The BAS industry is broken… here’s why

Looking at the experiences of the building owner, occupant, design engineer, IT team, and contractor

Welcome to part one of a three-part deep-dive series on fixing today’s building automation system. As I’ve written about several times, the BAS is the linchpin of the smart building. Given its importance, I believe our expectations of the BAS industry are far too low. To get some outside perspective and expertise on this gap, I brought an expert in from the trenches to explain this mess and how to get out of it.

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Enjoy.

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Matt Schwartz and I met several years ago over lunch at the Haystack Connect conference. The conversation was one of the highlights of my career. 

And Matt doesn’t remember… 😭

I remember vividly—for two reasons. First, the only lunch option was roast beef. I was vegetarian, hangry, and trying to hide these facts from everyone and make friendly conversation. Second, and more importantly, Matt and the team at Altura Associates were heroes to me. 

In everything I was trying to do at the time—like building an analytics team and rewriting the commissioning process to include analytics—Altura were several years ahead. And I got to fire questions at Matt for a whole hour? It was like a dream, and Matt didn’t disappoint. He answered every question with generosity. 

Fast forward to today—Matt’s still a hero and he’s still teaching me stuff, but my line of questioning has shifted to controls. The building automation system (BAS) is the linchpin of creating a smarter building, minimizing energy consumption, ensuring adequate occupant comfort and ventilation, and so much more. So why is designing, buying, installing, commissioning, using, modifying, upgrading, and replacing today’s BAS such a headache? 

I’ve learned that Matt and I share three core ideas about this problem. First, the acknowledgment that the status quo is broken. It’s sad but true, and the first step is acceptance! Second, we have a relentless focus on making the experience better for the building owner. Third, the generosity. If we’re going to fix a dysfunctional system, it’s going to take the whole industry. We want this conversation to reach as many people as possible. Please share this series far and wide.

Without further ado, please enjoy this three-part interview series on fixing the BAS paradigm. Here’s where we’re headed: 

  • Part one (you’re here): The BAS industry is broken… here’s why

  • Part two: The BAS architecture of the future

  • Part three: How building owners can take control of their BAS


The BAS industry is broken… here’s why 

James Dice: Okay, Matt. Let’s start at the very beginning. How did you get into this industry? 

Matt Schwartz: My father was my entry point into the world of commercial buildings. He was the Buildings and Grounds Supervisor for a K-12 School district. He happened to be in charge of the school’s conversion from pneumatic to DDC and ironically we both share stories about the industry parallels then and now. 

I ended up going to work for the design-build contractor that performed that work, which led me into my career in the building automation industry. I just didn’t know I was in the BAS industry at the time. I started drafting and designing mechanical systems which lead to energy efficiency improvements for HVAC systems, which lead to my role as a commissioning provider. I had relevant tie-ins to BAS all along the way as it played a part in all of those roles. 

Eventually, my commissioning work led me to dive deeply into all aspects of delivering a well-functioning BAS, as many of the performance issues we identify during commissioning involve controls. In many cases, the project delivery model did not establish effective responsibility for the controls contractors to work collaboratively with the commissioning team to optimize the BAS programming. 

This disconnect would frequently drive me to ask for the keys to the BAS and attempt to solve performance issues myself. That was the kickstart to a career of innovating the Cx process with BAS focused elements and most recently demonstrating how a firm like Altura with a strong bench of Cx and BAS experts can integrate BAS optimization and Cx responsibilities.

JD: I can relate to your sentiment of not knowing you were in the BAS industry at the time. I started out in this industry as an energy engineer and retro-commissioning provider. I’ve spent a lot of time banging my head against the wall trying to implement what I thought would be simple controls changes. 

I think that’s how a lot of us get into BAS. We weren’t intending to, but we got sucked in! And I think we’ve both realized that once you get sucked in, you notice pretty quickly that we’re a dysfunctional industry. However, not many people are talking about how broken it is. 

Let’s outline all the ways it has broken down. If I could summarize our conversations thus far, I would say that it’s broken from every stakeholder’s perspective. Let’s start with the perspective of the building owner. What experiences are your clients having?

