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November 20, 2003

Today's buildings load up on technology

  • Changing lifestyles create demand for 'smarter' buildings
  • By JIM DUNCAN
    Sparling

    UW William H. Gates School of Law
    New technology connects students to the world at the UW William H. Gates School of Law. The project was designed by Mahlum Architects in association with Kohn Pedersen Fox Architects.

    Imagine a building without technology. Could such a structure be effective for business, education, entertainment, health care, commerce or research? Not really.

    In today's world, information management is critical. Planning to use information effectively is the first step to running a successful business. Therefore, it is important to select technology systems that are appropriate for your organization. The real value of technology is determining how it will best meet user needs.

    As we explore current technology trends that are impacting companies, we recognize that without technology, companies are not prepared for the future.

    AV makes the grade

    Audiovisual equipment used to be described with one word: portable. Today, a new word captures the essence of audiovisual: potential. For example, in the competitive higher education market, classroom versatility via presentation and distance learning technologies offers students the best investment for their future.

    Imagine a moot courtroom in a law school whereby a clerk can judiciously send document evidence to the judge and the jury. How about “windowing” technology that displays multiple simultaneous images in various sizes and locations on a single screen? Or voice-activated cameras that determine who is speaking and focus in on that person? The audio and video can be relayed 20 feet within the room or 10,000 miles to Southeast Asia and beyond. In this way, the world becomes the classroom.

    Faculty and staff at the UW William H. Gates School of Law imagined these possibilities. Technology planning gave those ideas — and future legal counselors — a voice.

    How about a motion-capture lab to support the nation's growing computer animation industry? As this program is perceived as an area of growth for the University of Washington, it made sense for it to invest in high technology for the new UW Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science and Engineering.

    Audiovisual integration is also impacting health care and commercial business on an international scale. Telehealth connects patient to medical practitioner and medical practitioner to medical specialist, regardless of proximity. Presentation technology brings the boardroom to hotel and conference rooms across the globe. “Being there” now means being anywhere, at the touch of a button.

    Wireless and beyond

    Introducing the concept of a “mobile workforce” has forged remarkable efficiencies in workplace operations. Although they may not replace wired connectivity, wireless technologies are rapidly becoming an integral part of a wide variety of organizations. For example, the Seattle Public Library is considering use of personal communications devices to give staff real-time access to information as they work in the “stacks.” Students at the William H. Gates School of Law can access the Internet, reference materials and files anywhere in the law school using wireless access points that support the latest wireless standards.

    In the health care field, wireless networks support everything from PC communications to telemetry to Internet access for patients and their families. Some hospitals are conducting patient charting via wireless handheld devices. Following a pilot project, Seattle Children's Hospital decided to install a wireless network in its upcoming facility expansion as well as retrofit its existing facility to support the technology.

    Entertainment expanded

    The application of technology changes dramatically over time. Systems that were created for the purpose of entertainment and geared toward the hospitality industry are now making their way into the health care market. As hospitals focus more on creating a positive healing environment, they are looking at entertainment technologies to further their goals.

    A great example of this trend is the “patient portal.” This fully integrated and interactive patient and staff video system provides entertainment features, Web content, education programming and health care services — all at the patient's bedside.

    The heart of the patient portal is a centralized, head-end server array where content is stored, connectivity is managed and inter-system integration is configured. Content is multi-cast across the LAN to IP set-up boxes in patient rooms throughout the facility. Similar to an advanced Web site, the portal can connect a patient to an on-site focus group or to the patient next door via e-mail or video games. From ordering your favorite movie to selecting a meal for in-room delivery to receiving an Internet greeting card, the possibilities are endless.

    Safety first

    To prioritize user and first-responder safety, inside re-radiating systems (IRS) and distributed antenna systems (DAS) are being installed in large buildings where concrete, steel and other building materials (for example, energy-efficient windows) interfere with radio signals. In this scenario, emergency personnel are unable to communicate with dispatch or with each other once they enter the building, creating a real safety risk.

    IRS and DAS redistribute and amplify signals that support cell phones, fire and life safety radio systems, personal communications devices and telemetry systems. In this way, one antenna acts as many antennas distributed throughout a building. These systems merge or act as a “substitute” for wireless access points.

    The result is increased safety for building users and first responders. Medical personnel and firemen who enter buildings with IRS and DAS are assured emergency communications, as are on-site security and maintenance personnel.

    The cost to install IRS and DAS following building completion is astronomical compared to installation during construction. There is also the concern that pulling the heavy, stiff cables over a ceiling grid will damage the grid structure. Therefore, it is advised that project teams discuss these and other technologies at the outset.

    IRS will be installed at Seattle Public Library and Seattle Children's Hospital, and a campus-wide DAS installation is planned for the University of Washington.

    What is convergence?

    In many ways, convergence guides the direction of telecommunications technology today. The question is, what is convergence and how can it improve your business?

    The answer is different for each organization. At the most basic level, a converged system uses the same cabling infrastructure for a variety of applications, the most common being voice, data and video. From there, the concept of convergence can be extended to using the same transport medium such as Ethernet, to the same transport protocol — typically TCP/IP.

    Some organizations have progressed to the point of integrating their systems and creating single user interfaces for a variety of once-independent systems.

    How does convergence impact construction? Instead of requiring large, copper-based infrastructures to handle telephony and data traffic, a smaller quantity of high-bandwidth optical fiber cabling does the job. It is still necessary to provide adequate pathways and redundant connections, but the physical quantities, and associated costs, drop dramatically.

    An example of technology convergence, Voice-Over-IP supports voice and data in a single transport medium, whether it's a cable, a T-1 or DSL channel, or a wireless device. There are cost savings in terms of usability and building management because “connections” of individual systems are in a common IP format, permitting interconnection through software arrangement.

    The future is now

    Acknowledging that an organization will champion technology initiates discussion of what infrastructure and systems to install in a building, and when to install them. Technology planning ensures these buildings are prepared for the future.


    Jim Duncan, PE, FACEC, is chairman and CEO of Sparling, an electrical engineering and technology consulting firm in Seattle. He also is president of the Seattle Architectural Foundation.



     


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