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Article - November 2003
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Applying Advanced Technology Products and Services to Projects - The Process is the Problem!

 

Thomas Hartman, P E
The Hartman Company

 

One of the most difficult and perplexing issues that needs to be confronted by designers and manufacturers alike in this era of rapidly developing technologies is how to get truly innovative concepts implemented into the comfort systems of buildings. A myriad of new technologies allows us to make buildings that are orders of magnitude more comfortable and energy efficient than possible with the most heavily optimized configurations available from today's conventional technologies. And in many cases, these new technologies cost little or no more than the conventional technologies they replace or supercede. The problem is how to actually get them installed and operating properly!

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First among the hurdles is the knowledge issue. Designers need to know what advanced technologies are available and to obtain an adequate understanding of the technologies they wish to implement to see them through effectively. Though often a substantial issue, this one is manageable. It is up to the individual designers to educate themselves as necessary to employ technologies appropriate for their projects. All this takes is a strong desire to do a better job on their projects and an eagerness to better understand new approaches. But knowledge of a new approach or technology does not mean the designer will be successful with its implementation. Some of the hurdles that must be overcome appear from the most unexpected points in the design and construction process. It's like an amusement ride that is specifically designed to surprise you when you are least prepared.

One hurdle that makes implementing new technologies difficult is the outdated method of procurement our industry employs. A short while ago, I was talking with a controls manufacturer about the possibility of incorporating new features in their zone control products. Nearly everyone agrees that the state of zone control in buildings today is abominable. Large zones with only a single space temperature sensor make it seem that comfort is only any afterthought in today's buildings. Clumsy outdated zone control sequences further diminish the zone equipment's ability to maintain comfortable conditions.

As we discussed possible improvements together, it became clear that the process by which most building systems are procured has an enormous limiting impact on product development and new product offerings. Nearly all such equipment is procured in a bid process that involves a specification for various "equal" products. Manufacturers are legitimately concerned that the market will be virtually closed to innovative products for two reasons. First, it is possible that products incorporating innovations may not meet the standard "base" specifications that are widely used to procure them. Second, even if they do, there is no method to differentiate the innovations in order to capture the development costs associated with the new features in the product. Thus, the "process" of procurement has severely limited the incentive to innovate at the product level. Instead, it has imbued a "keep up" mentality whereby the most successful products are those that are the lowest possible cost versions of products already available. While this characteristic may be acceptable for a very stable industry, it is a huge impediment to the "productization" of new technologies in an era of exceptional technological opportunities.

When I hear designers and owner representatives tell me they are legally required to employ simple bidding processes, I cringe. I've simply never found this to be true! I have worked with a great many private, quasi-public, and public clients. Never have I been required to employ a straight low bid process to procure technology components and services. I have always been successful in working with interested contracting authorities to find alternate methods that permit us to chose products and services with value based decisions. Such methods always exist. Large organizations could not function if they procured all their equipment and services through the low bid processes based on equal products and services that are widely employed in the construction industry. When confronted by such an inadequate means to procure building technology products and services, I always try to ferret out how their IT department or others that regularly procure advanced technologies components handle procurement. It is absolutely essential that our industry come to grips with the fact that the simplistic bid process widely employed is an enemy to the advancement of technology in building construction projects. It is quite discouraging to see such owners (often public) spend substantial sums of money to encourage their design teams to achieve efficient and effective building comfort and energy systems and then permit only a flawed implementation path that ensures the desired level of performance cannot be achieved!

Control Solutions, Inc Another substantial hurdle is the disconnection between the designer and the contractors who ultimately must implement their designs. As newer technologies are incorporated into designs, the potential for misinterpreting even the most thoroughly developed construction documents increases enormously. This is especially true as the General Contractor assembles the construction team. Technologies that require some coordination among trades are particularly at risk. Because the GC is focused on financial and management issues, discussions about coordination among the subcontractors are almost always absent as the team is formed. Misinterpretations and misconceptions are often magnified during the early stages of construction. The designer is often called in only after it is too late to get the advanced technology components back on tract.

These problems can often be avoided when the designer is more proactive in the construction process. Many contractors are eager to have the designer collaborate with the construction team early in the contracting process to work out issues of coordination and performance expectations. Designers often joke about contractors never reading specifications, but in truth it is almost impossible for contractors to absorb and retain all the elements in a modern specification sufficiently to accommodate them as intended as the project is started. Having an opportunity to hear from the designer about what is new or unique about this project design can be of enormous help to members of the construction team. It allows them to focus on those elements that will require special attention or coordination with other trades. Designers working with advanced technologies need to be much more active during the procurement and construction processes. This should be seen as an opportunity to market additional services with the potential to add great value to projects.

Finally, for many engineers and designers the greatest hurdle of all is the enormous resistance the building construction industry has toward change. New, innovative designs and ideas are often criticized as "one-of-a-kind" or "unproven" or "unnecessarily complex" by others in the industry who appear to do very little to try to understand the purpose behind such innovations. As I point out frequently, our industry has enormous room for improvement. HVAC systems are inherently inefficient and their purpose - occupant comfort - is given very poor grades in most buildings. However, rather than support and encourage new innovative applications of emerging technologies, this industry appears to be focused on merely refining and standardizing conventional comfort control strategies and equipment. This tactic will not work in the long run, and individuals, whether they work for designers or manufacturers, should be encouraged to incorporate emerging technologies into the products and designs they are developing.

At present, all of this can be a lonely task. But it should be kept in mind that pushing your firm or client in this direction is a push toward a much brighter future. The present ineffective and inefficient course of our industry simply cannot be sustained. The huge structural problems in the electric utility industry were recently laid naked to the public by the largest North American power failure in history. A similar traumatic and destructive event will surely do the same to our industry unless those of us who can and want to make a difference begin working together to do so. Learning emerging technologies so that we can apply them effectively in the work we do is important. But it is not nearly as difficult a task as changing the process by which building energy systems are implemented so that the resulting new products and services incorporating emerging technologies can be applied effectively and smoothly to building projects!


If you have questions or comments about the contents of this article, please contact Tom Hartman at tomh@hartmanco.com. Mr. Hartman will be participating in two seminars at the ASHRAE Winter Meeting in Anaheim, CA. On Monday, January 26th, Hartman will discuss design process issues in the Seminar titled "Chiller Systems - Life Cycle Costing/Procurement." On Tuesday, January 27th, Hartman will present the new "cooling effect" VAV zone control technology in the Seminar titled "State of the Art Issues for DDC Systems." Mr. Hartman will also be presenting an overview of "Demand Based Control" for HVAC to the Asia-Pacific Conference on the Built Environment. This conference is being held on November 18th and 19th in Hong Kong.


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