The challenges of retrofitting smart systems into existing projects

The challenges of retrofitting smart systems into existing projects

09 Sep 2022

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This informal CPD article on The challenges of retrofitting smart systems into existing projects was provided by Dr Matthew Marson, Co-Founder of Smart Building Bootcamp, industry leaders responsible for delivering smart training to you.

As more of us uncover the benefits of using smart systems on our projects, the more we are finding complexity in how those systems are designed, installed, configured and procured. The challenges are even greater in existing physical assets where legacy building systems need to be integrated. As all buildings are different, the mix of systems and how they need to interact is just as different. It has led to a landscape that is full of variance and therefore, complexity. Outdated skillsets, low abilities to make informed decisions and vendor over-promises have resulted in an industry that is cautious of innovation in existing buildings.

To overcome this and cultivate a culture of innovation and responsible technological exploration, we must first seek clarity on best practices for implementing technology within buildings. As an extension to this, we must then work to upskill and support all those maintaining, working with and using technology to ensure it delivers the value it promises.

From a technical standards perspective, it is challenging to integrate and enable systems to meaningfully transfer information between each other. A significant hurdle facing building technologies is in how different systems are codified. It is common for different systems in a building to use different identification tagging formats for the same assets; a computer aided facilities management (CAFM) system might identify a light fitting as LGHT-001, while another system might identify it as LT-001.

If these systems are to be integrated, without using the same tagging system, an additional layer of abstraction in the form of mapping, will be required. To reduce the technical burden in a retrofit, the systems have to undergo the time- and money-intensive process of updating one or both systems with the same ID formats. That same problem arises for new buildings where all systems may have been originally set up using the same asset ID tagging, but through ongoing maintenance and asset replacements the consistency of as tagging becomes diluted by miscellaneous naming of new assets not in keeping with the previous formatting standards.

In response to this ever-growing problem, an asset naming standard called Project Haystack was developed. Haystack is open source and specifically designed to be a prebuilt standard that can be deployed at low cost to any building. Haystack, built originally from JavaScript Object Notation (JSON), establishes a clear format through which all building systems can be described, preventing deviation and inconsistency. 

Retrofitting building smart systems

Another key hurdle being tackled by new industry standardisation is that of device onboarding and verification. Buildings can often have thousands of digital systems and the process for onboarding and configuring these systems can often be laborious and expensive. In response to this and also in an effort to improve building security, a new standard called Manufacturer Usage Descriptions (MUD) was developed. MUD files can be preloaded onto a buildings IT/OT infrastructure, and these files then act as verification and configuration files for when new devices are connected to the building. Jumping to the lighting example again, as soon as the IoT enabled lighting fixture is installed, the building references the ID presented by the fixture against its MUD database to first verify the fixtures network permissions, and then to execute the correct configuration procedure, all automatically.

All put together Haystack, Brick Schema and MUD files each seek to resolve a key hurdle facing the greater integration and use of technology within buildings. Unfortunately, standards can only go so far to nudging building owners and operators towards better working practices. The obsolescence of technology after implementation remains unsolved despite these steps towards greater standardisation; the key to overcoming obsolescence lies not with new technological solutions but will well established stakeholder upskilling and engagement methods.

Building smart systems

As smart systems become more the norm than the novel, we are going to see that building managers will need to pivot their skills to be more specialised in digital. There are an increasing number of anecdotes across the British construction industry where implementation mangers leave companies without their systems operations knowledge being fully handed over. Often, the buildings mangers that they are replaced with, do not have the skills to unpick, understand or modify the systems.

This is typical for bespoke integrations, where the system specialist can pick a personal preference of method. Implementing the aforementioned standards, building managers will be able to understand and update data flows, dashboards and automations in an informed and tactical way.

Skill such as basic coding, for rule writing, and database maintenance will become necessary to give operations staff the abilities they need to run a smart building. Leading facility management firms are already investing in these skills and capabilities. As property developers use smart buildings technologies to compete for tenants and occupiers use the same technologies for COVID-19 compliance and talent attraction/retention, building managers will be called upon to modernise their skillsets and support their client’s missions.

Until lots of the points discussed have more mature solutions, as professionals, we are going to have to challenge those that we collaborate with. The below three points are recommended to support the retrofitting of smart systems into existing buildings:

1. Challenge vendors

Work with your construction and technology partners to ensure that you are getting technologies with the above-mentioned standards and people with the right skills. Today, there is a tendency to rely on traditional methods and systems and use value engineering as way to reduce risk in delivery by descoping critical integrations.

 2. Appoint an MSI

A Master Systems Integrator combines knowledge from the world of controls and digital to create systems that fulfil your brief. They have the necessary skills to create a range of integrations to prepare data for ingestion at the platform.

3. Keep learning

There are now course providers that offer easy to digest courses designed for built environmental professionals to become conversant in digital. Being able to understand the key terms and concepts will ensure that you are able to make informed purchasing and implementation decisions.

We hope this article was helpful. For more information from Smart Building Bootcamp, please visit their CPD Member Directory page. Alternatively please visit the CPD Industry Hubs for more CPD articles, courses and events relevant to your Continuing Professional Development requirements.

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For more information from Smart Building Bootcamp, please visit their CPD Member Directory page. Alternatively please visit the CPD Industry Hubs for more CPD articles, courses and events relevant to your Continuing Professional Development requirements.

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