Building systems have got a whole lot smarter – now services, IT and telecom facilities can be integrated to maximise efficiency. Just one snag: who is clever enough to actually install the technology?
M&E contractors have a new chip on their shoulder. And the usual grumbles about tight margins and skills shortages are likely to pale into insignificance compared with this new worry, which threatens to end the M&E industry as we now know it.

As you may have guessed, it comes down to computers: most of us feel inadequate when it comes to IT proficiency, and now it's the M&E contractor's turn. This is because modern building systems are getting dauntingly complex. These days, companies want highly controllable energy-efficient heating, cooling and lighting systems, and – in our terror-conscious world – the best security systems money can buy. They want the latest IT and telecoms technology and they want to be able to easily reconfigure it as their business evolves. Building services managers want to know if the fire alarm has gone off when they are on the other side of the world, and office workers want to be able to turn down the air-conditioning from their desktop computer. The problem is, installing and configuring these systems is beyond the average M&E contractor, and even consultants are struggling get their heads round what is required.

A few smart movers have responded to this changing market by creating a new breed of specialist: the technology contractor. This ringmaster co-ordinates all of a building's services, as well as its IT systems, and in some case, the telecoms system too. "I guess the reasons these companies are setting up is because it requires a heck of a lot of thought and skill to be able to put these kinds of systems together," says Mark Cunniffe, senior partner at services engineer Hoare Lea. "The general M&E contractor wouldn't be able to deal with it."

The Mitie Group, which owns traditional M&E contractor Mitie Engineering Services, has shown itself to be on top of this trend by establishing a company called Mitie Technology. Peter Abbott, its director, explains why: "The functionality of the building is down to the services, data and telecom installation – the technology in the building. It's the flexibility and integrity of that which is important to the client," he says. "We believe there is a real need in the marketplace for technology end solutions, so we have set up this division. We take control of the whole thing, including costing, budgeting, planning, programming, installing and maintenance of the scheme."

Mitie Technology tackles a diverse range of technology tasks. If necessary, it will take on the job straight from the telecom provider, such as British Telecom, and dig up the road itself to lay the fibre-optic cable. It will distribute the cable around the building and sort out the services and the IT system. If the client is a big bank or switch centre operator, it will also take care of putting in standby power and back-up generation to ensure the client's data systems never fail.

The only other technology contractor from a traditional M&E background is Bailey Telecom, an offshoot of NG Bailey. Most of the other technology contractors – firms such as Invensys Climate Controls Europe, Trend Controls and Johnson Controls – have their heart in systems manufacturing. They don't always install their own products; there is a such a diverse range available that, since many building control systems share a common language (see "Orchestration", below), products from different manufacturers can be mixed together.

One advance that is driving the rise of technology contractors is open-system architecture. All of the building systems are connected through one lot of wires, rather than having separate sets for the services, telecoms and IT. With separate wiring, a whole host of specialists can install their system without understanding the rest of a building's services. An open system demands that the installer understands the full gamut of a building's systems and can ensure that they are fully integrated. Integrating the systems is important because if, for example, the fire alarm goes off, then you also want your security doors to unlock.

Currently, only a few clients need the services of a technology contractor. "About 2% to 5% of our projects use this open-system architecture. It might not sound much, but it's growing and has the potential to grow much more," says Cunniffe. Especially since the demand comes from high-value clients, such as banks, telecoms and pharmaceutical companies, all of which need super-sophisticated technology.

Open systems are set to become the norm in a few years because of the benefits they offer; they can be easily reconfigured if a client changes their office around. "I would say open systems cost about the same as separately cabled systems, but the end user benefits rather more," says Cunniffe. "The developer could use this as an argument to persuade tenants to move into a development."

The problem facing this budding industry is a chronic skills shortage – only a handful of M&E contractors are up to speed. Peter Rogers heads up Arup's controls and commissioning division and had been brought in specifically to provide integrated solutions for building services and technology at Arup. "There are very few people who have the expertise," he says. "It is getting more and more difficult to find someone to provide the total package. Its getting harder and harder to keep up. A lot more training is required both on the installation and design side."

Cunniffe reckons anyone who can crack this problem has got it made. "I predict, in six years' time, maybe 30% to 40% of the marketplace will use integrated systems. There's big money in all of that; if you can deliver, it's fabulous."

Orchestration: The technology contractor’s vital role

As with most innovations, simpler also means more sophisticated. Nowadays, top-end services installations use structured cabling for data transfer. Instead of having a writhing knot of wires, a high-capacity fibre-optic cable carries everything from signals from building services controllers and the security system to the end user’s IT system and telecommunications. The cables terminate with standard points so it is easy to change the configuration of a system, and upgrade or add to it in the future.

The reason these different systems can share the same cable is that they use different frequencies, in the same way that radio stations do. If the system is not set up properly, one set of signals can clash with another.

The different devices – whether a telephone, thermostat or PC – use dedicated languages or protocols to communicate. Two commonly used building services protocols are LonWorks and BACnet. The idea is that manufacturers make their products compatible with one or more of these protocols so they can be plugged straight into a system and be ready to go.

One installation may have several protocols in operation, so translation software has to be written to enable these to communicate. What’s more, many building services can now be controlled using a web browser, either in the office or remotely.

Software is needed so the web language is compatible with the building controls protocol.

This sounds much simpler than the traditional alternative of separately wired systems. Mark Cunniffe, senior partner at Hoare Lea, explains why it isn’t: “You need specialist consultants and contractors around, as you need approval from all the people involved. The IT departments view the data passing around the system as their own – they want to know what impact the signals are going to have. There has to be a discussion up front to ensure everyone buys into the way the system is designed and operated.”

The technology contractor and consultant have to ensure there is this co-operation from the whole team. They also have to ensure that the structured cabling system can take all the information passing around it – it can only handle so much, and if it becomes overloaded with information, the speed of data transfer slows down.

Technology contractors need to understand all the different types of system they are installing. In other words, they are like conductors – an orchestra needs a dedicated expert to bring all its separate elements together. It would never just shove the second cellist on to the podium …