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The Changing Role of Engineers in Building Control

Dec. 4, 2012
The engineer is key to advancing controls and must become much more involved — just not in the way many are today. In this column I’d like to outline more specifically how I think MEP design firms should think about revamping their role in designing building controls.

A principal of a mechanical-electrical-plumbing (MEP) design firm asked recently if I am suggesting in my columns that designers concentrate more on the mechanical design and step away to some degree from controls design, leaving this to others to sort out. With that question I realized how careful I need to be in suggesting improvements in leveraging controls to achieve higher-performing buildings. My true perspective is that the engineer is key to advancing controls and must become much more involved — just not in the way many are today.

In this column I’d like to outline more specifically how I think MEP design firms should think about revamping their role in designing building controls.

For some time I have envisioned the 21st century MEP controls designer as acting like the conductor of an orchestra. As a prerequisite, a conductor needs extensive experience as musician and a member of an orchestra to develop a good sense from the trenches of what is required to have the orchestra perform well. Similarly, MEP consulting firms need to recruit as controls designers those with extensive backgrounds of hands-on controls experience so they understand what is required for a controls system to perform well.

But the transition to designer — like that of a conductor — requires a huge change in one’s perceived role, and not everyone can make it. The famous conductor Andre Previn used to lament humorously that he had to give up music to become a conductor. In that same context an effective controls designer must be ready to change dramatically to make the transition from contracting, because developing effective controls systems requires the designer to “conduct” the process from start to finish rather than participate directly in it.

So what are the proper roles for a truly effective building controls designer in the 21st century? Here is what I think are the crucial steps in the process of achieving high performance building controls:

Step 1: Develop specific design and performance goals. Just as an orchestra conductor must begin the planning of any performance by selecting pieces and developing performance goals that are reasonable and attainable, controls designers should start by authoring a detailed description of the proposed system and operation (design intent) and conduct a rigorous analysis to determine specific comfort and energy performance goals. The design and performance intent should specifically detail how the goals will be achieved. This is a big change for most engineers because such information is rarely developed, and, if it is, it is generally not directly connected into the design and construction processes.

Step 2: Assemble the right players that will achieve the performance goals. The next step for any orchestral performance is to get the right set of performers. That is just as important with a building-control-system design. Different control systems and contractors have widely varied capabilities and it is essential that the bid or RFP documents limit their products and services to those the designer knows can achieve what is required for the project. This is an area that requires far more attention than it receives today. MEP firms need extensive hands-on controls experience among their staff to know which equipment, contractors, commissioning agents, and operations support firms can ensure performance goals are met, and how to differentiate among them. The specifications must be sure unqualified firms or products are not allowed to undermine the integrity of the design.

Step 3: Establish accountability paths to ensure performance goals are met and maintained over time. In an orchestra, the conductor does not spend time instructing musicians, but instead works very diligently to ensure each is competent and accountable for contributing as needed to the performance as a whole. In the same way, engineers need to develop standards to ensure controls contractors, commissioning agents, and operators or operations support (OS) firms are aligned and accountable to meet performance goals. To succeed, this step requires big changes in the way controls are designed, commissioned, and turned over.

Just as a conductor cannot hold a musician responsible for sound quality while dictating improper tuning or fingering of the instrument, a designer cannot hold a contractor responsible for the performance of a system when untried sequences are dictated for that system. Engineers need to integrate performance criteria into their contract documents, along with flexibility to add accountability for their performance goals. This is a step in the design and implementation of controls that requires substantial changes in the contract documents.

Step 4: Stay with the process to ensure it succeeds. As Mr. Previn noted with his comment about having to give up music, making any complex system perform requires an enormous attention to details that are rarely directly related to the overall process. The problem in most construction projects is that performance goals are too often compromised in the processes of resolving the myriad details of construction. But if the engineer has developed and maintains a strong focus on performance accountability among those on the contracting side, it is far less likely that performance will be compromised because those resolving the details come to understand that allowing such compromise will adversely affect their contract.

If MEP firms commit to gaining the experience and skills necessary to design high performing systems and set up intelligent comfort and energy performance goals (step 1), ensure bids or proposals come from those that can succeed (step 2), and do a sound job of incorporating accountability for attaining those goals within the contract documents (step 3), then the oversight required to meet this final step need be no more than is usually provided by the engineer for typical construction projects. And in accomplishing these steps it is certain to succeed with high-performing building projects.

I invite your thoughts, comments, and good ideas about this article. Please contact me at [email protected].

Thomas Hartman, PE, is principal of The Hartman Co., Georgetown, TX. He can be reached at 254/793-0120, or by e-mail at [email protected].

About the Author


Principal of The Hartman Co., an HVAC engineering and technology-development firm, Thomas Hartman, PE, is an internationally recognized expert in the field of advanced high-performance building-operation strategies. His accomplishments include development of Hartman Loop, an integrated approach to chiller-plant control that dramatically improves operating efficiencies as plant load decreases; Terminal Regulated Air Volume, a network-based, variable-air-volume control technology that coordinates central-fan-airflow and supply-air-temperature control with actual zone requirements; the Dynamic Control family of software strategies and algorithms, which were among the first to employ integrated strategies to take advantage of microprocessor-based control systems; and the Hartman Energy Valuation System, one of the first hourly building-energy simulation programs.