November 18, 2004

Designers — beware of technology convergence

  • Complicated buildings, such as those found in health care, should be designed to accommodate future technology.


    As I looked at the expression on her face, I knew what she was about to say: "Why does your IT room need to be so big?" It's the classic question a technology consultant hears on almost every health care project.

    Although design team members are becoming more knowledgeable about technology's critical role in health care facility design, it is still common for the architect, MEP (mechancial, electrical, plumbing) consultant or facility engineer to question the need for a 150- to 200-square-foot information technology room.

    The reason is convergence.

    More and more, low-voltage systems are running on the same structured cabling systems with the same logical IP-based networks. Putting nurse call, patient entertainment, telemetry, building automated systems, lighting control, audiovisual, SCADA monitoring paging, security and wireless systems on a single cabling system is creating increased efficiencies in supporting the delivery of health care services.

    In addition, new health care applications — smart cards, infant security systems and automatic medication dispensers — are all coming on line and will use convergence as a means of getting there.

    IT rooms are holding more and more equipment and require more space, along with additional power, cooling and fire protection.

    As health care technology advances, so does the need to support it. Often, the need to keep the facility's infrastructure on pace with advancing systems is overlooked, and the added load that comes with a renovation or addition forces hospital administrators to participate in an expensive game of catch-up.

    Photo courtesy Sparling
    Children's Hospital in Denver is planning for converged technology systems for its new facility scheduled to open in 2007.

    Treating a facility's technology infrastructure as the "fourth utility" can help mitigate costly future upgrades and expenditures with early planning and diligent infrastructure upkeep.

    Call it CLA

    Like MEP, a new phrase is emerging in the A/E industry. It's called CLA — communications, life safety and automation. All low-voltage systems, which previously resided in other specification sections, will reside in new sections under the new division format.

    In design of extremely complex projects like health care facilities, the construction cost associated with CLA could exceed that of the electrical systems.

    As these systems converge onto common platforms, we will see increased requirements for power, cooling, security, redundancy and growth in the technology spaces. That will make technology consulting even more paramount to the success of the project.

    Plan for convergence

    An indicator of the transition toward the need for "converged" or "integrated" systems within the A/E industry is the recent adoption of the new Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) MasterFormat 04.

    This sweeping restructure of the standard specification format, originally pushed by organizations such as Building Industry Consulting Service International in the form of Division 17, is changing the way we approach design and construction of low-voltage systems. These changes include the movement of mechanical and electrical specs to Divisions 21, 22, 23 and 26, and removal of all traditional communication, life safety and automation control systems from Divisions 15 and 16 to Divisions of 25, 27 and 28.

    In a report published in October, the Construction Specifications Institute estimates an average of 5 to 10 percent savings in construction costs when communications, life safety and automation systems are addressed fully in a building's specifications. When MasterFormat 04 is not referenced, the resulting changes and delays during construction can drive up the cost of building voice, data, and video systems as much as 50 percent.

    Project changes and delays to accommodate technology systems late in the game may include the following:

    • Tearing down walls to install cabling and/or cable pathways, then rebuilding walls.

    • Adding closets/rooms to house switches, servers and other components that were not part of the original building plans.

    • Expanding heating, ventilating and air-conditioning systems to handle the heat generated by such systems.

    • Paying for express delivery of construction products, such as wire and cable, to minimize schedule delays.

    • Paying crews overtime to install such systems.

    • Using higher-interest money (such as a line of credit) to pay for technology systems because they are part of a change order during construction.

    • Paying additional money to install voice, data or video systems after the building has been built.

    How to get there

    Unfortunately, technology systems design is often an afterthought during team selection and not part of the initial facility programming. This is a big mistake, particularly with design of larger, more complex projects. Because technology has potential impacts on construction budgets, space allocation, emergency power calculations, HVAC and lighting requirements, to name a few, it is important to flush out these issues sooner than later.

    Using the CLA approach for construction documents permits those systems to stand apart and be addressed during the early stages of design.

    The following are some basic ideas on how to ensure that technology is prioritized in the planning, design and construction efforts:

    • Create a facilities master plan that includes the information technology infrastructure. Look beyond the specific building and consider how these technologies impact the entire campus.

    • Consider the latest technologies, including systems integration and convergence.

    • Don't limit yourself in future expansion. The costs of building future growth into your technology infrastructure are far less expensive than future expansion.

    • Consider the capital cost, and determine the operating and maintenance cost associated with the design.

    • Bring the appropriate professionals on board at the beginning of the programming/design process.

    • Consider the use of the new CSI master specification format.

    Convergence benefits

    While hospital administrators may hesitate to take away valuable program space to house infrastructure systems, the decision to do so is a wise one.

    Convergence creates the demand for more space, but lessens the number of locations where the investment in infrastructure needs to be made. Collocating data centers, network operation rooms and equipment rooms reduces management overhead and aids in trouble-shooting.

    Further, common cable systems and network platforms reduce the quantity of proprietary systems in the facility. Locating them in a common space reduces their operation and maintenance costs.

    As technology continues to expand in the health care industry, systems convergence is the vehicle that will take it there. To best serve the industry and health care clients, it will become more critical to add CLA to the A/E "dictionary" — consider its infrastructure as the fourth utility by treating it with equal importance, and start the technology planning process early.

    Tod Moore, RCDD, is technology principal of Sparling and co-author of the "Distributed Antenna Systems" chapter of the 2003 Building Industry Consulting Service International Wireless Design Manual.

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