How to Design a Smart Building

July 3, 2024 By Mid-Atlantic Controls 8 minute read

An engineer explains to a commercial property owner how to design a smart building out of a standard office space.Smart buildings use a range of advanced technologies to deliver safe, comfortable, and finely controlled environments for occupants. For building managers, smart buildings offer a chance to deliver added value to tenants, owners, and investors while keeping costs low and expenses predictable. 

In this blog, we take a close look at what goes into designing a smart building. We’ll break down the different types of systems and subsystems that typically make up a smart building’s infrastructure, including those already managed by existing building automation systems. 

We’ll also take a look at the key decision elements involved in designing a smart building implementation today. Read on to learn more about what smart building technology has to offer your property management business.

A Building Manager’s Guide to Smart Buildings

Smart buildings represent that next stage in the increased automation of your building’s critical environmental management and control systems. But how do the integrated systems that make up a “smart” building differ from those managed by many existing building automation systems?

Part of the answer has to do with the role of advanced “meta” technologies like big data analytics, machine learning algorithms, and ubiquitous IoT (Internet of Things) connectivity. But let’s start by defining what typically makes up a traditional automation system (BAS).

What Does a Traditional BAS Manage?

Many existing buildings today include integrated BAS infrastructures that both monitor and control the following managed services: 

  • HVAC systems: Fully automated heating, ventilation, and air conditioning management improves comfort and optimizes energy use.
  • Lighting: Turns lights on and off based on occupancy levels and fine-tunes lighting brightness based on ambient conditions, thereby optimizing energy efficiency.
  • Security systems: Locks, surveillance cameras, and access control systems are automated to ensure building security.

Beyond Traditional BAS Management

Many smart buildings go well beyond the accepted BAS functionalities to deliver more ambitious efficiency and sustainability outcomes through:

  • Comprehensive energy management: Monitors and controls energy consumption building-wide to reduce costs and minimize carbon footprint.
  • Water management: Automates systems to manage water use efficiently, preventing waste and reducing utility costs.
  • Environmental monitoring: Monitors sensor data to control air quality and noise levels, ensuring a comfortable environment for occupants.

Three Enabling Technologies

Even more important than the type of systems controlled is the way additional systems are integrated and managed as part of smart building functionality. 

IoT-Enabled Devices

At the device level, the most important advance is the increasingly ubiquitous presence of internet-ready IoT technologies, from sensors to controllers to delivery systems. You can add smart functionalities to a building’s automation backbone without having to roll out a dedicated communications network.

IoT allows individual cameras, air sensors, window share motors, and air handlers to communicate independently with the system using your building’s existing LAN and wireless infrastructure. 

This “flat” communications structure means HVAC, lighting, water management, and access control systems are part of a single, seamless smart building management system.

Data Analytics

Improved connectivity has also enhanced the ability of devices to collect and share data. Increasing computing power provides huge amounts of data on changing environmental conditions, energy use, occupancy levels, and system performance to be “mined” to identify patterns that can help to anticipate demand and improve energy savings.

Better data also makes it easier to comply with environmental requirements or qualify for energy-efficiency certifications and rebates. 

Machine Learning

While much of the focus has been on AI-enabled large language models, the rapid improvement of neural network technology is driving machine learning in other ways too. 

Machine learning allows smart buildings to “learn” how systems are used, for example allowing services to be delivered “just in time” and allowing problems to be flagged and rectified before performance is affected. 

Systems that anticipate and fulfill human needs add convenience and value for tenants. At the same time, optimized energy use and reduced wear and tear on critical infrastructure unlock bottom-line savings for property owners and investors.

Designing a Smart Building

The advantages of increased automation and integration of building systems are clear, but how do you roll out a truly smart building implementation? Let’s take a closer look at a step-by-step process for designing a smart building strategy for your property.

Step 1: Plan

First, determine with your stakeholders exactly what you want your smart building to achieve in order or priority—be it improved energy efficiency, enhanced security, better regulatory compliance, or improved occupant comfort. Set real, measurable goals for realizing these benefits over the short, medium, and long term then use these to set your investment budget.

Work with an experienced equipment supplier and project manager like Mid-Atlantic Controls (MACC) to identify the key systems to deliver your smart building goals. Determine also to what extent you will be able to upgrade your existing building automation infrastructure or legacy systems to meet these goals. 

