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Why New Daedalus?

Daedalus was the mythical great architect and artificer of the classical world. Today, embedded intelligence is enabling the most profound changes in the way we create and use buildings since his day.

Building Intelligence meets the Intelligent Building. The Intelligent Building negotiates with the Intelligent Grid. How will this transform how we interact with the physical world?

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Tuesday
Jan222008

The Inevitable Dumbing Down of Building Systems

It is fun being here in New York City, at the AHR Conference, and meeting with many of the best that ASHRAE has. ASHRAE is the engineering society that defines the standards for comfort and healthfulness of the air we breathe in every building. Their work controls a large portion of the energy budget for buildings, almost 60% of the power coming over the power grid. Their work defines Indoor Air Quality (IAQ), an area of growing concern for the public and the building owner. Solutions to issues of carbon emissions and health flow through the work of this engineering association.

Why, then, is there a sense of unease among this group?

There is a growing sense that their excellent work to raise standards may be for naught, and that the skills of the professional on the ground may not be adequate to today’s challenges. Control systems for buildings are rarely designed. Consulting engineers and design professionals too often produce vague specifications filled with technical platitudes, the result of cut-and-paste engineering. In the end, as one executive at UNC put it, “Most control systems are designed by a man in the hall, standing on a bucket”

Maybe this is because, as Friedman says in “The Earth is Flat”, the US populace is no longer willing to do what it takes to produce engineers in sufficient numbers. Maybe this is because engineering remains the least compensated of the professions, and the best and the brightest look to quick riches as quants on Wall Street. In any case, it is certainly true.

Every LEED point for sustainability, every carbon credit for good operations, every demand/response contract from the grid relies on accurate and understood operation of these systems. We must address this problem. There are two ways to do this. We can work through it, or we can work around it.

Working through the problem is tough. Friedman issued a call for action, but even if we listened to it, and made every education change today, it would be a decade or more, before the properly trained engineers hit the job market in adequate numbers. Even when they arrive, without changes in pay scales for engineers, they will soon find other careers, less challenging, and as remunerative.

So we will probably have to work around it. We will have to remove design responsibilities from field, and from the local consulting engineer. Control systems will have to go pre-fab. If we ever hold architects and design engineers responsible for the performance of their systems, for provable commissioning, then those professionals will refuse to specify anything else.

Larger systems, will become the new package units. We know how to do this already – we just have to apply it to large chiller units, and to home power management systems. Systems will arrive pre-assembled in one or several pieces. Personnel on the job site will require directions no more complicated that those for assembling a toy on Christmas eve.

Custom systems for the spaces in the building present different challenges. We will have to work around it the way that parts of the housing industry are working around poor labor and materials stored in the rain on the job site. We will factory build these systems to meet the designs. Today, entire walls for homes are built in climate controlled conditions in factories, gluing and clamping as well as nailing each 2x4 and ship them to the job site for rapid assembly. Ducts, air handlers, and controls will be made to order in the factory in controlled conditions. Joints will be pre-caulked. Duct will be pre-insulated. Systems for whole floors will arrive on the job in a few pieces, to be assembled by low cost labor.

This will transfer responsibility and liability back to the design professionals. It will require them to fully design these systems and to warrant that those designs will work. Design professionals will respond by working in full models, with every detail worked out in three dimensions. The factory will build to the model; it can do nothing else.

Reliance on the model will be another source of cost reduction. The contractor will not assume he has to factor in covering the designers mistakes. Construction projects will be bid at lower cost reflecting all the change orders the contractor will not have to eat. We can see this already in such projects as the wet-lab renovation at UC San Francisco which reported a construction job coming in at 38% under budget.

The skills required to work on site in such job will be lower. Line salaries will be less in the future. This is how we do things in America. We design out skill requirements. Sometime we even increase waste. The important thing is always to reduce training requirements.

The LaserJet became the predominant printer in America by reducing training requirements. Everything breakable was put into one assembly. Things that wore out after X, 4X, and 10X copies were all put in the same assembly. That assembly was engineered so that any administrative assistant could replace it, eliminating 97% of the knowledge required to maintain a laser printer.

I am betting that building HVAC systems will go the same way.

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Reader Comments (1)

I don't think this is as pessimistic as you think. If the systems truly get to be pre-assemblies, or made-to-order at the factory, then we might get better systems. We will also get more predictability – and greater pressure for systems to be intelligent and self-configuring (to a point).

If this creates systems that bring abstract interfaces up to the building agent, whatever it may be, then this will put us closer to a transformed, transactive energy grid. Or perhaps merely closer to Galvin’s microgrid as the fundamental unit of reliability.

Either way, it would not be too bad.

January 28, 2008 | Registered CommenterToby Considine

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