MS: Unfortunately, we see brilliant building owners and their passionate teams spending unnecessary time forced into navigating complex upgrades, unlocking from proprietary systems, spending large capital for simple changes, and simply trying to make sense of the current BAS world. Ideally, these teams could spend that time innovating, improving, re-tuning, adapting, enhancing, and getting more out of their existing systems. 

We see owners invest in in-house expertise so that they may better own their BAS, only to watch the proprietary software they have invested in become obsolete with no migration plan other than a big dollar upgrade to a new version. Owners are shocked to find the brand new systems they have purchased are not as “open” as they may have been led to believe. Usually, this is discovered as owners recognize which emerging technologies and software can add business value to their operation and want to connect their BAS data to these systems so they can start realizing the benefits. Below is a slide I use regularly with folks to highlight the components of a truly “open” system.

Owners are required to work through rather than alongside their existing BAS support vendors which becomes costly and slows the process of adoption for any emerging technology. We see owners who have to roll trucks for the simplest of BAS needs. Owners who need to change service providers but cannot as a result of territorial product distribution models. And the list goes on... 

JD: Unfortunately, the experience with my clients has been similar. What do you mean by “work through rather than alongside” vendors? 

MS: Most of the data we need to take advantage of modern analytics and high-performance building tools is stranded today in siloed BAS systems. It’s frequently buried in multiple flavors of aging automation and managed by a single provider. It looks like this. 

It does not integrate easily or securely to the new systems that unlock it’s potential. 

We help open it up for all stakeholders so that it looks more like this.

Ownership operations teams have many stakeholders, data stakeholders if you will. The building operations technology world is throwing more than ever at these leaders, including data analytics, data-driven commissioning, asset management, and work order management tools. They all have one thing in common, they need BAS data.

Unfortunately that BAS data is usually single provider managed and comprises technology that was not intended to plug into an IoT landscape. This creates a provider bottleneck that requires major upgrades and intervention in order to integrate it into new software tools. If it can be integrated well at all. 

I’d liken it to buying an electric car but owning an older home without the fast charger. You may not even have a standard wall outlet in the garage to plug into, not to mention the long charge times. To get the most out of your EV you need to install a robust power hookup in your garage. Buildings need robust data hookups to the BAS. However, you can hire any electrician to add a variety of charger products to your home, whereas in the BAS world you might be forced to work with one provider and one product if you wish to utilize your existing BAS. 

This isn’t a stab at the providers either. This is just the result of how it was done prior to a time when the value of the data these systems had to offer was fully recognized. 

JD: Agreed. I think that’s one of my main frustrations. It doesn’t seem like BAS contractors and technicians truly want to be the bottleneck, but the industry kind of puts that role on them. And it limits the results for everyone, especially the occupant. What are they feeling as a result? 

MS: Well, it’s 2020 and many of the building occupants I meet still lack confidence in their temperature control systems. Typical occupant stories include: 

  • Does that thing even work? 

  • I brought my own thermometer from home and it’s never comfortable. 

  • That sensor is fake. 

  • Management has been out 5 times to fix it and it still doesn’t work.

I understand there are a number of drivers behind these sorts of complaints but for the sake of this argument let’s focus on one: a lack of standards and visibility to how environmental conditions are handled. 

With so many different controls products on the market, without standards, buildings end up with different products and thermostats facing their occupants. This is especially true in leased space where renovations happen frequently and buildings get filled up with a variety of products each with their own control strategy. 

Occupants don’t always understand how their temperature control systems work behind the scenes and expect the system to work much like their residential system at home. This isn’t the case. It is difficult to explain to the user the complexity around the ever modulating variable air system that is running off PI loops from their thermostat and frankly a losing battle if they don’t care to know. Just make it work. 

It’s doubly hard for building operators who are the first responders to the occupants to prove when the system actually is working if the BAS is not set up with easy to access historical performance reports for each occupant zone.

JD: In the age of COVID-19, that lack of visibility is becoming more and more important as tenants demand information about how their spaces are being ventilated. 

The lack of standards makes me wonder what’s going on when BASs are being designed. How does the engineering world play a part in this family of dysfunction?

