy usage for real-time feedback of electricity usage, “contractors have the local business relationships with companies who can benefit from EMS solutions and can both install and support this system for the customer,” Siemens’ Klein said. “Contractors who are designing and creating the specifications for projects should include the EMS as part of the initial design package so that it’s planned and installed during the construction process; once incorporated, a system that allows both the customer and the contractor to have remote access and instant notification of mechanical/electrical issues will help increase the contractor’s service level and support capabilities.”

Master Systems Integrator
“The MSI is the person who puts all of the building systems together and who’s responsible for the total building system integration across multiple systems, such as HVAC, lighting, security, and electrical so that the systems talk and interact well together. Typically, they’ll involve delivery of a single dashboard experience so that the end-user can assess and manage their entire building,” Golden said.

According to Barry Haaser, executive director of San Jose-based LonMark International, which has been delivering interoperability guidelines to the building management systems (BMS) industry for the past 18 years, the term “master systems integrator” was coined in 2006 to adapt to the changing marketplace, particularly packaging, modularization, and interoperability standards.

“As the controls industry migrated toward interoperable systems, products were no longer sourced by a single supplier, and this change was met with a rise in the level of sophistication and knowledge provided by system integrators,” he said. “System integrators are able to install and configure products and systems from multiple suppliers, and the prevalence of web applications, IP [Internet protocol] backbones and IT [information technology] services expanded the scope of system integrators even further. As integration complexity rose, so did the need for a new type of system integrator with a holistic view of the system: the MSI.

“The MSI can report to the building owner or prime contractor and is responsible for all subcontractors dealing with automation, including BMS, security, lighting, etc. They also need to work closely with the IT department to ensure that systems are optimized for performance and security. MSIs are being written into more and more specs to manage larger, more complex projects, particularly those involving multiple facilities. As a result, many ECs are making the successful transition toward system integration, and those with extensive domain expertise and strong IT skills can manage an even larger percentage of the project. With the current merging of IT and building automation, a window of opportunity is now open to ECs to branch out into the world of system integration.”

Building Energy Modeling Expert
In this role, architects can prepare an energy model early in the design stages with software tools like Green Building Studio by AutoDesk. According to Leisinger, a holistic energy model is typically handled within the architectural role today but could potentially be assumed by a knowledgeable, trained and experienced electrical contractor.

Commissioning Agent
Often third-party providers, “commissioning agents ensure that the system works as designed and intended, and they handle the integrated systems across security, HVAC, lighting, electrical, etc.,” Golden said. “Often an owner looks for a third-party endorsement of the system, though an EC may be suited to provide this service for the electrical system portion.”

Energy Solutions/Services Provider or Auditor
Though there are a variety of levels within the function of provider or auditor, “the EC can play a role here as an adviser to the end-user, relative to the energy solutions that can be implemented within the electrical system itself,” Leisinger said. “This can involve anything from a simple site audit to something much more complex, and of course, the EC is well-positioned to provide the system installation.”

Energy Service Companies
“These are specialty providers who offer more complex energy services that can include energy supply all the way through to energy conservation,” Golden said. “This job often involves in-depth analysis, design and installation, and realized savings can often fund the projects.”

Embracing a new paradigm
According to Schneider Electric’s Golden, as technology develops and enables greater commercial and residential energy capabilities, and this technology converges with the electrical infrastucture, the role of the EC takes on greater importance.

“End-users and owners want to understand and control their use of energy, and with a thorough understanding of the entire electrical system, the EC is ideally situated to play the role of adviser and installer to the end-user,” she said. “ECs are in a unique position to develop themselves as energy advisers and agents for change, influencing building owners and occupiers about the criticality of high-performance buildings and lobbying for the integrated project delivery approach necessary to achieve them.”

Though other sectors of the economy have experienced recent downturns, the imporvement of building efficiency remains a booming market. It is predicted to hit $103.5 billion by 2017, an increase of more than 50 percent relative to 2011 market levels of $67.9 billion, and is considered one of the largest growing sectors of business in the next five years, according to a recent report by Pike Research, Boulder, Colo.

“Based on the convergence of technology with traditional electrical systems and the promise of future opportunities, it will become more and more important for an EC to take on the role of energy adviser,” Golden said.

How to make the transition
According to Schneider Electric’s Golden and Leisinger, ECs should begin by seeking training programs to help them develop the necessary knowledge to take advantage of today’s market opportunity, particularly in the areas of viable solutions and consultancy skills to provide customers with recommendations on more strategic energy management. Trade associations and BIM software manufacturers, such as AutoDesk, provide training resources, as do many manufacturers (examples include Schneider Electric’s EcoXpert training and certification program for contractors) and some universities.

LonMark International can help facilitate the transition toward system and master system integration through two certification programs—the LonMark Professional Certification (LCP) and LonMark Certified System Integrator programs (visit www.lonmark.org). And Siemens’ EcoView energy management system is one example of a contractor-friendly EMS solution designed and engineered specifically for the retail/commercial market.

Golden also urged contractors to stay up-to-date on emerging technologies, such as tablet computers and cloud computing, because these tools are beginning to enable end-users to interact with their buildings in a way that’s never happened before.

“We believe the next decade will be very promising for ECs within the energy management segment. While the new construction market may recover, we don’t see the demand for these new roles slowing down, and contractors are encouraged to expand their reach into areas once considered outside the realm of electrical contracting. If the EC doesn’t do it, someone else will,” she said.

“The bottom line is that there are many new ways in which a contractor can provide additional support and services that can enhance the quality and efficiency of a building and reduce the customer’s utility costs,” Siemens’ Klein said. “Overall, there’s a real opportunity to further strengthen the customer’s dependency on the contractor.”

BLOOM is a 20-year veteran of the lighting and electrical products industry. Reach her at susan.bloom.chester@gmail.com.

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