Step 2: Implement

Work with your equipment supplier to source and install the equipment you need to turn your existing building automation system into a full-fledged smart building. 

Prioritizing the use of IoT-enabled devices will make it easier to roll out new infrastructure and extend the reach and functionality of your existing building automation infrastructure, while also limiting the downtime of critical systems.

Step 3: Coordinate

Much of the power of smart building functionality is driven by the ability to share information between systems. Setting up your smart building will involve not only making sure that systems interconnect but that the necessary permissions exist to share data.

What does this mean in practice? It means making sure, for example, that systems that control window shades work together with those controlling ambient lighting so that the shades are deployed to block bright sunshine and are lowered to make the most of natural light on dull days.

Making sure each system has the information it needs can mean delving into the unsupported protocols used by older existing systems, but it can also mean working with clients, tenants, and vendors to access the equipment, spaces, and information your smart building needs.

Step 4: Schedule

Once all systems are talking to one another, it’s time to work on scheduling the different systems in your smart building, from lighting controls to building access to landscape watering to regular maintenance of critical equipment like compressors or handlers.

Again, a big part of the challenge here is simply understanding the requirements of multiple systems working parallel, as well as the different (and sometimes competing) needs of various stakeholders, from owners to occupants to maintenance personnel.

To understand the complex scheduling challenges of modern smart building systems, it pays to work with an equipment provider with significant project management experience across a wide range of industries, including yours.

Step 5: Test

Prior to handoff, your vendor needs to test your smart building systems to make sure they are operating smoothly, both individually and together. Environmental systems should be tested to see how they will respond to the most extreme parameters, not just typical conditions. Similarly, security and access control systems need to be made failsafe.

Step 6: Improve

A well-implemented system should work smoothly from the outset and deliver the expected benefits immediately. However, the real value of connecting disparate devices into a single smart building “ecosystem” lies in the synergies that emerge once different systems work together. 

Optimizing your smart building systems will take time, especially if your system includes data analytics or machine learning capabilities. Your systems will most likely require regular readjustments as theoretical factors run up against the realities of your building’s local environments and “real-world” working conditions.

Once again, it pays to work with an experienced end-to-end supplier capable not only of supplying you with the equipment you need but also supporting it over the long term. At MACC, our Master System Integrator Services make sure your complex, integrated systems work together for maximum efficiency, savings, and return on investment.

Five Guiding Principles for a Successful Roll-out

Upgrading your existing building automation system into a fully-fledged smart building implementation is always a big step. Here are four key concepts that can help keep your project on track:

  1. Expectations vs. reality: Unrealistic expectations about the benefits your smart building will deliver may leave investors or occupants short-changed. Take the time to make sure your stakeholders agree and understand what your project will deliver and keep everyone updated.
  2. Proper installation: Cutting corners on installation quality will not save you money in the long run. More likely you’ll only limit the benefits your system delivers and you’ll make future maintenance, expansions, integrations, and retrofitting more expensive and difficult.
  3. Adequate staff involvement: Installing advanced functionality makes little sense if your staff doesn’t understand how to operate it or how to perform basic maintenance. Investing in training for your people is just as important as upgrading the capabilities of your automated building systems.
  4. Retrofitting legacy systems: How much of your existing building automation systems will you need to replace? It depends on how good your equipment vendor is at working with older—and possibly unsupported—equipment. At MACC, we pride ourselves on our ability to integrate legacy systems with next-generation, open-source equipment.
  5. Proper maintenance, not quick fixes: Your investment in smart building technology should include not only the upfront cost of installing advanced equipment but also the cost of quality ongoing support. Complex systems require regular maintenance, adjustment, and optimization for maximum benefit, especially in the first year of operation.

Mid-Atlantic Controls: Smart Building, Smart Implementation

If you’re a building manager looking to give your tenants the benefits of true smart building functionality while delivering bottom-line savings and long-term returns to owners and investors—you need a partner who understands how to get the best out of both your existing technology and next-generation IoT and intelligent systems.

Mid-Atlantic Controls offers decades of experience rolling out automation systems for buildings of all sizes across a wide range of industries. We’re a full-service company committed to installing the most advanced equipment—as well as upgrades to existing legacy equipment—with flexible, powerful open-source control devices. 

Talk to us about your smart building aspirations. We offer end-to-end implementation services from planning, installation, and integration plus project management, training, and long-term maintenance and support.

Ready to get smart about your smart building plans? Contact us today to get started.

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