Intelligent Buildings require smart vendors and contractors

It has seemed obvious to me for some time that it makes sense for all of the low-voltage and no-voltage (fiber-optic) cabling systems in a building to be coordinated. Signals carrying voice, video, data, security and surveillance, life- and fire-safety information, building-access data, and heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning sensor and control readings could all be carried on the same types of cables, running in the same pathways and terminated with identical components. This is the basi

Intelligent Buildings require smart vendors and contractors

Arlyn S. Powell, Jr.

Group Editorial Director

arlynp@pennwell.com

It has seemed obvious to me for some time that it makes sense for all of the low-voltage and no-voltage (fiber-optic) cabling systems in a building to be coordinated. Signals carrying voice, video, data, security and surveillance, life- and fire-safety information, building-access data, and heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning sensor and control readings could all be carried on the same types of cables, running in the same pathways and terminated with identical components. This is the basic idea behind Intelligent Buildings, which have been around (as a concept, at least) for two decades or more.

And yet, even proponents of Intelligent Buildings admit that they have been more an idea than reality, especially in the United States. Why is this?

A contractor-consultant with whom I spoke recently gave me at least two reasons. One reason, he said, is that the extra expense of integrated systems has to be sold to a developer, and what`s the advantage of spending extra money on as-yet-unrented building space? Another reason is that many building-control systems are proprietary, and they are incompatible with existing voice and data systems. Contractors do not like to change from their favorite systems without good reason, so why propose an integration strategy where interoperability may be an issue?

I would like to add my own reasons to this list. A third, I believe, is that architects and construction engineers currently pay little attention to high-technology, low-voltage cabling systems in the design of commercial and institutional buildings. And a fourth reason is that vendors and contractors alike have not been that good at selling life-cycle costing to building owners and commercial developers.

The situation may be starting to change, however. The cabling industry is developing its own construction specification (see "Division 17 lets our industry speak in its own voice," February 1999, page 80), and optical-fiber vendors are sharpening their arguments in favor of fiber-to-the-desk using life-cycle costing information.

Another positive step was taken at this winter`s bisci (Tampa, FL) meeting. A half-day seminar on Intelligent Buildings sponsored by the Continental Automated Buildings Association (caba-- Ottawa, ON, Canada, www.caba.com) explained how building automation systems (bass) could--and should-- be integrated with in-building telecommunications distribution systems.

But more action needs to be taken if Intelligent Buildings are going to become a reality in the United States. The kind of information exchange between not-for-profit organizations that took place at bicsi must lead to a convergence of wiring standards developed by the Telecommunications Industry Association (Arlington, VA) and other standards-making bodies. Also, research-and-development information from such academic institutions as Carnegie Mellon University`s Center for Building Performance and Diagnostics (Pittsburgh, PA) must be made available to vendors, contractors, and consultants.

There appears to be a definite technological trend toward the convergence of differing low-voltage cabling and wiring systems: Witness the recent growth of residential and small-office/home-office (soho) voice/data networking systems. It is also clear that electricians, voice contractors, and data-communications specialists are more and more frequently competing for the same business.

The next logical steps are for standards, training, and certification and licensing to support fully integrated building wiring systems. If this doesn`t happen, my contractor-consultant friend will be right. "The Intelligent Buildings movement failed in the 1980s," he said, "and it will fail again. There are very few actual installations today, and there won`t be many more in the future," he predicted.

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