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Why we need better building management systems

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As we transition to more complex, higher performing and energy efficient buildings, it is apparent that traditional building management systems are not up to the task of monitoring and managing today’s building operations. What are the shortcomings of the legacy BMS? The list is quite long, but the major items include limited integration capabilities, inadequate and elementary analytic tools, proprietary programming languages, a dearth of software applications and legacy user interfaces.


To some extent, the BMS have gotten to this point because of the business and financial aspects surrounding it. When a traditional BMS is sold and installed, it’s usually a small part of a much larger investment. The larger business piece is the sale of BAS controllers. It’s the controllers’ need for service, parts and possible replacement over time that will generate significant recurring revenue for the equipment manufacturer. So the main building management tool, the one that provides the user interface for many of the building systems, often takes a “back seat” to selling and installing the controller hardware. Why would manufacturers put a lot of resources into developing a product that may be only a very small part of a total sale?

Major BMS manufacturers have made some incremental improvements to their products. They may have added an “energy management package,” or re-engineered an industrial process system for buildings or even bought smaller software companies thinking that would save the day. Despite their efforts, the fact is BMS are well short of where they need to be as an industry. 

Part of the problem is that BMS manufacturers are not good at IT, and the BMS is an IT system: It’s a server with a database, IP address and software applications, connected to an IT network. What has developed at the industry level for building automation and IT is just a magnification of what is happening in many facility management and IT departments, that is, the readjustment of the roles of facility management and IT departments given the reality of the significant penetration of IT into building systems. Some organizations have worked out those organizational issues, but the BAS manufacturer and the IT industry is stuck in an “IT is from Mars, Building Controls are from Venus” mentality. The movement of BAS manufacturers into IT, as well as IT companies into building controls has been feeble at best. 

Image of Arrangement of computer chip, numeric and abstract elements on the subject of computers, math and information technology provided by agsandrew via Shutterstock

The driver for improved building management systems is really the increase in the complexity of the new buildings. From an equipment or hardware perspective we now have buildings with energy and sustainability systems which are relatively new for buildings, systems that even five years ago were not commonplace. These include systems such as rain water harvesting, exterior shading, water reclamation, renewable energy, electric switchable glass, sun tracking systems, etc. Maintaining and optimizing each of these new systems is a challenge, further burdening and increasing complexity for facility management.

The other aspect of increased complexity is related to management decisions regarding building operations that now involve several other variables. For example, let’s assume a building manager wants to respond to market-based energy pricing from a utility. In making a decision on whether or how to respond the building manager has to take into account several financial and operational variables, including tangible and intangible benefits and costs. How much load can I shed? How can I shed it? What’s my typically demand profile during the timing and duration of the event? How do I factor in the need to support the ongoing business? How do I implement, monitor and measure? What’s the effect on occupant comfort? How do I communicate to everyone affected by the event? Do I forgo the pricing signal to keep the business operation as usual? Do I use auxiliary energy generation? What’s the maximum demand I can curtail?

These types of challenges and decisions are way beyond the typical question of “What should the set point be?” Obviously, some of these issues can be studied and a policy or program can be implemented but eventually a final decision would have to take into account real-time circumstances. This is where analytic and automation software tools and applications can support the operations and facility personnel, yet traditional BMS systems aren’t capable of providing those applications.

Image of Arrangement of computer chip, numeric and abstract elements on the subject of computers, math and information technology provided by agsandrew via Shutterstock

Some innovative medium-sized companies around the globe have made the first significant steps in providing building management systems that are beginning to meet today’s challenges in building operations. What follows is a list of “must haves” in the FBMS:

  • The platform for the FBMS must be similar to that of smartphones and tablets. The base FBMS platform will have an operating system, much like Apple’s IOS or Google’s Android, where third parties provide the applications. Everyone is familiar and comfortable with that model.
  • The base operating system for the FBMS will to do the heavy lifting: acquiring data from different building systems, standardizing or normalizing the data into an open or standard database, possibly using something like XML/SOAP. This is really extensive middleware, in that the operating system can not only deal with the BAS communications protocol standards and data formats, but also non-standard data (i.e. some PLCs), as well as other facility management and business systems, such as work order systems, asset management and incorporating data from BIM files.
  • The FBMS must allow third-party applications for specific manufacturer equipment. Given that, every company that manufactures a valve, fan, sensor, etc. will create an app for their equipment, much like they have for product objects in BIM. These apps are likely to be much richer in monitoring and managing the equipment and will create a burgeoning marketplace.
  • Third-party analytic software applications to optimize the building’s performance are critical as they will keep high performance buildings performing at their peak. Recent industry experience with fault detection and diagnostics have been very positive and provide a rationale for similar analytics in many other building systems. Applications that can consolidate issues and functions across systems, such as alarm management and master scheduling will become popular. Building managers will be able to test, compare and pick and choose the applications they need from a variety of third-parties.
  • The integration capabilities of the FBMS must be extensive. It has to go beyond the typical fire, HVAC, access control and elevator integration domain, and progressively integrate any building system, facility management systems (work orders, preventive maintenance, inventory, etc.), business systems, the smart grid and external data such as weather and energy markets.
  • The FBMS must be an open and secured system. That doesn’t mean it’s free, but it does require the tools and rules that program the FBMS be transparent so the building owner has options and choices in maintaining and programming the FBMS. System security, which is almost non-existent on traditional BMS, is a must on an open FBMS and probably best dealt with via IT security appliances and software.
  • The FBMS must be able to “data mine” a user’s use of the FBMS to identify their preferences and particular data that appears to be important to that user. Each dashboard is meant to convey important information and key indicators and requires an examination of the needs of individual and group audiences. FBMS analytic tools of users’ routines, usage and interactions with the FBMS will help in determining what the user really needs to see.

The future building management system will change and reinvent what currently is a lethargic industry. It’s also likely to spawn new companies and manufacturers, provide more choices for users and the buyers of such products, and do so at lower costs. 

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