MS: The design services engineering world at large does not put a strong focus on BAS. This is not to say there are some select engineering firms that recognize the value of detailing the BAS down to the tee and taking ownership of the sequences of operations. However, as a former design engineer, I witnessed firsthand how this absence of expertise and interest in the design aspects of the BAS results in project teams reusing old specifications or responding more to a vendor sales pitch than the owner’s needs. 

There is a gap on the bench for the design engineers. I think we can use folks like Taylor Engineers as a great example of a firm who promotes BAS experts in house working on behalf of the owner and stakeholders to decide BAS specifications, and furthermore design these systems thoroughly to mitigate the gaps and additional construction costs. Raise a glass for our engineering firms who partner with or foster BAS design experts on their project teams.

JD: I’ve also seen this first hand. The copy-and-pasted BAS specs that haven’t been updated since Windows XP was the state-of-the-art...

How does the lack of BAS performance affect the consulting engineer’s business? I would think there are gaps between their energy models and the actual performance of the buildings they design. I would think building owners would want a different design firm, one that understands the tech involved in a modern building. I would think their engineers spend a lot of time they didn’t budget in the commissioning process or during the warranty period trying to get the building to perform. I would think they would want more of an ongoing relationship with their client. 

MS: You have effectively answered your own question. Design firms I think are starting to appreciate the value in having agnostic controls experts on staff. This is how you seize a golden opportunity to expand a firm's building design services in a way that translates to a high-performance building that meets the design goals while protecting our owners and end-users from lost investment in nonmodern systems. 

As a former design engineer, I can still remember the days when the controls manufacturer sales reps would visit the office and work hard to get their product written into the specifications. They brought with them a deep technical understanding of the controls industry that most MEP firms don’t carry. I spend a lot of time simply educating clients, engineers, and friends on what the evolving BAS industry is really capable of when it is designed to take advantage of the internet-of-things technology landscape and is coordinated to deliver on performance goals.

I want to be clear here that our designers aren’t doing anything malicious or intentionally wrong by our owners, simply that most are missing an opportunity to take more ownership in defining the required BAS performance. Experience shows they will likely experience a smoother construction phase and greater client satisfaction as a result. 

The other piece of the design side issue is that most project design packages completely leave out a BAS design. It’s usually a 230900 specification with a single provider name, or maybe an under-detailed first attempt to unlock with an open specification that leaves much interpretation up to the project team.

The BAS is the brains and hands of the building's core systems, we ought to be specifying down to the finest point what the BAS system looks like from sensor to sequence. The level of detail that can exist in a BAS drawing can take all the interpretation off the table for the providers reducing the chance a proprietary system is installed and reducing inevitable change orders when the design intent of the building is missed because of a lack of BAS design definition.

JD: Fascinating. That seems like a huge opportunity for design firms. 

How about for the BAS contractor? I can’t imagine they love the status quo either. It can’t be fun implementing iffy designs and being at the center of the owner’s and occupant’s frustrations. 

MS: Let’s look at the contracting model today. It’s a low bid race to win the project upfront. It’s a race to meet the schedule and deliver projects on time. Changes to contract are frowned upon and hard-fought, but necessary to cover the gaps missed in design. Following the one-year warranty period, there is literally no accountability for the 25+ year products that have just been installed. Where is the incentive for the contractor to invest in delivering a fully integrated and tested system when the next project is based on procuring the same BAS products at the lowest price? 

Service has been the historical response. Landing service contracts to maintain and preserve these systems has been lucrative as it is typically awarded to the installing contractor, procured directly, and used for more than simply maintaining the systems. It becomes a mechanism for adding services to enhance or repair the brokenness that was likely missed during construction. 

Imagine if the car industry worked this way. Build a car on the cheapest budget as quickly as possible and rely on the future owner signing up and willingly paying for a maintenance contract to take care of expected issues… I don’t think you would sell many cars. No, on the contrary, the auto industry is full of quality control and testing facilities that do not let the vehicles out to the public until engineers feel safe about putting a long term warranty on the product.

JD: Hold up. Let me make sure I understand this. If contractors’ business models are heavily dependent on service contracts, it seems like they’re incentivized to deliver a system that is as complex as possible, rather than as simple to use as possible. Am I hearing that correctly? 

