Latest from Columns

Hpac Com Sites Hpac com Files Uploads 2013 02 Tom Hartman

Building-Controls Designers: Conducting the Orchestra

Feb. 5, 2013
Building-controls and building-automation-system designers can follow four steps to ensure success in creating high-performing buildings.

Editor’s note: The following originally appeared in HPAC Engineering’s monthly Networked Controls Plus electronic newsletter. To subscribe, go to

I often envision the 21st-century building-controls designer acting like the conductor of an orchestra. A conductor needs extensive experience as a musician and a member of an orchestra to develop a good sense of what is required to have an orchestra perform well. Similarly, consulting engineering firms need to recruit  controls designers who have extensive backgrounds of hands-on controls experience and understand what is required for a controls system to perform well.

But the transition to designer—like that to a conductor—requires a huge change in one’s perceived role. 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 control designer must understand that developing effective controls systems requires him or her to “conduct” the process from start to finish, rather than participate directly in it.

Here are the crucial steps in the process of achieving high-performance building controls:

Step 1: Develop specific design and performance goals. Controls designers must 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.

Step 2: Assemble the right players who will achieve the performance goals. Different control systems and contractors have widely varied capabilities, and it is essential that bid or request-for-proposal documents limit products and services to those the designer knows can achieve what is required for the project. The specifications must ensure 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. 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. Engineers need to integrate performance criteria into their contract documents, along with flexibility to add accountability for their performance goals.

Step 4: Stay with the process to ensure it succeeds. Performance goals often are 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 engineering firms commit to gaining the experience and skills necessary to design high-performance systems and set up intelligent comfort and energy-performance goals (Step 1), ensure bids or proposals come from those who can succeed (Step 2), and do a sound job of incorporating accountability for attaining the goals within contract documents (Step 3), then the oversight required to meet this final step need be no more than that  usually provided by the engineer for typical construction projects. And in accomplishing these steps, they are certain to succeed with high-performing building projects.

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].