What We Talk About When We Talk About Integration


For something that streamlines building operations and provides clarity, the language around building connectivity and building integration can get…complicated.

There is a perceived hierarchy of what is “more” or “less” connected, but that hierarchy is rarely (if ever) clear. Even the word “integrated” can be misrepresented and misunderstood. On the one hand, framed within a conversation about intelligent buildings, “integrated” can represent a significant commitment on the part of the owner and the design team. However, used flippantly, it’s simply a “buzzword” that is fairly nebulous in its definition, and can lead to unfulfilled expectations. 

There is also, at times, a misalignment between how a building can be designed, and how that same building will actually be used. From a professional perspective, a building does not (and cannot) achieve its full potential until there is a common understanding and commitment between design and operations. It’s important to be honest about how a building will be used, and to calibrate the design needs accordingly. 

That’s where Smith + Andersen comes in. As design professionals, our Intelligent Integrated Systems (IIS) team is well-versed in every level of building connectivity, and can provide an impartial overview to help map this field of options (and the terms associated with those options). 

Some of these definitions may spark a bit of debate, and in fact represent an evolving conversation. The value isn’t in the conclusion, but in the push for a degree of clarity. Whether we’re talking about standard building systems, or the highest levels of integration between these systems, it’s not about choosing one approach over another. It’s about making sure that everyone is speaking “the same language”, resulting in the best decision for each building. 

*The terms identified within each level are not necessarily exclusive to that level. There is often overlap and, outside of certifications like WiredScore and SmartScore, there is no “recipe” for specific levels of integration.

A Hierarchy of Needs.

When it comes to breaking down terminology associated with building connectivity, the best approach is to think of it like a pyramid or hierarchy: Building Systems, Connected Buildings, Converged Buildings, Smart Buildings, Intelligent Buildings, and The Future. Specific terms tend to signify (though not always clearly) a specific level within this hierarchy. 

The category associated with each term is also a strong reflection of how we are encouraged to look at a building. For example, “Analytics” are about automatic data interpretation, and are closely associated with choosing what data needs to be collected when designing and operating smart systems in a building. By contrast, “Insights” provided by the analytics software really take you to that next level – true building “Intelligence” – and allow you to start thinking about and applying how you’re going to use the data that you collect, and potentially adjust the building systems based on the results. These categories are broad, but they can also convey the “view” on your building’s potential – the higher you go, the wider the lens. 

Certifications, such as WiredScore and SmartScore and BOMA Best Smart Buildings, really don’t belong in any one level in the hierarchy. Should an owner pursue one of these certifications, the certification level would reflect the level of connectivity prioritized for that building. Much like certifications related to sustainability (e.g., LEED, Green Globes, RESET etc.), these standards provide a global benchmark, helping to clarify misunderstandings, fill in the gaps, and also assist with making sure that everyone is on the same page.  

As IIS designers, it is our responsibility to understand the needs of the client, ultimately developing the actions and outcomes that would resolve these needs. This means that “intelligence” can simply be one piece solving a specific problem, or the larger puzzle – and does not have to include everything described within each hierarchy level.


Diving into the Terminology. 

LEVEL 1: Building Systems

Building systems are what you would expect to see in all buildings constructed today. These are base level systems that are necessary, and not optional, for the day-to-day operations of a building. At times, the term “building systems” is used to refer to something that is a “value add” and not a requirement, which can result in confusion. Clarifying these terms becomes important to know exactly what you’re getting (and not getting). 

SYSTEM NETWORKS – These are the individual communication connections that allow sensors and devices to share information within each individual Smart system (such as HVAC, lighting and elevator controls or metering). These communications can include traditional serial, or traditional IT-type, network data communications.

BUILDING AUTOMATION SYSTEMS (also known as BUILDING MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS or BUILDING CONTROL SYSTEMS) – This is not a Smart Building solution on its own, but is rather a smart sub-system that automates the control of various building systems (e.g., HVAC systems). This should now be a base expectation for a modern development, as a BAS (or BMS, or BCS, depending on your preferred terminology) will provide you with more efficient operations of building systems to meet important environmental targets. 


LEVEL 2: Connected Building

A connected building is one where multiple smart systems are connected together, but not necessarily on a single, dedicated platform. Connecting systems creates the need to help various systems talk to each other effectively, and to clearly identify which systems should be “connected”, and which should be kept separate. 

INFORMATION AND COMMUNICATIONS TECHNOLOGY (ICT) – A really broad, common term, but within the context of buildings this is referring to the field of work that deals with fundamental communications infrastructure (i.e., cabling, electronics) within a building to allow systems to communicate within the building (and to the outside world) through the internet. The telecommunications infrastructure is just one part (or one system) within the wide array of building systems in a connected building, yet is often confused with connectivity itself. The two terms are not interchangeable; ICT design is just one system within the overall IIS design and strategy.

