Interview: ISG technology head Paul Cook – Smart design starts with integration

As head of technology at ISG Technology Solutions and an expert in smart buildings, Paul Cook is surprisingly reluctant to talk about gizmos and gadgets. For him, innovation means a radical new design approach that responds to the specific needs of the client.

What for you is currently the most exciting area, or areas, of technological innovation in construction?

The dominant perception in construction is you need to have to have the latest, most expensive technology and the more gadgets you add into a building, the smarter it will become. But that’s a real misconception which is damaging the reputation of technology and resulting in buildings that don’t function as well as they should.

The most fundamental opportunity right now is to apply the right parts of any system in the right context, in response to the specific needs of the client, which doesn’t necessarily mean including the latest gadgets, bells and whistles.

What’s going wrong with the way buildings currently design and integrate technology?

End clients often don’t know what to ask for in the first place, which is the source of many problems after a building is handed over. They experience pain in commissioning, systems don’t perform well, or the end user experience is fragmented and ineffective. All of that can be traced back to the traditional design approach in the early stages whereby separate consultants tend to work on their own, in silos.

There is the misconception that all your systems should be designed in isolation, then a systems integrator will come along at some point, throw some software at the building and everything suddenly becomes magically smart.

Until recently, about 90% of our engagements have gone down that route, but clients are starting to realise that there is real value in taking a step backwards and allowing us to take control of all the design packages to rationalise how parts of different systems function and integrate.

What’s your new approach?

ISG has introduced the new role of master systems architect. In the very early stages of design we aim to extract from the client precisely what they want a building to do, and the aspirations they want to meet, whether that means human-centric design and the end user experience, optimising energy use, or how they want to market the building etc.

We sit between the client and all the design consultants of all disciplines to develop a coordinated approach.

The master systems architect stands across all disciplines to give the client confidence we will find the right solution to fit with their needs, rather than trying to sell them a proprietary tech platform or product.

We set up a design consortium to get everyone round a table to work through the requirements, which is how buildings should be designed instead of separating it out for the mechanical and electrical consultant etc to work in silos.

Does the use of BIM align with the integrated approach?

The way BIM is being consumed in the industry today is as a technological add on, but when everyone works on the design together, it presents the opportunity to use the BIM eco-system to do significant new things.

For example, we have developed an intelligence layer for BIM that integrates with the smart buildings eco-system to completely do away with the need for a traditional computer-aided facilities management system.

The system is able to exploit crowd-sourced fault identification, so if, for example, a fan core unit is leaking onto the floor, an employee can take a photo on an app and send it to the FM team and the plumber is immediately directed to the problem and able to access the asset information and part information directly from the BIM database.

Does the ‘intelligence layer’ replace the need for separate control and communication systems?

Yes, the intention is to remove the need for separate “head ends”, such as the BMS or CAFM system and use an intelligent layer that deals with the information and ‘surfaces’ it via an app to relevant people at relevant times.

The information doesn’t have to be consumed via a separate CAFM system or a traditional BMS, where the head end could have 5,000 alarms on a screen requiring the operator to figure out what’s going on. We have taken this approach with a couple of clients, involving the building owner, maintenance team and employees in the early design process.

What’s important to note is that the technology to be able to do this has been around for several years, but the way we design buildings in UK hasn’t changed, we are very traditional, you’re either the mechanical guy, the electrical guy or the IT guy, nobody will stand and align all those parties on behalf of a client who doesn’t understand the implications of technology on design.

That is where the system is falling down and our design consortium helps address that.

How does your integrated approach impact on the design of manufacturers’ products?

It should help foster product innovation. For example, some light makers sell LED lights powered by the data network, but struggle to sell them mainly because of the way they are typically engaged on projects.

If we are able to work as master systems architect we can devise a strategy to embed other sensors into the lights to replace parts of other systems, such as environmental monitoring for the BMS, people tracking etc. This leverages innovation for the manufacturer and enables them to sell into a new market.

Ultimately, this new approach to design is creating a new road map for how technology is consumed and innovated.

Will lighting become the backbone of building communications, as some experts have predicted?

Speak to lighting manufacturers and they say they will become the backbone, speak to a BMS manufacturer and they will say the same thing. The harsh reality is it will be neither of those things. If manufacturers first come to us and ask us what we need and how we are going to consume it, we will say IP-based power over ethernet wherever possible and distributed intelligence, which enables us to do lots of things.

Manufacturers need to realign their product development to meet the needs of building users and clients, which is very different to the traditional approach.

Have you faced much obstruction so far from those keen to stick to tradition?

We have had 85-90% success with vendors and manufacturers, it has been a mixed message with consultants, many of which are not ready to change their approach, they like to have people labelled as the fire alarm guy, the electrical guy, the data guy, whose paths should not cross.

Generally speaking, I’ve found the technical directors absolutely get it, but associate directors at mechanical or electrical consultants tend to dig in their heels and say “it’s change we don’t like it, we like the market we know.” But the market is changing and clients are asking for something different.

Are clients coming to understand that technology, including BIM, can give them a greater influence over building design?

There is a lot of cross-pollination between developers, one speaks to another – they all play on the same golf course – and they hear about new approaches. BIM is a component of that, but many are immediately wary you are trying to sell them something.

Ultimately, the client wants to know what the building does, why is it different from other buildings, and is it going to cost them more money? They don’t want to get bogged down in the intricacies of technology, which should not be what leads the process.

Main image: Everythingpossible/Dreamstime

We have had 85-90% success with vendors and manufacturers, but it has been a mixed message with consultants – they like to have people labelled as the fire alarm guy, the electrical guy, the data guy, whose paths should not cross.– Paul Cook, ISG

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