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Help Wanted: Building Systems Architect

Job Posting: Building Systems Architect

  • Work closely with the building owner and operator to understand the building’s operational needs
  • Evaluate potential technologies for meeting these goals
  • Create a cohesive design for all systems to allow for simple, efficient operation
  • Provide an integrated design including facilities network (structured cabling), Web-based user interface, and services
  • Coordinate with the design team including the mechanical, electrical, and IT consultants
  • Coordinate with the project commissioning agent and LEED® consultants
  • Help select and observe the systems integration contractor
  • Follow up with the owner to validate operation over time

Interested in a new job? Take a look at the job posting above. Does it look interesting? Too bad it isn’t real — but it should be! One of the greatest impediments to delivery of intelligent buildings is proper design. The challenge is that it isn’t clear where this task falls.

In the traditional model, an owner retains an architect who holds complete responsibility for the project. The architect’s responsibility includes not only the design of the structure, but the proper design of all of the building structure and systems. As these systems have become more complicated, the architectural community has split the systems into silos and hired specialists for the design of each system. The design of the mechanical system goes to one specialized group of engineers, electrical to another, plumbing to a third. Each area has one or more groups (or firms) that provide their designs, which are then placed into separate specification sections to be installed by contractors who are also specialists in these areas. This well-understood model fits neatly into our contract documents and business practices (Table 1).

Although this model works well for building safe, cost-efficient buildings, it does have several flaws. The problems occur when systems interact. In a perfect world, these systems can all exist and operate independently, but in reality, they have a number of inter-relationships. Examples of the most basic interactions include:

  • Electrical feeds to all systems (standard and emergency power)
  • Fire emergency shutdown
  • Smoke control

In an intelligent building, we are looking for an even deeper integration between these systems to achieve improved building comfort and efficiency. These include:

  • Common user interface for the operation of all systems
  • Use of a shared network for all building system communications
  • Structured cabling for use by building systems and IT
  • Integration between security, HVAC, lighting, and metering systems
  • Integration with business systems including scheduling, maintenance management, tenant portals, and financial management

Providing this level of connection and integration starts to strain the existing structure that we typically use. Over the last few years, we have seen several major industry efforts to address this problem. These include:

  • New structures suggested under CSI 2004
  • Movement toward a systems commissioning agent who is responsible for reviewing all building systems designs and ensuring that they are properly installed and commissioned and that the operator has proper training and documentation
  • The movement toward sustainable buildings and the acceptance of the LEED program



Although these are great programs and are starting to gain acceptance in the industry, none really addresses the need to design systems with a view toward easy operation and improved efficiency. This is where the systems integration engineer — or alternatively a building systems architect (BSA) — is needed.

The role of the BSA starts early in the project by working with the owner to identify needs and desires. A high level concept for building systems and selection is then put in place. The process begins with selecting the tools needed to operate the building and then developing the selected systems.

The BSA provides the detailed design for the integrated building system, including data integration and network design. This work is then completed by the systems integration consultant. Consultants will still be responsible for the design of the individual subsystems (HVAC, plumbing, lighting, electrical, network, etc.). Building commissioning can be done by the BSA or by a separate commissioning agent.

Defining this new role raises many questions and potential concerns. Where does this role reside? Is it provided by the architect? By an MEP consultant? Or a technology consultant? Or is this an all-new role? How do we find and train individuals who have a detailed understanding of both buildings and technology? How much does it cost to do this type of design and what are the benefits? These are all questions that deserve careful consideration in the future as this role is better defined.

Most importantly we need to keep focused on the goal, to achieve a better building, one that has lower expenses and an improved environment for the occupants. To do this requires careful, coordinated design of systems. Projects that do this correctly will ultimately have lower costs and higher returns for their owners. So keep your eyes open, and soon you may have a chance to consider this as a new career! IBT

Recent Articles by Paul Ehrlich, P.E.

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