Simon Inwood argues it’s time the m&e industry embraced truly integrated building controls

TRULY INTELLIGENT buildings are increasingly recognised by end-users as having the potential to be real economic assets. But what is an intelligent building? I would argue it is one where lighting, heating, security, CCTV and alarm, access control, audiovisual, ventilation and climate control systems all talk to one another over a common platform and can respond to the real-time needs of occupants.

Clients are increasingly looking at the life-cycle cost of a building rather than build cost alone. With 70% of a building’s cost coming after the build element, intelligent technology can play a central role in controlling this cost.

For commercial developments, intelligent building technologies can result in above-market rental values, improved retention and higher occupancy rates. In addition, intelligent buildings require fewer operational staff, which can considerably reduce running and maintenance costs.

Facilities managers and developers are being put under pressure by requirements set out by European Union and UK government legislations, such as Part L and the proposed expansion of the Emissions Trading Scheme, to improve the environmental performance of buildings and reduce carbon emissions.

As a result, lower energy use is fast becoming a key part of estate and facilities management, and an intelligent building is an ideal way to meet these requirements.

Potential savings are well documented. Electrical energy can be reduced by 60% through using lighting control, presence detection and intelligent shading. In addition, heating energy can be cut by 25% and cooling energy by 45% using functions such as individual room control, presence detection and sun shading.

A key issue with intelligent building systems has always been the communication protocols between the different components. The challenge for developers and contractors alike is to optimise intelligent interaction between many different electrical components and installations to create truly integrated, intelligent buildings.

Once difficult, if not impossible, to achieve, the advent of open communications protocols means that devices from multiple vendors can now co-operate as part of a single integrated network.

Middleware can enable fire alarms, intruder alarms, building management systems, CCTV, access control and other systems to be integrated in the same way that computers, printers and telephones are integrated in the office environment.

Why is the UK m&e industry not making the advances that we see on mainland Europe in maximising the available technology for the benefit of clients?’

Fully integrated functionality makes it possible to open doors, notify staff of unwanted intrusions and ensure that lighting, fire, and other building management systems are informed of personnel who enter or leave the building. This information can be used to manage the local environment and resulting energy use.

Yet according to new figures from BSRIA Proplan, a global market research specialist in the building controls sector, less than 20% of all intelligent building controls systems are currently integrated.

Why, then, is the UK m&e industry not making the advances we see on mainland Europe in maximising the available technology for the benefit of clients?

As ever the bottom line is the bottom line. Integrated systems and software can be costly, despite the benefits of reduced installation times, and when the payback is to the end-user, it can be seen as an investment little worth making in these financially trying times.

But viewed from another angle, those m&e contractors that do take a lead in investing in integrated controls can reap the rewards of embracing this technology in the longer term.

From a service and maintenance angle, integrated systems are more cost-effective to maintain thanks to internet technology allowing SMS or email notification of faults and remote access for diagnostics.

But look at the wider picture and the argument for integration is clear. The non-residential building controls market in UK is valued at £428 million and is forecast to reach at least £441 million by 2012, representing a growth of approximately 3% in real terms.

In order to compete in this competitive marketplace, industry players of all sizes should be investing in more landmark projects that demonstrate the capability of integrated technology to increase efficiency, safety and security while reducing running costs.

Because when you look at the potential rewards at stake, putting more brains into our buildings becomes – excuse the pun – something of a no-brainer.