Ed Macey-MacLeod MBCS, Senior Associate Director at IPT Design, encourages us to consider buildings as being like large IT systems and provides some helpful suggestions as to how to turn your office into an intelligent building.

I am going to presume that you are reading this sat in, or on your way to, your office. Your office is likely to be a single room forming part of a larger floor plate or a desk on the floor plate.

You are likely to have used a security card to gain access to the building, maybe even within the lift that took you to your floor. The temperature of the space will be comfortable and the lighting adequate.

In construction we refer to the systems within a building that operates, conditions and secures the building as building services. Increasingly these building services are IT systems.

What does this mean? Does it have any effect on you as an employer? Certainly it could. More often than not building services operate independently and they could benefit from integration with each other and from being managed as an IT system.

By way of illustration, the BMS (building management system) is the building service that controls the heating and cooling within an office. It will often be programmed to start within certain scheduled times based on a normal working week.

If this system was set up to review the electronic corporate calendar, it could take the decision not to start heating the building on a bank holiday or when there is a corporate away day or the office is shut for the Christmas break.

Other examples become more intricate and sound far-fetched but are possible; from virtual barriers detecting when a visitor has strayed into an area they are not meant to be in, to a diverted lift to ferry an important client directly to the correct floor for a presentation.

We should not dismiss the idea of an intelligent building and its potential usefulness because ways the building could function sound outlandish. An intelligent building relies on a strong foundation; the interactivity among systems can be programmed after that.

Almost all of the building services in your building will rely on a data network and certainly a server to control themselves. Sometimes the server is called the headend or supervisory PC. I have seen it relegated to the workshop, where it becomes clogged with dust and debris.

Rarely are these systems ever treated like IT systems, with wayward cables, no software patching applied to the PCs and no proper access control to prevent unauthorised access or to track who has made a change.

So I propose two things to enable us to get better use out of our buildings, that is, to create intelligent buildings:

  1. Treat all building services as IT systems.
  2. Create interactions between building services assisted by open protocols.

When we do look behind the curtain at the BMS or the security system, we as IT practitioners will see devices we are familiar with (or were familiar with) - there are edge devices, network cabling, hubs, switches and servers.

Whilst these systems might resemble IT systems, they are often not treated as part of the organisation's IT equipment, proper service management is not applied and they are left forgotten and untouched.

This neglect is unwise because we can exploit these systems to increase productivity and downtime. IT managers are adept at following procedures and ensuring that systems do not routinely fail; pre-emptive care is applied rather than reactive care.

This cannot always be said of building services, which may not be constantly monitored for faults or developing faults. This is likely because the systems are maintained by a contractor who has to visit the site to review the system and only does so infrequently.

If these systems are brought under the purview of the IT department then:

  • their networks can be administered correctly both physically and logically;
  • IT service management processes and procedures can be applied;
  • access to the service can be secure and repudiation will be possible;
  • secure remote access to interested parties can be given;
  • data produced by the building services can be collected and put to use;
  • interaction among different systems can be enabled.

Examples of the data that can be produced and analysed include:

  • The frequency with which people access certain rooms or attempt to access rooms they should not. Analysis of this activity might show persistent attempts to breach security or could be used as a time and attendance record.
  • The carbon dioxide detectors in meeting rooms could be reviewed against the room booking system to highlight were rooms are being underused.
  • People's movements based on their mobile phone association with Wi-Fi access points or mobile phone tracking antenna can be collected for analysis. This information could show dwell time in the cafeteria, in the hallway or be used to help locate someone when the need arises.

This analysis can be automated and dynamic, offered to the user as concise alerts to help manage their building rather than having to trawl through reams of data.

Interactions among systems could be as simple as associating users' access control cards to their desktop PC and phone to power both down when they swipe out of the building or conversely turn both on when they enter the building.

Security systems can be integrated to allow interaction between access control and CCTV systems so that the area where an alarm has been triggered is shown automatically on the CCTV screens.

When presence detectors inform the lighting control system, BMS and solenoid valves that no one is present, all of the systems ramp down. This could be correlated with the access control system to determine if someone may still be in the office but undetected.

Interactions can also take place between the AV and security systems. During a building lockdown scenario (shelter-in-place), the video screens can be automatically tuned to an information screen requesting people stay in their rooms.

These are just a few of many beneficial interactions possible among integrated systems, which together create an intelligent building.

For systems to interact adequately with each other they need to exchange data that they can both understand. We rely on building services using open protocols and a number of systems talking multiple open protocols. These can normalise the data received and push it out to the dependent systems.

In the past systems were designed using proprietary protocols and a number of these systems are still installed. Interactions among these systems are difficult as they are not designed for interactions; however, integration can be achieved using gateways and newer equipment.

In conclusion, when reviewing the existing commercial real estate operated by your organisation or when assessing new office accommodation, consider the advantages of managing all the building services as IT systems. Develop a building IT policy to include within the wider organisation IT policy.

This will describe how the organisation approaches the new customers of facilities management and security. It will also record what interactivity is required between the systems to help the business function, thus creating an intelligent building.