Paul Foulkes

Opinion Piece by Paul Foulkes

Collaboration – where the engineer can lead the field

Being able to manage multiple buildings or departments with different occupancy requirements, optimising energy use and monitoring and scheduling maintenance is becoming a normal requirement for managing effective, healthy premises. This can only be achieved using the correct hardware, an effective protocol and collaborative design. Building control needs to be on the table at the earliest stages of project planning.

Collaboration is essential throughout a building’s life. The larger and more complex our buildings become the more collaboration is required. 

Intelligent building services installations enable effective collaboration by integrating multiple protocols and managing a variety of data requirements. This information can be made available locally, remotely and be used across a variety of platforms to deliver efficient, safe buildings that are great places to live or work.

Sounds straightforward enough but, of course, there has to be a “but”. Here it is – this level of building integration is only really possible if the design route has been a truly collaborative process from the very early stages. 

Even with the introduction of BIM, a large part of the UK construction industry still has a silo approach to the building process. This becomes even more evident in the design and installation of building services. In all but the largest of buildings, they are often ‘shoehorned’ in what appears to be an afterthought. As a young electrician, I remember ‘fighting’ for space with the plumber in the services cupboard!

Today, the construction press and associated media is constantly full of terms like integration, connected, smart, intelligent and AI. Yet the separations that exist in our design and building process are still vastly removed from any of these concepts. I often get asked about AI in buildings, and I chuckle because I see buildings where the heating system won’t ‘talk’ to the ventilation system, or in a £25M project the £4K light management system is removed for cost savings. The gulf between what could be done and what is actually done remains apparent.

Engineers need to take a larger role in the planning and design of buildings. They need to be supported by processes and hardware that facilitate and encourage the developer to engage with them from the earliest stage.

No one product or protocol can deliver the entirety of a building’s management needs. This choice is often compounded by vague design specifications, a misunderstanding by the designer of what can be achieved and cost-cutting disguised to the client as “value engineering”. 

As engineers, we can help by advising on the best choices and playing a major role in breaking down the silos that exist in a fractured tendering system. The choice of services installation system, linking multiple protocols and design requirements, plays a vital role in bringing everything together. The right choice is paramount.

Protocols such as KNX, the first truly open communications protocol, offer integration opportunities that can create the backbone of efficient buildings. Given that backbone, the design engineer can inform all the teams involved of how real integration can happen to deliver the future-proofed, efficient and sustainable building that was planned in the first place.

Linking field-level control with BMS

Multiple building services – lighting, heating, ventilation, security, etc – can be brought together with KNX. This reduces hardware and costs while retaining full functionality. Linking this field level of control to the automation and management level is one of the keys to a fully integrated services installation.

KNX plays a central role in this integration. Readily available devices integrate it with multiple BMS protocols such as Modbus and BACnet. Adding MQTT as a cloud connection protocol, via TCP/IP brings a new dimension to building management and data availability, even for the remotest locations and the most demanding clients. 

There are nearly 500 manufacturers producing 8000 KNX products, guaranteed to be compatible and allowing for true integration at all levels, for all building types, no matter what the requirement. Certainty and confidence can be delivered with KNX, in a solution that has been available for more than 25 years and is fully backwards and forwards compatible. This creates a fully future-proofed installation and peace of mind for the client.

The KNX open protocol approach allows for creativity by the integrators, with new apps and multiple visualisation packages. The same hardware can be used in residential, MDU, commercial and mixed-use with a choice of front-end interfaces depending who it is being displayed too. 

Specific client needs, in areas such as healthcare or later living for instance, can be facilitated, accessing the relevant data and integrating it to the existing building services. 

KNX is design-driven, has multiple levels of integration, and has the flexibility across multiple installation typologies. It is a pro-active approach that brings together the design. It not only encourages collaboration it highlights the enormous benefits.

If the developer and the architect know this, at the very beginning of the design discussion, then it is far more likely that engineers will be included at an early stage in the planning process. This collaborative, silo-free approach then really makes sense when considered in parallel with the ideals of BIM. This is why old-fashioned bunker thinking doesn’t work. We must change.

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