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Building a New Market

It's long been discussed: How can AV integrators extend their control systems expertise to entire buildings? These days, some firms are doing just that.

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On the surface, it seems like a natural progression. AV integrators are increasingly handling the lighting and shades in conference rooms and other venues, so why not take things a step further and expand into a building's mechanical systems, such as HVAC, in order to offer clients a comprehensive package designed to reduce their energy consumption? After all, plenty of enterprises, government agencies, and other client types are already going green, so the addressable market is there for the taking, right? Plus, AV integrators have experience in knitting together disparate systems (think digital signage on a client's IT network), which makes building integration more of a comfortable evolution than a stretch–in theory.

"In many instances, the electrical contractor had little to no knowledge of those systems, so we were ending up programming the systems and doing a lot of the value-added work anyway," says Byron Tarry, general manager for system design and integration at AVW-TELAV, a Canadian AV integrator. "Why wouldn't we just sell some of this stuff and get the revenue from selling the hardware? We're already doing half of the work."

Other AV pros agree. As the argument goes, someone is going to become the go-to expert for giving clients what they want, namely an integrated building-management system that connects all the mechanical functions and the AV systems. It might as well be the AV professional.

"What the forward-looking companies are seeing is that there's a big opportunity to be way more than the building AV experts," says Scott Walker, president and CEO of Waveguide Consulting, an AV design firm based in Atlanta.

In reality, the market opportunity and what AV integrators bring to the table are far less clear-cut. Suppose an AV integrator proposes configuring a company's meeting rooms so that the HVAC automatically turns on and off based on when the room-scheduling software says it's in use. Maybe such a solution includes automatically adjusting the room's temperature based on the number of people who have confirmed that they'll attend a meeting there. But pulling off that level of integration requires access to the building's HVAC system, and therefore one obvious challenge is gaining that access–especially if the client's facilities team is as skittish as some IT departments are about letting outsiders tap into their system. (The threat isn't an academic one, either: Hackers have successfully attacked commercial HVAC systems many times.)

Supposing the AV integrator gets access to the HVAC system, the next significant challenge is understanding the interface protocols—including vendor-specific flavors—that HVAC and other building systems use to communicate. One way to find out—and it's something that organizations such as the Secure Computing Group are hashing out—is for companies to post all the information for a building's mechanical, electrical, and AV systems to the electronic equivalent of a bulletinboard (protected from hackers, of course).

"It could be messages about status," says Joe Andrulis, vice president of marketing at AMX. Something like, "'The building has decided that we are in energy-management mode. If anybody thinks that's useful, then consume that [information].' Then you don't need to define any deeper level of integration to do some pretty amazing things."Such a scenario would free AV pros from having to learn about the nuances of, say, a Honeywell or Siemens platform. And the arm's-length design could allay client concerns about giving third parties extensive control over their systems. "That's the kind of concept that's going to get us out of the box," Andrulis says. "We don't have to integrate with other systems. We just need to be able to see a presentation of the services they provide and then access those services if they're meaningful to the AV experience."



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