MS: To be clear the service contract model is much more prevalent in the proprietary product model. Open BAS has been the industry’s response to this (more on that in Part Two). To try to answer this question directly, I would say “incentivized to defer time and costs” rather than “incentivized to add complexity”. Newer energy code requirements, data sharing protocols, and network architectures are putting the BAS in the driver’s seat, and the project delivery methods need to evolve to recognize this. We need to create the right environment for contractors to be aligned with the owner’s long-term interests.

Even more complex is the relationship between our contractors and distributors/manufacturers. It is no secret that the BAS industry is one of volume multipliers, distribution territories, and single provider agreements. I’ll use my car analogy again. Automobile dealers can represent multiple lines of products to offer their customers more options and flexibility. BAS dealers typically represent one or two products (at most) because of the volume agreements they have entered into with their product supply chain partners. Not to mention the complexity associated with learning and supporting a particular product. That complexity, in my opinion, is the result of a lack of standards in a predominately proprietary product market. Contractors are doing themselves a disservice by not having two or three market-spanning options for their customers.

These single-provider, single-product relationships also create incentives for contractors to pressure manufacturers to lock out up-and-coming contractors from access to the product and vice versa: product providers pressure contractors to sell at volume for better pricing which is not necessarily in the best interest of our building owners and end-users.

JD: I’ve talked about this baked-in complexity a lot at Nexus. It sure doesn’t seem like it needs to be so complicated. 

The final piece of dysfunction I want to hit on is IT. You have a very skeptical view of our industry’s term for IT: Operational Technology (OT). Can you explain more about that?

MS: Most organizations are keyed into cybersecurity risks around BAS more than ever. If you are not, you should be. Most organizations also have invested in strong IT teams, whose primary role is to help the organization implement and leverage secure IT infrastructure to better their business. 

OT, as the BAS market likes to call it, is really just BAS IT. I struggle to see the value in the term OT, as it creates a new space for the BAS market to develop products and implement projects without necessary IT collaborations. The BAS market has finally arrived at the conclusion that Ethernet can and should replace the serial networks of yesterday, further thinning the line between the BAS world and the IT world. The IT world has taken its lumps on Ethernet devices already and represent a great potential partner for BAS providers.

However, when OT is implemented without support and collaboration with IT, IT teams’ hands are tied and they must air gap themselves from the system. They have no way to exercise authority over the system in a way that reduces the risk of intrusion or follows company standards. This is terrible for facilities teams as they must now take ownership and pay for maintenance of their “OT” gear, which very well could be covered by IT at a lower cost. Ignoring the synergies here is a costly way to operate for any owner and eliminates any chance of having their high caliber IT resources help to secure and improve their BAS architectures. Major missed opportunity from an overall cost, functionality, and upkeep perspective.

Owners with larger portfolios and dozens or hundreds of buildings are especially vulnerable to this disconnect. If you scale the small differences in the approaches used by the newest OT devices across a large portfolio, it quickly becomes a disorganized mess of networks, cellular modems with internet port exposure, and limited support. Scary. Compare this to recent projects we have completed with IT engaged as a partner on Day 1. The result was a standard, scalable network architecture that leveraged IT-managed server hardware and a clear understanding of how the central systems communicate with the building-level systems and edge devices in a secure manner. These standards enabled multiple vendors to compete to provide the hardware at each level, with clear instructions regarding acceptance testing and the programming of sequences.

JD: Scary indeed, but again it sounds like a huge opportunity. Well, let’s wrap things up for now. I can think of several more issues I have with the BAS industry, but I and others have covered them elsewhere.

Final question for today: Is all hope lost? Or is there an approach that can get us out of this mess?

MS: All is not lost! However the answer is not all that easy or simple either, sort of like a BAS. The answer is also not applied overnight or contained within one deliverable. 

We have an approach that starts in design and ends 1 year after construction or upgrade. It involves specifications, standards, detailed design documents, an innovative IT-backed BAS architecture, and an “open” mind.  I’d love to share it with you in part two. 

JD: I guess we can wait. 

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