CCTV Headquarters building, Beijing

IP-centric building design: rethinking the office

The smartest office buildings of the near-future will be built around IP-enabled network infrastructures, rather than vice-versa.

Until little over a decade ago, most in-building IT and communications infrastructures were fitted – retro-fitted, to be more precise – into existing physical superstructures of brick, concrete and steel. Even in more recent office architecture, the needs of IT were largely subservient to those of conventional building design: cables and wires shared the same ducts, and risers followed the existing requirements of the building itself.

Even as ICT was recognised as the driver of commercial operations, its hardware and connections were, to most architects and interior designers, an afterthought compared to the priority given to other aspects of an office's 'plumbing' – water, power, ventilation, light. Other electronic elements – elevators, escalators, copiers and shredders – have, until recently, operated on a proprietary basis, taking electricity from the same wall socket circuits as drinks machines and desk fans. This usually means that IT managers and facilities managers are not able to tell how much energy any given class of devices – critical or non-critical – is consuming.

The need to identify how much energy different electronic devices consume – plus the fact that once-proprietary services such as CCTV, entrance security, environmental monitors, VoIP phones and (sometimes) fire alarms, are being migrated to a single all-encompassing IP network infrastructure – is causing a rethink of the way the workplace should be designed. Indeed, we could (and arguably should) be moving toward a scenario where every in-building service is conneted via IP rather than through dedicated circuits and power lines.

This calls for a radical rethink of the fundamental ethos of building design, in terms of office space at least; smart buildings should be built around their IP infrastructures, rather than vice versa.

Workplace complexity

Complexity is a necessary by-product of the myriad requirements and competing demands being imposed on the form and function of a building. We rely increasingly on ICT infrastructures in buildings to simplify operations. Much has changed in the last 20 years. Contrast today's situation with the 1980s and 1990s, when buildings contained many seemingly similar functions in isolated 'bunkers' staffed by area or discipline specialists based in 'departments'. Back then the telephone and computer departments were two entities.

A significant amount of valuable floorspace was allocated for such 'cost centre' functions. Getting multiple communications services (voice and data) to a desk was a cumbersome experience; moves and changes caused more work. An orderly business continuity process in the event of a serious incident or outage was hard to implement.

Premises security was also an area where a lack of effective physical access controls seems highly risky by 2012 standards. Nefarious strangers often used to be able to enter and roam office premises without much challenge, carrying perhaps a dirty tool kit and overalls, or smart suit, or just a purposeful look to lend credibility and deflect more searching scrutiny.

The culture of system or task segregation and workflows meant that the traditional switchboard operator and receptionist would only do their specified function, and multitasking was an alien concept sometimes opposed by trade union leaders.

Just think where we are now. We have improved on managing building facilities and related functions progressively as ICT leads the way towards 'integration' of systems and enables 'convergence' in data communications. Note also the presence of emerging markets – a special case in point – where historical rules and regulations are less likely to restrain 'convergence max'.

Few would question the assertion that, in developed nations and fast-developing emerging markets at least, ICT physical infrastructure of cabling and data networks is becoming the fourth utility in a building – a mission-critical service that any business cannot function without. There is almost no aspect of facilities management that IP-enabled systems cannot look after. While this has been a traditional call to action for CTOs and CIOs seeking influence at the board, and justifying ever-increasing budgets – more pressing drivers now exist for CEOs and CFOs to think differently.

Traditional ICT infrastructures were created in response to the enterprise business communications, regardless of their being electronic or physical. Now there is a new requirement for convergence of data communications in buildings, brought about by the need for IP data networks, which have partly been induced by open standards and partly by volume economics.

This transformation through embracing a previously alien data communication protocol for many building services specialists and electrical engineers (which on many an occasion has been resigned reluctance – an observation not lost on ICT building infrastructure design engineers and consultants) has happened quietly. We need to consider why.

In the past, IP networks were judged with scepticism, when network availability was questioned on a daily or even weekly basis. It was the scapegoat that took blame for project delays, downtime, and computer failures. Now though, IP networks are highly reliable entities, even when built with mid-range and low-end hardware.

Trust in the ability of IP networks has improved to such an extent that even a techno-Luddite would hesitate to blame it on the 'network'. Add to that the affordability of network availability (often measured as the price-per-port, per-gigabyte use, or bits-per-second of speed), the ubiquity of 'everything IP' (iPads, smartphones, netbooks, smart TVs and gaming devices), and with the dominance of the ICT-savvy social media-led generation – critical mass adoption has been reached.

Being taken for granted is the price of success and we might celebrate this achievement; but we need to move on – we need to build from this achievement. 'Where next?' is the question entrepreneurs, large corporations and speculators are now focused on – the next money-spinner, business idea, and route to market domination stays at the centre of much boardroom thinking.

Arguably this speculation calls for a clear and urgent shift for technology systems within buildings to adapt to new user requirements and, thus, it creates new challenges to the architect-engineer design community, construction contractors and systems integrators.

In the last two decades, reference to 'integration projects', and 'intelligent buildings' often had a muted response. Few really understood the tangible benefits, most were sceptical of the potential for under-delivered IT projects, and others involved in facility operations often resorted to human interventions to bypass automation enhancements.

More recently however, new frontiers are emerging to provide compelling business-case justifications for a new approach. Essentially, they are enterprise resource planning; integrated building management systems; security convergence; and managed energy efficiency. Let's consider those in turn.

