MBII & network convergence

Convergence: a fresh approach to complex systems

Have you ever taken a good look at the multicolored, ordered spaghetti of cabling running through most buildings? Traditional engineering calls for one set of cabling for security systems, another for surveillance/CCTV, yet another for lighting, one for HVAC, then there’s voice, data, building automation systems… you get the idea.

Building infrastructure can accept cabling complexity, while owners who need to make different systems talk to one another may find it difficult to build interfaces between systems. These interfaces can be rudimentary, cumbersome and difficult to maintain.

The design of cabling in a building can be compared to that used for computers. Using only one cable connected to a wireless network can provide access to a web browser, email software, chat client and so forth.

This is the thinking espoused by Mulvey & Banani International Inc. (MBII), Toronto-based engineers of electrical and electronic systems for complex buildings. “Each system remains independent,” explains Bob Lymer, MBII’s president, “but they share a common platform.”

Recent major projects to which MBII brought its systems convergence approach include two Toronto office towers, the RBC Centre and 18 York Street (PwC Tower]. These buildings stand as showcase projects for integrated electrical and electronic systems design and sustainability. The PwC Tower was designed (with owner bcIMC) to consume up to 30 per cent less energy than the Model National Energy Code for Buildings (MNECB) standard. It uses an efficient lighting system that relies on occupancy sensors, solar shades and dimmable lighting systems integrated into the phones (without light switches on the walls). Separate meters let tenants measure energy consumption.

MBII can easily list the ways in which owners can enhance their projects using a single-network approach. This approach reduces the amount of cabling and network equipment required up front, simplifying network design and cable management. It’s also easier to create interfaces between systems, like the PwC Tower lighting systems, occupancy sensors and solar shades. “Systems are commonly web-based, even accessible from smartphones,” Lymer says. “You don’t have to go back to the office to monitor what’s going on or to fix certain types of problems.”

Lymer illustrates what a converged network looks like to a typical office worker. “Somebody comes to work early in the morning and uses an access card to enter the building,” he begins. “The access control system allows entry, then flags the elevator to open its doors. He pushes his floor button.”

“While he’s in the elevator, the building automation system signals the air handling system to turn on and get fresh air to his space at the right temperature. A pathway of lighting comes on leading to his office where lights are on and fresh air is circulating.”

Lymer adds that building codes commonly dictate that fire systems be kept on their own ULC/CSA-approved networks, but every other electronic system can transmit and receive using one common network.

Not that fire systems don’t talk to other systems. “We still build fire systems with interfaces for one-way communication,” Lymer explains “Fire systems report to other systems. They don’t receive anything from other systems.”

MBII was first introduced to the concept of convergence while working on Pearson International Airport’s massive Terminal One project in 1997. “Pearson was by far the largest project for the firm,” Lymer says. “and it still is. It was an incredibly complex project with so many different systems it would make your head spin. It made the rest of our projects seem easy.”

Pearson’s internal IT groups insisted on convergence. They also gave consultants another requirement: they had to design a system in 1997 that would be suitable for use in 2004. “We had to be forward-thinking,” Lymer recalls. “We had to anticipate technology. Many of the systems weren’t there yet, but we anticipated they would be.”

He offers the surveillance system as an example. “Digital cameras for CCTV were just emerging. They were simply analog cameras with video streamers strapped to the back to convert analog signals to digital. We designed the camera infrastructure so that analog cameras could be replaced by high-resolution digital models down the road.”

“The Pearson airport project also happened at an opportune time, when a network approach to systems was becoming the norm,” Lymer continues. “Until then, many systems ran on proprietary low-speed communication pathways that have become almost obsolete.”

MBU designed other complex building electronics systems before that opportune time, composed entirely of discrete, isolated systems. “Fast-forward 20 years, many of the old legacy systems need to be replaced,” Lymer says. “We now must take new systems and try to shoehorn them into buildings designed to house their original equipment.”

“These buildings are fully occupied and operational. You have to do this on the fly, with minimal interruption to daily operations.”

