As the automated building industry continues to enjoy unprecedented growth, a variety of factors can lead to complications in the earliest stages of the project lifecycle that impede and reduce the advantages of intelligent building solutions.
Building and portfolio owners and managers see the incredible energy and operational savings made possible through smarter automation and are understandably eager to reap those benefits. At the same time, contractors outside of the industry see the opportunity for big paydays and seek to become systems integrators, whether or not they truly possess the skill set and industry experience necessary to realize an owner’s vision.
Paul Oswald outlined the differences between the Wikipedia definition of a systems integrator and the expertise required to be considered a systems integrator in today’s industry in this very publication in May of 2016. Unfortunately, the number of Wikipedia integrators has only grown since then and will continue to grow until the industry responds, whether by certification process or attrition.
When owners who are new to intelligent building projects are met with systems integrators who are new to the industry, the likelihood of errors in design, installation, and integration make erosion of benefits an unfortunate reality.
To combat this possibility, experienced systems integrators have expanded their services and acumen to offer owners and managers peace of mind throughout the lifecycle of an intelligent building project.
These Master Systems Integrators (MSIs) leverage years of experience in an ever-evolving industry into a level of service that owners of any level of understanding of the industry can rely on and appreciate. Master Systems Integrators develop lasting relationships with owners so that they approach projects as a partner rather than just a contractor.
While Master Systems Integrator is, at this point, a title that any company may bestow upon itself, there are a number of ways an owner can sift through potential partners to find a true MSI. A worthy MSI should be able to present, in detail, their vision for each of the following stages of an intelligent building project’s lifecycle:
- Assess & Advise
- Plan & Design
- Build & Implement
Assess & Advise
Most owners consider taking on an intelligent building project for one of several reasons. Maybe a building management employee made them aware of an interesting demo with cutting-edge graphics and control. Maybe they want to improve maintenance staffing productivity while expanding the footprint of their portfolio and enhancing the tenant experience. Maybe sustainability and “thinking green” are a personal passion. Maybe it’s as simple as a desire to reduce energy costs.
For any goal or use case an owner may have, there are dozens of contractors and systems integrators who claim to specialize in precisely that discipline.
In the earliest stages, when building automation is more of an idea than a planned project, an MSI can help the owner cut through the noise when making the right decision is most crucial.
By assessing existing equipment and capabilities, a seasoned MSI can help develop a roadmap for where a building is, and where it could be. This will often result in a mutually-developed set of specifications and standards the owner can refer to throughout projects that may be years from even being considered.
This specification includes guidelines and checklists the owner can use when selecting electricians, HVACR professionals, and integrators, with detailed standards for which they will be responsible for complying.
Plan & Design
When the roadmap and standards have been finalized, the project at hand may be developed.
Just as the Assess & Advise stage helps avoid future losses by way of choosing the wrong contractors, the Plan & Design stage helps avoid future losses due to choosing the wrong equipment or facility management systems.
Like any technology, intelligent building technologies exist in a landscape that changes in the blink of an eye. Any integrator can select today’s best equipment. A Master Systems Integrator can make a selection that’s ready for tomorrow’s growth. This step beyond the development of a standard project scope is what separates an MSI from an integrator.
Build & Implement
It may seem as though this stage would present the least amount of difference between standard integrators and MSIs, but it may actually be where an MSI’s skillset goes furthest beyond that of a normal integrator.
The reason for this is that the scope an MSI is able to Build & Implement has expanded over years and years of experience. Because all MSIs were once simple integrators, they have learned what capabilities they should be offering, and have adapted their businesses accordingly.
For instance, a Master Systems Integrator should have the ability to rely on in-house resources to offer what others cannot, whether it is custom software driver development to integrate non-standard or residential control devices into commercial projects, or to hand over graphics duties to a department of employees with backgrounds in graphic design rather than systems installation.
Quite simply, Master Systems Integrators have developed the resources it takes to say “yes” to a much longer list of owner requests, and the experience it takes to implement solutions that drive towards achieving the vision they share with the owner.
Small project teams offered by standard integrators rely heavily on “Jack of all Trades” contractors. The same person who may be a good installer, an okay programmer and a struggling graphics designer is likely to serve all three roles, while another employee who struggles with installations, studied programming a decade ago and has a decent eye for design does the same for another customer. A sturdy 5-gallon bucket is just as likely to serve as a toolbox as a desk chair in these instances.
The programming it takes to properly optimize complex control systems is not something that should come as part of a multi-tasking package. Master Systems Integrators are no longer turning over a 5-gallon bucket and programming from memory on site.
Programming and Analytics departments offered by leading Master Systems Integrators are able to focus on a mix of industry best practices and cutting-edge rules development, resulting in a level of optimization a standard integrator simply cannot provide.
Because a Master Systems Integrator is involved, at one level or another, in all aspects of an intelligent building project, they have the ability to provide unmatched support. The same resources that provide an advantage in the Build & Implement and Optimize stages leverage the same skills to support the project itself, rather than an aspect of it.
Master Systems Integrators are not assigning graphics work to installers, or network design to logic programmers. While this results in fewer service calls being required, it also means that the root cause of any issue can be found quickly, and addressed by a professional who specializes in the area where the problem resides.
An MSI should be able to provide 24-hour support throughout the warranty period and into an extended service contract in the years after a project is completed. Owners should not settle for any offer of service that does not come with guaranteed response times for all levels of support.
The most advanced building automation system is worthless if the owner’s stakeholders cannot confidently use it. What matters is not what a system can potentially do, but what its users know how to do with it. Any integrator can focus on the former. An MSI maximizes the latter.
Master Systems Integrators know that training is not an afterthought. Their involvement throughout the project assures that they understand the project goals, not just of the owner, but of the building managers, tenants and all other stakeholders of the project. Often, an MSI will inform the owner’s project team of who should receive training even moreso than the other way around.
A Clear Advantage
Because each stage of the intelligent building project lifecycle builds on what came before it and must prepare for what comes next, it’s crucial to work with a partner who understands the process, and whose actions are based on that understanding.
In today’s industry, it is not difficult to find a collection of contractors and integrators who can deliver a project that provides an improvement over existing conditions. However, it’s very rare that an owner’s first taste of intelligent building automation will be their last.
Partnering with a Master Systems Integrator gives owners peace of mind and confidence that the guidelines and processes required to make their next project successful are built into the project they’ve just completed.