Karl Walker of Beckhoff Automation outlines why it’s important to recognise the true value of building controls and automation while avoiding value engineering.

I’m fairly new to the building industry, having spent the last 25 years of my career involved with industrial machinery and manufacturing process automation.
Automating, say, a high-speed assembly machine is a no-compromise exercise; every last detail of the design, the selection of technology platforms and components, the software that controls it all, and the way in which it interacts with the operator are paramount to the performance, repeatability and reliability of that machine. Any deviation from these factors ultimately results in poor quality end products, frequent breakdowns and a bad name for the machine manufacturer.
A leading UK-based automotive manufacturer once told me that each minute of unscheduled down-time cost the company £20,000. There was no room for mistakes!
Back in the late 90s, the UK’s machine building OEMs were struggling with unfavourable currency fluctuations and ever-increasing competition from low-cost economies, particularly the Far East. The result of this was my first experience of ‘value engineering’. Purchasers, seemingly with impunity and veto over engineers and designers, took it upon themselves to reduce costs at any cost, often ignoring – or possibly not understanding – the ultimate effect on the finished product.
Of course, it could be argued that some commodity items are completely interchangeable, but when these choices are more far-reaching such that they start to compromise the quality or performance of the machine, or begin to stifle the very innovation that will ensure the company’s future, that’s when the trouble sets in.
As a result, I witnessed the demise of many generations-old, and once world-leading, British OEMs.
So, what’s different about the building industry? A building serves two main purposes; to ensure the comfort of the occupiers and to use as little energy as possible. Both of these are greatly affected by the building management system (BMS). Careful planning and correct implementation should – and is proven to – satisfy both of these requirements.
Focussing on the mitigation of energy wastage, Dr Kerry Mashford of the National Energy Foundation (NEF) commented in a recent report that there is “little excuse and every opportunity for reducing energy usage and costs”. She went on to comment that “the root causes of poor energy performance in buildings originate at all stages in the build delivery cycle”, with their experience showing that “a structured approach is needed”.
The article goes on to list many examples of poor operating practices, such as:

  • No interlock between heating and cooling systems, allowing occupants to have both running simultaneously.
  • Heating and air-conditioning systems that are set either too high or too low instead of providing a comfortable environment for most people.
  • Inappropriate lighting with zoning deficiencies or using poor controls.

The solutions to all of these problems are detailed in BS EN15232, which was created to establish conventions and methods for estimating the impact of building automation and control systems (BACS) and technical building management (TBM) on the energy performance of buildings. It grades the performance on a scale of A to D, where Class A is the highest-energy performance BACS and TBM, and Class D equates to non-energy-efficient BACS with little automatic control of any function.
Until recently, commercial office buildings operators lacked a suitable method for measuring and highlighting energy performance in a reliable manner. Looking to address this issue, the National Energy Foundation (NEF) helped to develop Voluntary Display Energy Certificates (VoIDECs). This not-for-profit scheme produces ratings based on relatively simple data and enables office building performance to be measured in a consistent manner.
In the relatively short time that I have been involved with the building controls industry, the principles of BS EN15232 have been a guiding light. The outcomes of implementing the standard’s recommendations are obvious, and the energy savings well proven. So, why would anyone not do it? Surely, the building’s tenants will want the most energy-efficient operation which, in a new build, can only be realised by a sensible and holistic BMS systems, delivered during the build?
However, with only 10% of the total lifetime cost of a building invested at the construction stage, is this really a main concern for the builder, and does their overriding sense of “value engineering” in an effort to save money prevail to such an extent that the requirements of the end user are ignored? Or, is it the convoluted supply chain that misunderstands or misinterprets the requirements, therefore diluting the implementation in the myriad stages between architectural design and finished product?
More importantly, is the end user even aware of the potential energy savings that can be achieved through intelligent building automation? Back in the industrial world the process is, of course, considerably simpler, with the same engineers often responsible for the design, manufacture, delivery and commissioning of a machine or system. Often, they also have responsibility for their own purchasing, ensuring that nothing can be compromised or “designed out” through deviation from the master plan. The outcome is clear; the machine must perform to specification and meet the end-user’s requirements.
There is still a relatively common misconception that a BACS is expensive to install or an unnecessary luxury and it is frequently the first victim of value engineering. However, when you consider a Class A performing system in a typical office building, energy savings of 30% for thermal energy and 13% for electrical energy can be expected (as quantified in BS EN 15232), resulting in a payback of perhaps just a year or two.
It may be time for the building industry to start to look more closely at the long-term benefits associated with building control systems, not simply the initial cost of individual components. High quality, precision engineering can add value to products and services and deliver a building that satisfies the need for comfort and efficiency throughout its lifecycle.