More than four decades after the release of the sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey—and 11 years after that film’s namesake year—we’re still working our way toward HAL 9000, the movie’s omniscient computer that controls every aspect of our interior environment. But as the following four designers attest, we are making strides in the development of smart control systems for buildings. Though no building management system (BMS) is intelligent or crazy enough yet to wreak havoc as HAL did in Stanley Kubrick’s film, today’s systems go beyond turning on and off lights: They also anticipate user needs and adjust to changing conditions. In other words, they—like HAL—can think.


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    Credit: Peter Arkle

Michael Tatoyan, Stantec

Stantec engineer Michael Tatoyan underscores the “management” aspect in BMS. “They have logic capability. You can tell them how to behave and decide things based on conditions,” he says. One key development is the ability to monitor, report, and provide operations trends and history. “They tell me not just whether a valve was opened or closed, or how much energy you used, but also how much energy you didn’t use.”

Thinking systems are becoming the norm on high-performance systems. “They give owners an opportunity to control a building to its actual needs … and it will give designers data for what works and what doesn’t,” Tatoyan says. Though automation systems exist primarily on larger commercial and institutional projects today, he says, “In the not-too-distant future, these are going to be code-minimum buildings.”

Designers should specify BMS manufacturers whose equipment operates on an open communications protocol to allow for system expansion or upgrading. A BMS with components proprietary to the manufacturer can lock the owner into expensive, long-term service arrangements.


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    Credit: Peter Arkle

Don Bailey, TLC Engineering for Architecture

Nemours Children’s Hospital in Orlando, now under construction, is one of many hospitals advancing building management systems. Its BMS integrates lighting, HVAC, security, nurse calls, and patient-room controls to save costs and improve the patient experience, says senior mechanical engineer Don Bailey of local firm TLC Engineering for Architecture. “They’re trying to not only take advantage of the integration of these systems for economic reasons, but it also makes their patient experience a lot better,” he says.

Nemours selected Johnson Controls as its installing contractor for building automation. Other big providers of building management systems are Siemens and Honeywell, Bailey says. Unfortunately, regardless of the manufacturer, a project’s BMS can become obsolete even before its implementation because it must wait out construction. “We design a system maybe two years before it’s turned over for use,” he says.

BMS can add 1 to 3 percent to the total construction cost—which hospitals can recoup in two to five years, Bailey says. “It’s a no-brainer for most of our projects.”


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    Credit: Peter Arkle

Ian Nestler, PGAL

From airport expansions to government buildings, Houston firm PGAL has designed projects with automated management systems of increasing sophistication. But the ongoing challenge is user interfacing, says principal Ian Nestler, AIA.

“Many times, we’ve installed a sophisticated system with all the bells and whistles, and then the owner and staff don’t feel like they can operate the system as it’s supposed to be operated,” he says. “It’s like being in class. You sit there and listen, but sometimes you still don’t retain it. It takes a lot of follow-up to make that thing work.” Designers must consider the available technology as well as their clients’ willingness to maintain the system. “Some people love to play with programmable thermostats in their homes. Some want one that just turns on and turn off,” he says.

BMS “installers come in and provide training to the maintenance staff, and we think they’ve got it,” Nestler says. “Then you walk away, and the staff didn’t realize this, that, or the other thing. Follow-up training is essential. … If you’re going for LEED certification, one credit requires coming back and analyzing performance over time; that helps to pinpoint a particular set of circumstances.”


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    Credit: Peter Arkle

David Hobstetter, KMD Architects

For San Francisco’s new Public Utility Commission (PUC) headquarters, David Hobstetter, AIA, principal of local firm KMD, developed a custom BMS that controls 11 different systems, including electrical, mechanical, daylighting, and security. Because every system must be customized to the project, costs can be a barrier. “These systems do save money, but they all have payback requirements,” Hobstetter says. Whether “you’re looking for a one-, seven-, or 10-year payback will inform you as to what you can invest.” Today, entry-level control systems are more affordable. “Even on run-of-the-mill developer buildings, we’re seeing BMS,” he says.

In the future, he says, “we’ll see BMS become more sensitive and basically able to report more and give a finer grain of information as time goes on. This is all rapidly evolving. It’s getting a lot more user friendly.” One trend to look out for is the integration of additional buildings through shared-district or neighborhood-scaled energy generation. “Even from doing a super-green building, we knew we could make investments in the district energy that would reap huge savings,” Hobstetter says. “Being able to load share and optimize from one end of the district to another is a very, very good thing.”