With today’s technology, it’s possible for a high-performance building to integrate and optimize all of its major functions while also ensuring energy efficiency and occupant comfort. Yet, while opportunities abound for HVAC contractors with the skills to succeed in this niche, many say there are still barriers restricting the growth of high-performance buildings.

Money Matters

Helping owners understand the value of high performance is still a challenge for many contractors.

According to Scott Rankert, vice president of Entech Sales and Service Inc. in Dallas, while owners and A/E firms may be attracted to the idea of integrated building systems and energy efficiency, they are turned off by upfront costs.

“Due to the perceived increase in upfront costs over conventional controls-only-type projects, building owners and consultants are typically accepting value-engineered solutions for lesser systems at a reduced upfront cost,” he said. This approach does not take into consideration the “long-term costs of disparate, stand-alone, siloed systems from a maintenance and operations perspective.”

Overall, Rankert said, “Project owners tend to sacrifice long-term savings in operation expense versus the short-term upfront cost.”

The resulting challenge for contractors is to communicate the high-performance value of integrated systems to owners.

“We have to assist the project development team and owner in the teaching of what smart, interoperable building systems can do for them,” Rankert said.

It’s crucial for building automation systems (BAS) contractors to help clients determine the proper scale for their buildings’ systems.

“A significant challenge and opportunity for the BAS contractor is to assist building owners and operators to decide how much high-performance technology they need and how much it will cost,” said Frank Rotello, CEO of Alpha Controls and Services, Rockford, Illinois. This decision must include factors such as building use and occupant expectations, he said.

“It is critical to carefully analyze all the numbers for both system cost and anticipated savings to get a solid understanding of the investment necessary and the potential payback,” he said.

Jeff Houpt, president and CEO of Automation Integrated in Oklahoma City, acknowledged there is a different mindset between property owners and facility owners.

“Property owners tend to believe spending money on the building is money lost, while facility owners believe maintaining the facility is protecting their core business,” he said. As examples of the latter, he pointed to data centers and 24-hour facilities.

Yet, to move beyond these instances and tip the entire scale of the commercial market toward high performance, Houpt said more financial incentives and broader energy codes are needed.

“I don’t know the exact formula that will tip that scale, but it will probably include a combination of increased operating costs, incentives from utilities to decrease peak demands, and business requirements,” he said.

Houpt also noted: “We’re seeing the adoption of national and state energy codes, but, typically, that’s in new construction. Very rarely do I see energy code adherence required in remodels.”

Coordination and Tech Challenges

High-performance buildings are also hampered by traditional construction and industry approaches.

“Oftentimes, the integrated systems and building controls portion of a project is placed under the mechanical contractor’s scope of work when the project bids and interoperability of various systems are not the mechanical contractor’s priority,” Rankert said.

This puts the controls contractor in the difficult position of trying to coordinate many facets of an integrated system with other systems hidden under other contractors, such as the electrical and general contractors.

“Basically, a lack of coordination exists between the project team on the traditional plan-and-spec, lowest-cost scenario,” he said.

Houpt also said the traditional friction between owners, architects, and mechanical engineers with general contractors, first-tier subcontractors, and specialty subcontractors (e.g., controls, security, fire alarm, etc.) is detrimental to the progress of high-performance buildings. Houpt believes much of this friction stems from the proprietary and semi-proprietary nature of building automation systems, which he said has contributed to cost overruns, owner frustration, and system inefficiencies.

According to Paul Strohm, COO of C&C Group in Lenexa, Kansas, contractors also face challenges if they are not actively investigating new technologies and solutions for their customers. Strohm currently serves as the president of the InsideIQ Building Automation Alliance, an international network of independent systems integrators. He said most BAS contractors lead with a primary product line and supplement it with secondary product lines.

“This can become a disadvantage if a building owner is evaluating new technology offerings, and the BAS contractor is not progressive and tries to keep the customer committed to their legacy systems,” Strohm said.

Opportunities Abound

Despite these challenges, opportunities do exist for contractors who specialize in high performance.

“BAS contractors have an opportunity to ride the wave of high-performance buildings but need to be ready and prepared to invest in their businesses to make sure they protect their customer bases and are ready when new customer opportunities arise in their local markets,” Strohm said.

Rankert noted building retrofits are one potential source of high-performance growth.

“There is a great opportunity to revisit existing, older buildings for retro-commissions, system retrofits, energy conservation measures, technology upgrades, etc., which would allow upgrades of existing building structures to high-performance buildings similar to what we’re seeing in the new construction market.”

Rotello added there are also opportunities for service related to high-performance projects. To achieve the objectives of a high-performance building, he noted, processes must be established for taking corrective action in response to the reports and alerts created by a building’s energy information system.

“This can be an opportunity for the BAS contractor to establish a service contract to assist with ongoing system maintenance and improvements,” he said.

There is also great business potential for contractors to integrate a building’s systems and make them interoperable by turning huge amounts of building data sets into usable information.

According to Houpt, owners and operators of high-performance buildings are looking for a “single pane of glass” for all of their facilities. That’s how he sums up their need for a way to access and easily analyze and understand the tremendous amount of information being produced by their building systems.

“We take mountains of information that may come from legacy HVAC systems, such as some obsolete systems that are no longer supported by mainstream manufacturers or current systems that are not performing as efficiently as desired,” Houpt said.

His team’s first step is to “free the data” by removing any proprietary wrappers on the data, he said.

“Then, we organize the data so it’s usable [with industry-accepted semantic naming conventions, etc.], we analyze the data, and we present the data,” he said.

As an example, Houpt pointed to a project his company is currently working on for a large property management company that owns several hundred buildings. Automation Integrated is contracted to integrate all the company’s buildings, which currently use 14 different automation vendors, into a single system.

“When you’re a big organization with a large footprint, the logarithmic scale of information can be crippling,” Houpt said.

“You analyze data and turn it into information, and looking at that information over time provides actionable insight,” Houpt said. “That’s the point at which a human being must bring intelligence to bear for problem solving. No human being could gain any insight out of a mountain of data and pick one thing to improve. It’s difficult for humans to begin to comprehend the scale of the data.”

Yet, Houpt said Automation Integrated has now integrated 25 percent of the property management company’s buildings into the system.

“Actionable insight into operations is the difference in service we’re providing to our customers,” he said.

Publication date: 2/16/2015