INTERNET OF THINGS (IoT) – This is a broad term that refers to things that use digital communication to make information available on a communications network that is ultimately connected to the Internet. From a building perspective, this typically describes the sensors, devices and equipment connected directly to the Converged Network via wired or wireless connections.

SYSTEMS INTEGRATOR (SI) – A Systems Integrator is a role on a project team that works on a granular basis, integrating systems within a particular discipline from the ground up. It’s important to understand that a Systems Integrator will not necessarily consider the building as a whole. A building owner could say, “I want my BMS to talk to my lighting control system”, so a systems integrator would connect those systems and make them talk. This is integration and data sharing on a system-by-system basis – connected, but not typically fully integrated.


LEVEL 3: Converged Building

A converged building is similar to a connected building, but the difference here is that all systems reside on one, single network. This is often referred to as the “backbone” of the building. 

CONVERGED BUILDING NETWORK (CBN) or CONVERGED NETWORK – Not to be confused with a telecommunication service provider’s network, this is the “backbone” of the building that is so often referenced. A CBN acts as a single network platform for all building systems sensors, devices, controllers, servers, and the cloud to communicate. This eliminates the more traditional, siloed approach of a standard, building systems network. For example, if a building operator requires a common occupancy sensor to control lights in a room via the lighting control system, and the same occupancy sensor communicates to a Building Automation System to enable temperature reset, then both systems, as well as the sensor, must communicate across the converged network. 

CONVERGENCE – Convergence is the end goal of the CBN. True Convergence involves multiple building systems communicating together on a common network to efficiently control a building. By our standard, a building has achieved convergence when all building systems are on a CBN. 

COMMUNICATION PROTOCOL – If you’re going to have a converged building, you need various standardized digital communication protocols. These are specific languages for building systems to talk to each other on the CBN.

SMART READY OR SMART CAPABLE – This is a product or software that has the capability for smart operations, but is not necessarily being used. A common example of a technology that is “Smart Ready” and frequently implemented in building designs is a Base Building Network. By implementing a Base Building Network, a building owner is equipping their building so that any network-based systems can be added to the network, and monitored or controlled by other systems. 


LEVEL 4: Smart Building

Four levels up, and we’re just now getting to the term that is most closely associated with building integration – Smart Buildings! In actual fact, a Smart Building is a building programmed to be capable of some independent action. A Smart Building makes more efficient use of resources, leveraging the tools and strategies put in place up to this level (including IoT sensors, Building Management Systems, and Convergence) to optimize building performance. In a Smart Building, all building systems are actually talking to each other – they’re designed that way, and they’re actually used that way. 

APPLICATION PROGRAMMING INTERFACE (API) – An open protocol standard that all software developers use to collect, analyze, and react to data from various points in a system. The closest, everyday equivalent would be the functions performed in the background on your phone. When you watch a YouTube video and click “share”, and then select a different application such as an email app, those two applications then communicate with each other to create a new email with the link inside. Typically, we will ask that a building system (e.g., a submetering system) can integrate via an open API. There are several open API types, and the most common for building systems are REST and JSON. Some building systems will also use “proprietary” APIs, which refer to closed APIs where an integrator will need to work with the building system developers to integrate using the proprietary API. Alternatively, when an API is open, there are common, published instructions on how to share data using that API platform. 

MASTER SYSTEMS INTEGRATOR (MSI) – As opposed to a Systems Integrator (SI), which would be more closely associated with communication between similar systems, an MSI is a single contractor or service provider who approaches the integration of all systems from a holistic, global perspective, rather than looking at individual subsystems. An MSI will facilitate the communication between systems, but they will also look at the data that comes out of that communication so they can look at the building as a whole (and judge occupancy levels, equipment usage, etc.). 

SMART BUILDING SOFTWARE – Software that supports a Smart Building in actually being…Smart! This software can configure, manage, and monitor the Internet of Things (IoT) devices found within a building. Some great examples of Smart Building Software include analytics platforms, BAS software, an intelligent building management platform, single pane of glass software, digital twin software, parking management platforms, or smart suite platforms. Often, this software can fall into the “Convergence” category and not fully into “Smart Buildings”, particularly if it’s set up to be used, but is not actually used. 

SMART ENABLED – When the Smart Building Software or Products are actually used, then the building is actually “Smart Enabled”. Many buildings install a lot of “Smart” systems that have all of the capabilities, but very few buildings achieve the level of integration that we would define as “Smart”. 