'Intelligent' smart builds

Maturing Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems are able to integrate business systems with building management systems for improved management controls (such as consolidated dashboard-type reporting). Driven by business requirements for resource efficiencies and 'management by measurement', this business intelligence adaptation has been essential for the business leadership to steer, prioritise and justify new investment.

Allocating costs for usage, amortising capital towards specific business causes and employing financial wizardry to get best tax advantage – these all mean that the new generation of ERP tools needs to be 'facilities-aware'. They should come with tools to digest 'consumption' data; so, whichever department had most use of video conferencing, or toner ink, or WAN bandwidth, or access to out-of-hours air conditioning – it's all in the mix now.

So many systems – integrated BMS (iBMS), facilities reservation systems, maintenance management systems, cashless vending and EPOS, CCTV and access control – are able to push the mountains of data they generate each day to other central management systems.

Now IP networks are at the heart of enabling such data capture, collation and consolidation. Evidence of such intervention is highest in large-scale business entities – often managing a wide portfolio of buildings and/or hundreds if not thousands of workers.

Electronic systems for physical security are converging with information security strategies (such as unified identity management and single sign-on). Financial organisations dealing with sensitive commercial data, defence-related industries and government agencies are looking increasingly to ICT/electronic solutions to provide the continuity of security, from the built environment to embedded information in the data centre.

There is more acceptance that a physical compromise could lead to a data security breach. Now CCTV analytics, biometric authentication and RFID (radio-frequency identification) tracking information are sharing data through a common IP platform to provide forensic capability in the event of a data security breach. IP networking is the tool that's enabling this transformation, and there are numerous value-added possibilities of how convergence in ICT can help to solve business requirements.

Realisation, though, is not quite off-the-shelf and simple; some dedication and commitment is required across the business.

Small to medium-sized enterprises, while immune to such interventionist practices, may not be able to maintain the status quo for much longer, as larger corporate customers enforce their own practices on often smaller suppliers; universities with geographical spread, for instance, need to maintain open campus premises with 'out-of-sight, out-of-mind' physical security measures and also protect the intellectual property within hosted R&D programmes.

Healthcare facilities, similarly, are ever more focused on protecting patient data; and managing and controlling access to electronic records has not been easy in the past. The potential reach of IP networks into the physical electronic domain now makes this practicable.

Programmable intelligence within iBMS responding to 'events' in building or business function is an example of convergence making a difference in buildings with a common IP network or a dedicated IP network partitioned from the production/business IP network (for instance triggering of business continuity provisions when a building event, such as a fire or flood, arises).

The world has become more 'event driven', compared with a few decades ago when we were all 'time' driven. In a time-driven age buildings responded to 'timed' events, and keeping time was essential. Open for business, shut for lunch and closed for business at the end of the day, was a legacy of the industrial revolution when factories and their workflow were time-driven. Unexpected events were just that: unexpected; and when they happened, manual interventions had to 'reset status quo'.

These days most of us work in the knowledge sector or other service sectors where a clock-driven method of working would be alien. We now mix office working with home working, conduct remote-site working or client-site working, and most of us are used to 'flexible' hours of work. Buildings are, thus, themselves becoming event-driven entities, and the pressure is on to transform legacy workflows to more modern workflow.

Once the norm to deal with 'exceptions to the rule' as a special case scenario, buildings now need to respond to a plethora of 'exceptions' and exception management is now giving way to an event-driven world.

An intruder alarm, a fire alarm, or flood alert, for example, is just an event, just as a request to work late or book a meeting room is an event. Programming for events is a means to an end to introduce quasi-intelligence to the building and being able to respond to particular sensory inputs within a 'rules-based' or 'policy-based' framework, customised to a particular building function.

This concept is also referred to as 'smart' buildings or premises. In larger 'campus' projects, comprising many buildings, integration of logistics, transportation and premises-wide facility management and security creates more opportunities for achieving business benefit from a unified approach to infrastructure, services and operational support systems. Energy-efficiency measures being enabled by granular reporting of consumption data for traditional utilities such as power, potable water and fuel.

Metering for consumption measurement used to be the responsibility of the utility provider. They were intent on recovering costs and so the focus was on on a meter per address. The green revolution and the peer pressure to be carbon friendly makes the need to show and demonstrate resource consumption efficiency a lot more personal. We are all encouraged to contribute positively to the mantra of reduce, reuse, recycle.

A means of demonstrating efficiency performance is metering consumption. Most of us might be rendered uneasy by the thought of our office desks being individually metered for electricity use, or for us to get a notional charge or CO2 grams for air-conditioning consumed, email sent or printed A4 sheet at the workplace. However, increasingly there has been a steady momentum to introduce a new class of 'sub-meters' to perform measurements by groups of users or occupied floor areas; and these sub-meters are increasingly IP-enabled to allow servers to capture the data.

While this is an emerging trend it is going to influence the way in which we design buildings, and their services, over the next decade. The ICT industry has its own response to this 'go-green' culture.

'Greening' of the ICT carbon footprint in business environments, using techniques from power management in computing assets, higher compute use through virtualisation, enabling power management in data networking switches and IP telephony, are all in play, and standards are being developed to enable low-power state or idle-power Ethernet.

While there is a natural propensity to look at new building design and the opportunities from a 'clean slate', often the legacy stock of existing buildings is overlooked – to the detriment of a lost business opportunity or value-add. *

Mani Manivannan is an associate at Arup (

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