Electrical Systems and Future-Proofing the Built Environment

  Commercial, Education, Engineering, Technology
Workplace architecture and engineering - Clark Nexsen

From the workplace to education, “flexibility” is the buzzword of the moment in vertical building design. Commercial clients may upfit a building or need to transform a function at any time; evolving pedagogy is continuously impacting the way teachers teach and students learn; and cutting-edge research, by its very definition, changes on a dime. In the following post, Clark Nexsen’s Patrick Licklider explores the role of electrical engineering in creating buildings that can readily adapt:


Historically, electrical systems have been driven by function over form – hidden in walls, above ceilings, and tucked away in closets and equipment rooms. For typical facility users, these systems are forgettable, taken for granted, an indistinguishable component of the overall structure and architectural façade. Today, the rising demand for space flexibility and interconnectivity of systems is elevating the profile of electrical design and infrastructure.

While none of us have a crystal ball, forecasting and predicting the future needs of a facility and its user base is a key element in the design process. In conjunction with improvements in technology, these needs mean future-proofing electrical systems takes more than providing spare capacity in the distribution system and spare circuit breakers – it’s about how the system is laid out, its accessibility, and factoring changing human behavior into the equation.

Electrical Infrastructure and The Workplace

Take the workplace, for example. Soon the days of people sitting in cubes with large computer towers and hardwired ethernet connections will be over. In some offices, they already are over. As workplace environments evolve to meet the needs of the flexible and transient worker, the creation of “touchdown areas,” where any employee can sit, connect to Wi-Fi or company servers, and complete their work regardless of office location, will become increasingly popular and change the way communications and power service is delivered in the office.

The rise of cloud-based computing will continue to have a transformative impact, as well. Employees will be able to access their user profiles on the cloud via virtualization, allowing connections on cell phones, Chromebooks, or other devices. Traditional computer towers and assigned workstations populating the office landscape may be reduced, and the necessity for connectivity throughout an office space will surge. While adequate WiFi coverage for all areas – indoor and outdoor – is the centerpiece of making this shift successful, innovative electrical engineers have an opportunity to positively impact the employee experience with other infrastructure considerations.

Integrated Building Systems and Lighting Controls

Giving facility owners the ability to control and schedule their lighting either via individual rooms or groups of rooms is a positive starting point for flexibility. Lighting controls and building management systems are enabling facility owners to better manage energy consumption, translating to improved operational costs and sustainability metrics. These systems, however, are continuously advancing and upgrading, meaning that putting them in place is critical – and so is backing them up with infrastructure that can accommodate future changes. Numerous control equipment options exist, combining smart controls, relays, and astronomical time clocks to fully control the lighting. Consistent with other technological advances, a shift has begun to transform these hardwired systems into fully wireless systems, where devices such as intelligent switches and occupancy sensors are communicating back to controllers without the need for wires or ethernet cables.

Additionally, the interoperability of all building systems is becoming increasingly important. This type of coordination between engineers and systems maximizes the benefit to the owner. In recent years, major strides have been made in getting proprietary systems to talk to each other, and today virtually all lighting control systems can interface with the building management system (BMS), if one exists. Building management systems have become a valued resource in understanding how a facility is functioning. In addition to fine-tuning HVAC equipment and pumping systems, the proper setup can regulate lighting and control systems seamlessly.

The Impact of the Energy Code

Increasingly stringent energy codes have been driving innovation in lighting and lighting controls. Looking at newer codes such as ASHRAE 90.1-2016 and IECC 2018 gives designers a glimpse of what the future holds in terms of meeting increasingly rigorous lighting power densities and various control requirements. Designers have an opportunity to innovate and alter their design style by anticipating future changes in the code.

Electrical Design and the Internet of Things

The single greatest revolution in electrical design will be accommodating the Internet of Things (IoT). Envision a future where every device, large and small, is intelligent and communicates with one another. The march toward this interconnected world is continuous, and the built environment should be prepared for it. Equipment that once did not require power or an internet connection may one day soon have these needs. This will change the game in terms of both security and interoperability; both will be crucial to a seamlessly operating facility.

To handle these current and future IoT devices, a proper Wi-Fi system must accommodate all areas of the facility. Additionally, designers should ensure adequate coverage of electrical outlets throughout the facility, particularly anywhere users may congregate or equipment could conceivably be installed in the future. Demand is also increasing for charging stations – both USB and wireless. The impact here is less about the power requirements (which are paltry), but it is about the human experience of the facility – how it enables them to work, study, and function collectively.

Flexibility for the Future

The effort to predict future demand for building flexibility is not without potential pitfalls or roadblocks. Central to the most successful projects are those with strong owner buy-in during the very early project stages. Other potential challenges include increased design time, system complexity for the installing contractor and the end user, and increased maintenance or system management to accommodate these new intelligent controls.

Electrical designs have long catered to the known and fallen short when it comes to anticipating future innovations. It is in the best interest of the designer and facility owners and managers to discuss future possibilities in addition to the current needs; through this conversation, the designer can best craft a solution that responds to where the owner sees their facility in five, ten, or even fifteen years. In this way, the finished electrical design may go much further in giving a facility the flexibility to remain state-of-the-art not just for a moment in time, but over time.

Photograph courtesy of Tzu Chen Photography

Patrick Licklider, PE, CEM, GGP, LEED AP BD+C, is a senior electrical engineer who joined Clark Nexsen in 2007. He left the firm to pursue other opportunities in 2021.