Can Technology Extend the Facility Life Cycle?

Oct. 26, 2005

By Chuck Wilson, Executive Director, National Systems Contractors Association (NSCA)

When examining a new building’s life cycle over time, one would think that the rapid obsolescence in technology would make it the last consideration when designing for maximum facility functionality. Historically, electronic systems become outdated, no longer code-compliant, and often replaced from top to bottom before the paint dries.

That is not necessarily the case when the system design begins during the initial stages of planning the project. Sure, upgrades and expansions, moves/adds/changes occur quickly, but today’s systems are better suited to allow for the future.

In the communications and electronic systems world, manufacturers, consultants, and systems integrators all have future-proofing on their minds. You demand it; the building owners, lenders, and facility managers all demand it. Technical systems integrity can be compared to the structural integrity in that proper design, installation, and maintenance will extend the life cycle and offer the best return on their investment.

Historically, the electronic systems infrastructure design was either proprietary or specialized by building type. In the future, that may not be the case. Could a building designed as a school be repurposed for an extended care facility? Structurally, it is possible, and new technology even makes it practical, when a building is designed with a solid technical plan. While network integration advancements and applications are becoming a node on the network, it is very likely that a properly designed enterprise network could support an entire new suite of applications.

The products themselves have far more expansion capacity than before. Modular and “scalable” design features allow designers to start small and then go big, easily and affordably. The primary drivers are extended usefulness in network compatibility and emerging standards for integration. Rapid advancements in IP-enabled products will allow us to design expandable systems. We used to be limited by cable lengths and signal loss, now we just add nodes to a network. System configurations are now limited more by bandwidth than physical factors.

You will begin to see the traditional audio, video, security, and life-safety systems evolve into a network configuration, allowing designers to specify expansion characteristics with little up-front costs. Enterprise networks have become the backbone of almost every electronic system used today. Codes and standards will eventually appear to support network applications. Life-safety systems in many cases still require hard-wire cabling configurations for maintaining systems integrity. Certainly the products can be networked, it’s just a matter of time before code officials accept networked applications for all systems.

We should expect fewer “forklift” upgrades in the future. Advanced planning and proper budgeting will allow technology professionals to help you design systems into your projects that have logical expansion capability. For this to hold true, you must have a good system infrastructure. Like a foundation being the support for a structure, the network infrastructure is the foundation for our systems. Thinking ahead and designing capacity (bandwidth) is like pouring a foundation that supports 20 stories even if 10 is all we build today.

As technology evolves, will the risk factors increase or decrease? Minimizing risk has long been cited as the reason to leave technology out of the original building design. To decrease the technology risk in the design-build process, the CSI MasterFormat 04 breaks down every system in the industry and provides templates for budgeting, scope documents, and needs analysis. Every day, more architects, engineers, consultants, and integrators utilize this tool as the framework for the systems plan. With the new divisions 25, 27, and 28, communications and information systems, security and life-safety systems, building automation/control systems, audiovisual, and other special systems all stand out as unique sections to use for discussion points with the building owners.

Often referred to as the fourth trade, systems integration professionals can support these special systems and the network environment. Until recently, it has been a well-kept secret that highly qualified and certified technology specialists are there to help design systems that will last. Within our industry, thousands of consultants, systems integrators, contractors, product representatives, technicians, and installers make up a fast-growing, high-tech industry that understands how construction and technology work together to future-proof any building.

As you think about your next project, consider how important it is to your clients to specify the technical systems based on today and tomorrow. Think about hiring a technical consultant to help plan, budget, and specify. Think about the credentials and involvement of a systems integrator to do the work. Think about the risk both from a standpoint of specifying technology and how risky it will be not to. I believe the best answer to reducing risk is to team up with the right systems professionals from the onset of the project. “Furnished by owner” should then become a phrase from our past.

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