The Changing Role of the Smart Building Integrator
The Age of Acceleration was a fitting theme for this year’s 20th Anniversary Realcomm and IBcon (The Smart, Connected, High Performance Intelligent Buildings Conference). The pace of change is quickening and the appetite for technology solutions in the industry is growing. The challenges facing building systems integrators have never been greater.
In its fifth year, the pre-conference event, the Smart Building Integrators Summit (SBIS) demonstrated again that is has become the annual industry event where integrators, specifiers, building owners and product manufacturers come together to talk openly about these challenges and collectively set a course to successfully meet each one.
This year, I joined fellow industry thought leaders Scott Cochrane of Cochrane Supply and Brian Oswald of CBRE/ESI in collaboration with Realcomm principals Jim Young and Howard Berger in furthering the conversations around a few of the cornerstone big ideas: The Integrators Perspective on Network Design – Stand-Alone or Conjoined; Remedies for the Growing Skills and Talent Gap; Defining the Master Systems Integrator, The Emerging Technology of Occupant Experience, and; The System Integrator’s Role in Cybersecurity.
I have attended SBIS each year since its inception and I can see a very positive trend concerning participation: the community is growing. In the earliest years, participants seemed reluctant to discuss challenges openly – perhaps for fear that they may divulge information that may put them at a competitive disadvantage or provide an advantage for their competitors. Over the years, I have seen the barriers drop and this year, it really felt as though the community engaged SBIS as that safe place, a platform of trust where talking openly amongst your peers for the goal of furthering the industry could be embraced.
Each industry member we approached as panelist or contributor was eager to participate and readily embraced the mission of information sharing.
In our opening, Scott, Brian and I provided a perspective based upon the past, present and future of building controls and smart building technologies. From the earliest days of pneumatic/electric and non-computer-based systems to today’s wireless, edge enabled, cloud connected and service oriented smart buildings, no stone was left unturned. Topics included: 1) The role that products and technology play in what is still a people-centric industry; 2) The role of today’s product manufacturers - keep up the pace but ensure that the integrators are not forgotten; 3) The current and emerging role of SBIS in the industry; and 4) What does the future hold?
In every session that followed, countless subject matter experts (from all facets of the smart buildings industry) shared openly.
In the area of network design, there is a growing movement towards conjoined networks. These follow well documented network topological designs that allow building owner’s network administrators the ability to administer their corporate Information Technology (IT) networks to suit their internal priorities, while still allowing the benefits of a building’s Operational Technologies (OT) to be accessible – internally as well as externally – to support multi-site and cloud connected applications.
Everyone within the industry, no matter their role feels the growing skills gap. It was phrased a “gray tsunami” crashing on the shore as boomer-aged engineering, installation, integration and operations personnel retire with no ready-made group of younger prospects entering the ranks. We heard how Stanford University is challenged with growing its internal buildings operations talent from within. Through realignments and cross training, they are building a resilient team well positioned for their growing smart building needs. We learned how The BEST (Building Efficiency for a Sustainable Tomorrow) Center is developing a curriculum intended for technical colleges focused on growing Building Technology specialized technicians to fill the needs of industry.
More and more, the Master Systems Integrator is called on to consult and guide their clients through the decision matrices involved in Smart Building development. Integrators, more than any other design entity, know not only what is possible, but also what is practical. Some emerging trends, while interesting, may ultimately prove to be too problematic to endure. As an example, early stage cloud- based building AI (Artificial Intelligence) projects, launched in the early 2000s, were met with inconsistent integration capabilities. It proved too costly and not very functional. Sometimes resisting the ‘latest and greatest’ gives technologies and work habits time to mature. A trusted Master Systems Integrator is of immense value in this regard.
No SBIS is complete without expanding the topic of Network Security. This year, we explored how building owners and operators have come of age in the area of proactively managing their corporate networks. Most have CIOs and/or CTOs overseeing an internal network management team. For any smart building deployment, a close relationship must develop between the systems integrator and this team.
Further discussions centered around the commercial aspects of how network security concerns have begun to impact contract language and cause integrators to carry larger Cyberthreat Liability limits in their business coverages.
Probably the most revealing discussion, however, was the lag in development of more current specifier language for today’s new construction projects. As one example, a specification for a new international airport in a major U.S. city was examined. Through exhaustive word searches across all sections of the specification, there were no instances found of the phrases Cybersecurity, Network Security or Password Management. Yet there were instances of integrated, smart building technologies requiring communications between multiple disparate building systems and accessibility by building systems operators. All in attendance agreed that this was to be an area of great focus in the near term to ensure that the smart building that a client wants gets specified through the construction documents.
In summary, I am very encouraged by the growth of the SBIS community. It may perhaps never be the place where business strategies, growth plans and employee compensation standards and so forth are discussed. It is, however, proving to be that place where common challenges can be brought forth, discussed openly and consensus can be achieved towards the goal of implementing and maintaining smart building systems.
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