January 2013

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The Role of Architects in a Smart Building

Maybe their most important role in a smart building, is simply putting advanced technology and smart building operations on the agenda.

Jim Sinopoli
Jim Sinopoli PE, RCDD, LEED AP
Managing Principal,
Smart Buildings LLC

Contributing Editor

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In the case of new construction and most building renovations the architect is the main interface for the building owner. It’s the architect that develops the owner’s facility program and assembles a design team, both of which are critical to the overall success of the project.  With such a prominent role, the architect heavily influences just how smart the building will be. Surely architects understand that the control, monitoring and automation systems are an essential aspect to a smart building. Those systems are the dynamic components or facet of the building, the nervous systems allowing for adjustments in the building’s environment as well as optimal operational performance related to life safety, comfort, security, energy and a healthy atmosphere.

However architects also understand that it’s not just control systems that comprise a smart building. The “fixed” attributes of the building such as the initial siting, the structure, the envelope, windows, interior layout, etc. also play a major part in how smart the building is and how the building will operate. The best building control systems cannot compensate for the worst building structure and layout; and in the same way, the best structure cannot compensate for the worst building control systems. Both are critical in creating a smart and well-designed building. What follows are some of the functions and responsibilities of the architect and how they play a role in designing, constructing and operating a smart building.

Facility Programming

The development of a facility program will be led by the architect in collaboration with specialized facility programmers, engineers, consultants, facility managers, contractors and manufacturers. It’s a creative, iterative process which teases out the owner’s objectives, values and preferences, and identifies the needs and considerations related to aesthetics, economics, regulatory issues, energy, sustainability, and functionality. The result is the owner’s unique facility plan that is the foundation and underpinning of the design and construction. (For more on programming see the classic book “Problem Seeking” an architectural programming primer).

It is this early programming activity where the discussion of automation, advanced technology, smart buildings, and more importantly building operations and facility management must take place. Without laying out these matters, it will not become an integral part of the building program and traditional or legacy approaches will oftentimes result. Even if the idea of a smart building becomes an afterthought, something possibly identified later in the design process, its consideration may be disruptive and its potential diminished because of existing design decisions.
There are features of the facility program that will be mandated by government regulations. There will also be attributes of a facility program that will be influenced by third-parties; the most obvious being the USGBC LEED certification program.  Assuming an owner is seeking LEED certification, it provides some benchmarks and guidance for the design, construction and operation of buildings that are likely to be part of the facility program. Similar to LEED certification is the Smart Buildings Institute (SBI) certification which focuses on advanced technology, system and data integration and building operations, thus providing a framework and detailed properties for a smart building.

So one role for architects, maybe their most important role in a smart building, is simply putting advanced technology and smart building operations on the agenda, explaining the technology and economics to the owner, and incorporating the main tenets of this approach in the facility program.

Design Teams

Design teamsArchitects put together the design team for the project.  The design team’s basic responsibility is to transform the owner’s facility program into a detailed design. The team determines the design requirements, specifies and draws up the project, produces the construction document, and administers the construction contract.  For a smart building it’s important to select design team members that are innovative, technologically savvy and experienced.  If engineers and designers are selected who use years old specifications you’ll get the same old legacy designs and short change the owner. However, due to the influence that energy and sustainability have had on the evolution of the industry most designers have “upped their game” and either understand the concept or have experience with smart buildings. The architects should also be experienced in dealing with buildings becoming increasingly complex, the result being additional building systems, potential operational challenges for the owner, and the design teams becoming larger as many focused specialists are needed. For example, if you’re trying to deploy solar panels, wind turbines, water reclamation system, etc. you’re likely to bring in specialist.

Siting the Building

contemporary Architects frequently help the building owner in selecting and acquiring the building’s site for new construction, or for existing buildings, in assessing current conditions and updating a survey. Why is the site selection process important to being a smart building? Because it is a long lasting, a 40 to 100 year decision. The specifics of a site, the topography, climate and available public utilities will affect the design and construction of the building, possibly including the deployment of specialized building systems such as seismic, tilt, corrosion, and ground pressure monitoring. Also, the general area surrounding the specific site is critical; proximity to transportation infrastructure, to other businesses, schools and to skilled labor pools may be important to the long term success of the building.


The architect and the design team select the materials used in the building. These decisions are sometimes a balancing act between constructability, aesthetics, durability, regulations and costs. These decisions are important because materials deteriorate and wear out. The result may be condensation, corrosion, stains, moisture retention, bending, rot, fungus, and a host of other negative properties. Materials are important because they will affect the ongoing cost and ease of maintenance and operations, requiring servicing, cleaning, repairing or replacing. The selection of materials should focus on the long term use and cost of the materials and the minimization of maintenance possibly through standardizing products.


CoordinationArchitects are generally involved with coordinating the information and work of the design team members. Later in the construction phase, a construction manager may coordinate the work of the contractors. Coordination in the design and construction phase is especially essential when building control systems are being integrated, a critical element of a smart building. It’s not enough to simply state in a specification that system A has to be integrated to System B; such pronouncements are too vague, don’t identify and detail the responsibility of each party, and oftentimes result in finger-pointing and delays.  As the design team leader, the architect can endorse a compliance statement for integration responsibilities that each of the designers and engineers can insert in their particular specification Division, that would cover both the design as well as the eventual contractors.  The statement may address standards for communications protocols, data format, submission of drawings and data points, responsibilities for any hardware, timing of the integration, contractors’ role in commissioning, etc.

The Handoff to Operations

Handoff to OperationsAs leader of the design team, architects have responsibility for the handoff from construction to operations. The design specifications must address important elements of the transition:  startup procedures, closeout requirements, operation and maintenance data, preventative maintenance instructions, and facility operation procedures.  A poor transition process may mean the building operations get off to a bad start and never fully recover or only catches-up after considerable cost and effort.

Studies have identified significant inefficiencies in the US capital facilities primarily related to the lack of exchanging and sharing of data. A few years back the inefficiencies were estimated at $16 billion per year. More interesting was the fact that two-thirds of that cost are borne by owners and operators, primarily during ongoing facility operation and maintenance. Other studies regarding the use of Building Information Modeling (BIM), a tool for design, construction and exchanging data which is primarily used in design and construction fabrication but very little in building operations. The point is that the handoff from construction completion to operations is often inadequate, setting up suboptimal operations from the start. Better “handoffs” prescribe that we embed operations and maintenance into every aspect of design and construction.

For more information, write us at info@smart-buildings.com.


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