It’s little wonder MBII are big on convergence. The company itself emerged from the 1981 fusion of Mulvey Engineering (started in 1955) and A.H. Banani and Associates (1964).

Lymer offers fond memories when he speaks of the founding partners, Gerry Mulvey and Husayn Banani (both since retired – Mulvey to San Luis Obispo, California and Banani to eastern Ontario).

“In 1987, when I joined the firm as a young engineer, I had the pleasure of working for both of them,” he says. “Gerry was an absolute blast to work for. He was funny, he was engaging, he always had the time for you.”

“Husayn was also wonderful to work for, but more from a technical perspective. He seemed to be the glue that held everything together, the voice of reason. When Gerry would say something wonky, Husayn would temper the conversation, bring things back to earth.”

“Gerry made it clear that you can have fun while you work, and Husayn made it clear that while you have fun you can still maintain the quality of work. That philosophy has kept me and my partners here a very long time, and we carry on with that philosophy.”

“They were yin and yang. They were very dynamic, incredibly gifted, very different. I think that’s what made this company work.”

Lymer credits the second-generation partners, particularly Myron Washchyshyn and Diego Battiston, for MBII’s status in the industry. “They took what Gerry and Husayn started and they kicked it up a notch,” he says. “They launched us more into the international scene, they put us on the map. We started bidding on major opportunities.”

Today, MBII consists of91 people and it’s still growing. To offer the electrical and electronic systems expertise MBII is known for, it has long integrated all required disciplines in-house. From engineering-intensive work such as mission-critical power interventions to the design of sophisticated sound and lighting systems, MBII brings all required expertise to bear on client projects as needed. Formalized in-house groups include Electrical, IT/Communications and Security Engineering, Architectural Lighting and Audio/Visual Design and the latest group, Sustainable Design, a boon to clients seeking LEED certification.

Lymer admits that convergence in building systems design is a disruptive concept to sell in the industry. “We still get pushback from system vendors,” he says. “Certain firms still sell legacy-based products because that’s all they have in their kit of parts right now.”

Some clients who consider convergence may fret about putting all their application eggs in one network basket, even though Lymer confidently states that spectres like network failure, data loss and viruses jumping across platforms pose no real threat. “There are no drawbacks that we can’t take appropriate measures to prevent,” he says.

But convergence thrives within MBII even, and perhaps especially, when it causes disruption. “Over the last three years, we’ve made a concerted effort to hire young people,” says Lymer, a third-generation partner who celebrated 25 years with MBII in February.

Lymer enjoys watching MBII’s evolution. “These young hires work out tremendously well. They add a new dynamic, a fresh approach.”

He sees part of that fresh approach in the now-widespread bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend that has infiltrated companies everywhere, MBII included. “They mostly carry iPads that they have connected to the company network. They’ve done this on their own. It’s not something we’ve necessarily supported.”

Neither has MBII insisted that staff always use company-issued BlackBerries.”I know they’re getting their emails off other toys, but I don’t know how they do it,” Lymer admits. “They manage to do 12 other things we probably don’t know about, get their work done on time, and ask for more work, so it’s all good.”

“They’re pushing us, and we like to be pushed,” he adds. “We’re in the business of consulting on ground-breaking technology and need to be well-versed.”

He can already imagine how clients will handle their electronic systems down the road. “Thinking ahead 20 years, where we have a common platform and a bulletproof network, if we swap out one of these systems, it would be more of a plug-and-play operation.”

“The whole system is almost becoming a piece of software. Theoretically, you could dump your old system in one hour and boot up your new system in the next. That’s what I foresee – changing an application rather than changing hardware.”

Lymer has a tougher time describing how the future of building electronics will appear to ordinary people. “I foresee a lot more automation and integration in applications at all levels, from workstation to the entire building environment,” he says. “It’s like in movies like Minority Report, with videos and information everywhere. It’s hard to put into words.”

This article originally published in Award Magazine. For a PDF of this article, see below.

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