Energy savings fall foul of loose specifications

Theben UK, DALI, KNX, integration, BMS, BEMS, Controls
An elevated, but still level, playing field — Stephen Payne.

The energy-efficiency benefits of effective controls are often sacrificed to reduce initial costs or get lost through lack of understanding. Stephen Payne of Theben UK believes there is a better way.

Just before I sat down to write this article, I spoke to a valued colleague and customer, Steve Goldspink, Managing Director of Cambridgeshire-based SG Controls & Integration, who had on his desk a 179-page building specification.

The first 121 pages were essentially standard pre-amble.

The mechanical specification called for a BMS system but had no I/O list, no mention of any technology to be used e.g. KNX, BACnet etc., nor what the specifier really envisioned the system to do.

The lighting controls specification, not even half a page of A4, mentioned only that the control system is to be is to be fully DALI or ‘an equal and approved system’ — yet it still allows for a gateway to non-DALI lighting

For an integrator to tender on this basis, would take days of work, effectively doing the design work for free, when really it is clear that the specification is open to wide and wild interpretation and so has been left open to the lowest bidder. There seems to be an inertia, wrapped in a persistent culture of always seeking to strip out costs in a project.

The problem as I see it is that intelligent building control just doesn’t fit comfortably into the way we currently run construction projects. There is certainly a growing argument for elevating this specialism to direct or sub-contract level, but that is not a change I expect to see happen soon.

With so many aspects of construction defined by British, European and other national standards, there is little room for manoeuvre on project costs, and contractors are faced with tough choices if they are to compete successfully. The soft underbelly is capital expenditure on building control, which offers opportunities to compromise and cut costs, especially when the specification has those magic words ‘or similar’ or ’or equal and approved’. Indeed, who can blame them?

Building owners and operators lack a comprehensive understanding of how an early investment in intelligent building control will impact their bottom line for years to come, so the impetus for change surely has to come from architects and design consultants who can explain and sell in the benefits, and so define the ‘final’ specification.

Surely they need to involve the new breed of integrators at an early stage of a project, not just when they issue an invitation to tender — possibly paying them on a consultancy basis before going out to open tender.

This is not an argument for a particular approach to intelligent building control, more one for listening to the experts in the field and getting the performance specifications right from the outset — and sticking to them. At the end of the day, adhering to a higher specification will not affect healthy competitive tendering, it will simply create an elevated, but still level, playing field.

Tighter specification does not remove competitive advantage or the ability to negotiate best prices, it simply removes the opportunities to dilute the intentions of the designer. It does not mean being brand-specific or tying owners into proprietary systems. In fact it is the loose specification and the current price-led mentality that quite often leaves owners and tenants with a proprietary system that may have been less costly to install and commission at the outset but which can be prove to be very expensive to run and even more expensive to change and adapt.

Yet surely the future for locking users in to such proprietary systems should be limited, given the prevalence of truly open standards like DALI for lighting and the growing presence of KNX for general intelligent building control, which bring compatible products from literally hundreds of manufacturers to the table.

The better culture I would like to see will recognise the whole-project lifecycle value of smart intelligent controls and that the lifecycle includes the decades of active, productive and economical use of the building. It is an approach that will free up the next generation of designers to include better systems designs, bringing their ideas to life without fear of reproach from shorter-sighted financial managers.

Poor specification, lack of knowledge of available control technologies and their capabilities and a construction culture that makes it too easy to view intelligent building controls as an extra cost that can be stripped out are cheating building owners and occupiers of long term benefits of energy efficiency.

Only when integrators are involved at the early stages of building design and specifications are developed to show developers the long-term benefits of effective control will we see the smarter designs that will deliver the real savings we all claim to be looking for?

The technology, largely, is already out there. The required knowledge among people who lay out the goalposts is perhaps lacking somewhat.

Stephen Payne is Theben UK’s KNX sales manager.

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