Smart buildings are complex. They are siloed, fragmented, and suffer from a deep design-operate divide that plagues most of a structure's life cycle. Smart buildings embody every aspect of a facility and therefore impact every stakeholder group, creating inefficiencies and tensions that raise costs and inhibit development.
Smart buildings are not a destination but an ongoing journey of continuous improvement, which demands a holistic view that considers the challenges of all involved. This broad complexity has led to the need for a central figure to bring together all these disparate aspects and the rise of the Master Systems Integrator (MSI).
An MSI is, typically, a professional or integration company that specializes in combining and managing complex building automation systems (BAS) and other subsystems within a building. Their role is to guide clients through the process of integrating these multiple disparate systems into a single, unified entity where all systems work together seamlessly to provide optimal performance, and energy efficiency, alongside occupant safety and comfort. The MSI, therefore, must develop a deep understanding of the building and all its stakeholders’ needs and responsibilities.
“When bringing lot’s of systems together in a building it’s really important to have clear demarcation between the various people involved, so they know when their commissioning finishes and digital commissioning commences”, CEO of Vanti, Mike Brooman, told Memoori in a 2022 webinar. “You have so many stakeholders who each have a lens and a view on this single asset, it is really important to understand what each of them needs out of it. So, MSIs are plugging back into those systems to get those lines really clear, to ensure that everybody knows what they are on the hook for and what the expectations are at that point.”
In the siloed, fragmented, and divided world of smart buildings, it is essential that everyone is on the same page and working toward the same goal, but this is generally not the case. Designers are only concerned with the design with little thought to the day-to-day functioning of the building and construction adapts design without updating data, leaving operational teams to make mistakes and work it out for themselves. Early decision-makers create the building based on their perspective, while those operating and occupying the building for the vast majority of its life are forced to live with those unrepresentative decisions every day.
“The MSI doesn’t have to know everything or be the sole implementor, but they must oversee and provide quality assurance that contractors install systems consistent with the design. The MSI must work closely with suppliers and vendors to ensure that everyone is working toward the same client-defined goals,” reads an article by Allbireo Energy.
“It is key for the MSI to be an educator as well. The smart building industry is ever-changing and the MSI will ensure that the project team understands the options that are available regardless of brand. The MSI will prioritize sustainability by offering solutions that will consider future growth and change, which may look different than selecting the lowest cost options.”
There isn’t a consensus on the importance of MSIs in the smart building industry, however. For some, the MSI represents an expensive addition to the development team that doesn’t always offer a significant number of concrete outcomes on an investment level. For those managing budgets, the incorporation of an MSI can raise fears of ‘scope creep’ and never-ending projects where no one is quite sure when they’re ‘done’ or if value for money is being realized. And, for these reasons, hiring an MSI is yet to become a common approach for most smart building projects.
“This lack of clarity is creating understandable hesitancy around the whole MSI concept. Indeed, why would you invest significantly with an MSI without the reassurance of guaranteed and standardized outcomes, costs and benefits?” asks Mike Hook, executive director at LMG. “The MSI is not simply a ‘co-ordinator’ pulling together the core technology as defined by a consultant’s spec. Instead, an MSI should be in the loop from the early stages of a build right through until the building becomes operational and beyond —requiring deep technology expertise from the physical connectivity to the core OT and IT systems as well as the integration layer and apps, and total project oversight.”
The complexities of smart building development are there for all to see, creating significant challenges that the entire sector is aware of. On paper, the MSI is an answer to many of the lingering issues that hold back the market, they connect what is disconnected, helping everything and everyone work better together. Despite this, MSI inclusion remains low and complexities continue to create barriers for smart building adoption and development.