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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.


Still, this simple communication challenge highlights why building integration isn't a market that AV pros can simply parachute into and assume that success will follow. Instead, success depends on learning about, and keeping up with, companies and technologies that historically have been outside of AV.

"Stay tuned to the trends of the market," says Manuel Marichal, senior architect at Leo A Daly, one of the country's largest architecture, engineering, and interior design firms. "For example, the BACnet [interface protocol] is in, and LonWorks is out." (BACnet and LonWorks are two leading communications languages for building systems.)

Marichal and others caution that although vendors such as Honeywell and Siemens are major players in HVAC and other building systems, it's equally important to track smaller players. "The big vendors move too slowly to adopt the latest IT software and applications, and their interfaces are not as customizable as users are looking for," Marichal says. "It means that smaller companies are developing building-management-system platforms with open protocols, taking the building-automation industry to a new level of interoperability."

In many cases, it's another type of access that determines whether an AV integrator can get building-integration jobs: access to the architect, if it's new construction or a major remodel; or access to a top-level executive with the client, who's willing to put the integrator on equal footing with its other contractors.

"The conversation with the sustainability officer or the person in that role in the C suite is the earliest and most important conversation to have," says Howard Nunes, president and CEO of PepperDash Technology Corp., a Boston company that specializes in AV control programming. "Whoever owns that relationship, or has the best opportunity to get at that relationship, is going to win this battle. Most AV folks seem to have a relationship in the company that's relatively far down the food chain. They're dealing with a facility manager or a project manager. By the time they get into the conversation, even if they're early on, a lot of the inspirational decisions have been made–sometimes in the right direction, sometimes not."


In the ideal scenario, two things happen: First, the AV integrator comes into the project when the facility is still on the drawing board. Second, the client, the architect, or someone else gives the integrator some level of authority to coordinate the necessary systems and achieve the building-integration goals. At that point, an AV integrator becomes what's often referred to as the integrated building technology project manager.

"The integrated building technology project manager is someone who has the authority and mandate to drive all of those different consultants and trades," says AVW-TELAV's Tarry.

Some AV pros say that it's not uncommon for others on the project team to balk at the prospect of an integrator guiding their work. "Once you're telling the architect what kind of shades [to put] on what side of the building, you're in a different set of britches than simply saying, 'I want to expand into digital signage,'" says Waveguide's Walker, who chairs InfoComm's AV Sustainability Task Force.

Many integrators and vendors say that although there's a growing market for building integration–particularly when it's to reduce energy consumption–projects often don't have someone leading that effort. That leadership vacuum is a problem when it means that the goals aren't met, but it's also an opportunity for AV integrators to position themselves as integrated building project managers.

"There has to be somebody on the team that owns the ball to integrate all of these systems together," says David Wilts, director of integrated building technology at Crestron Electronics. "If it's all in different silos–mechanical, electrical, lighting, AV, low-voltage, fire–there's nobody on the design team whose job it is to make sure that all of these systems talk to one another. They may all share the same IT network, but none of these systems are sharing any data."

Crestron has made the ability to integrate building systems with its AV control systems a significant part of its latest Core 3 control platform. The system uses standard TCP/IP to communicate, which allows, for instance, touch panels to talk to HVAC systems using BACnet over IP (see "5-Minute Interview" with Crestron's Fred Bargetzi, September/October 2010).

"AV has done an excellent job of making complex systems easy to use," Wilts says. "We see a huge opportunity to empower the building manager with a user interface that can bring all of this together."

But great technology can't completely replace good coordination. For example, if a lighting designer specifies a certain control system but doesn't provide additional details, such as the desired scenes and the relative brightness for each lighting circuit in those scenes, that lack of information leaves the AV integrator and other contractors to chase down the answers or make educated guesses. Either way, the final solution may not deliver the integration and energy savings that the client had hoped for.

The solution? "You could have a programmer involved in the design process taking in all of these requirements," Walker says. "Then when it goes to the construction phase, there's already somebody who understands how everything is supposed to work and can bridge the gap between the design team and the construction team."

Walker also encourages design teams to create a "design brief" that summarizes how all of the systems should work together. That way, when the electrical contractor is putting in the lighting-control systems, he or she knows exactly what the scenes should be and how the infrastructure should support them, making it easier to coordinate an integrated system.

Of course, yet another option is for the AV integrator to install the lighting. "If they say, 'Why don't we put in the lighting controls, and then we'll handle all of the programming ourselves and the integration of these systems,' it makes it easier on the whole design team and can simplify the construction process," Wilts says.

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