USE-CASE or USER-EXPERIENCE – Building a use-case or user experience is a fundamental approach to Intelligent Integrated Systems design, especially when you get to the level of Smart Buildings. This involves examining the needs and tendencies of various occupants and operators of a building, determining expected outcomes on a user-by-user basis. The “use case” or “user experience” is the primary driver of an intelligent building – this describes the actual needs of the client, which would drive the requirements for a form of Smart Building. For example, a client may be facing issues with nuisance alarms on the building automation and security systems. They could find that a bulk of the notifications are unnecessary, and leave the user unaware of real, critical alarms (which end up hidden amongst other notifications). The need for clarity around alarms is the client need or “use case”, and can be addressed by an integrated Building Management System that pulls and filters the information from all building systems and pushes out critical alarms and notifications to the users / operators on site. 


LEVEL 5: Intelligent Building

Unlike a Smart Building, an Intelligent Building actually uses the data from all of the smart systems, and can vary its state or actions in response to varying situations, requirements, and past experiences. While a Smart Building may be capable of some independent action, an Intelligent Building is designed to “think for itself”, applying the optimized building performance to actually plan ahead. 

ANALYTICS PLATFORM – An analytics platform or “engine” is a type of software that digests all building data across multiple systems, processes that information, and presents that data to show how a building is operating. The success of this engine depends on how the analytics platform is defined to operate through specific use cases, which are framed around the User Experience. The Analytics engine must be predefined to take certain types of data and use that data to provide potential cost or energy savings, or to flag important, preventative maintenance. Analytics will tell you how a building is performing, but won’t help you determine the best way to use the building. Through an Analytics Platform, it’s completely in the hands of the operator to determine the best way to use these analytics and make decisions about how the building should operate. 

INTELLIGENT BUILDING MANAGEMENT PLATFORM (IBMP) or “CONVERGED MANAGEMENT PLATFORM" – This is the software platform that is used to collect the building data and present it in a common system for users and systems to interact with and process the data. An intelligent building platform will use building data to not only analyze but also provide actionable recommendations as to what that data means for a building’s performance, operations, or maintenance.

CONTINUOUS COMMISSIONING – This refers to the idea of continually fine-tuning and addressing defined systems. Through Continuous Commissioning, you are always optimizing based on trends, constantly updating or redefining the systems operations based on what you’re actually seeing in the building. 

DIGITAL TWIN BUILDING – A term that has become more commonplace in recent years, this is typically an enhanced IBMP. A Digital Twin is a virtual replica (or model) of an entire building, and contains a high level of detail for the asset, including static information about the building components and dynamic, live information about the status of these components. This allows building operations teams to run scenarios and operations in a virtual “sandbox”, making predictive models and equipment decisions that are based on the actual operations of the building. 

FAULT DETECTION AND DIAGNOSTICS (FDD) – This is a data analytics software tool that is used to detect potential building system problems before they become larger concerns. The tool is intended to be proactive in nature, and can help a building operator prioritize activities and avoid the cost of damages associated with potential wasted resources, down time, or overall system failures.

INSIGHTS – When we talk about Insights, we’re referring to solutions proposed by an Analytics Platform, based on large volumes of data, as opposed to conclusions that a building operator needs to come to, based on manually analyzing what they see. 

PREDICTIVE MAINTENANCE – Enabled by FDD, Predictive Maintenance allows you to identify upcoming equipment needs or concerns across an entire building, flagging everything from order times to potential leaks. 


LEVEL 6: The Future

In truth, the future is already here. At the same time, the list of terminology associated with building integration is only growing, and we are still catching up to technology that is advancing every day. 

Regardless of what the future holds, we know that taking an Intelligent Building to the next level means looking at it through a lens that involves more than just dollars and cents. ENVIRONMENTAL, SOCIAL, GOVERNANCE (ESG) scratches the surface of this, looking at a building or development not only in terms of capital expenditures and operational expenditures, but with larger societal and personal considerations factored in as well. What measures were taken that will improve the livelihood, comfort, and health of building occupants? What decisions were made at a base building level that will result in a more positive environmental impact? What is the social value of the building, and how does it result in improvements for tenants, owners, and neighbours? When it comes to ESG, the return on investment is considered beyond the financial, extending into overall impact. And, since buildings have an environmental and social impact that stretches decades, thinking of building integration in the context of ESG…is just smart. 


Interested in learning more about any of the terms we’ve discussed here? Have a suggestion for a term you’d like added? Reach out to any of the below members of our Intelligent Integrated Systems (IIS) team.