Toronto tower debuts integrated building network

They’ve been lifting the blinds at a new downtown Toronto office building in the past few weeks as companies move into a complex with one of the most advanced IT infrastructures in the country.

Actually, it’s the IT system that’s been raising and lowering the blinds automatically on the 26-floor structure using data from a roof-top sensor that tracks the sun.

It’s part of the central building management system at PwC Tower – whose main tenant is financial consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers Canada — which is run over an IP network built by Cisco Systems Inc.

When fully configured, the system will give tenants the ability to oversee heating, air conditioning, lighting and security from IP-enabled phones or desktop computers to make the building as energy-efficient as possible. It will also let them and building management share and analyze building data.

“The use of a centralized building intelligence database is very unique,” said Rick Huijbregts, vice-president of Cisco Canada’s Smart+Connected Communities unit. “I would almost venture to say it hasn’t been done much anywhere in North America.”

It’s an example of how IT has become important in the commercial construction business. Cisco says, there are advantages to creating a converged fibre and copper network for building automation systems that traditionally have been separate. That way tenants can tap into the central network using Cisco or third party applications rather than building their own systems.

A separate pipe for broadband also runs up the building’s spine.

As the lead tenant that will occupy 16 of the tower’s floors, PricewaterhouseCoopers is trying to wring the most out of the system’s potential as 2,000 staff move in.

“What we’ve seen so far is a powerful capacity to control our own lighting,” says Mary McGrath, project leader for PwC Tower. For example, at the company’s old building if a staffer wanted to work on a weekend the lights for an entire floor would have to be turned on. In the new building, when the staffer is admitted through the security door a sensor system engages and turns on only the lights needed to brighten the way to his or her desk. If the staffer has an office, the system automatically turns on only that room’s lights. Changes to the room lighting can be made through a screen on a Cisco IP phone.

“It’s almost like a just-in-time system,” said McGrath. “That keeps costs down,”

PwC also uses Cisco’s Show and Share content management system on the network to post messages on digital signs on its floors to staff.

The system, which is barely a month old, still has some birth pangs. A PwC staffer said it is a bit unnerving watching the blinds go up and down on cloudy days as it tries to adjust to changing light.

Crafting a building network backbone is best done when the structure is in the planning stages. So in 2009, Cisco Canada formed a technology partnership with commercial construction giant EllisDon Corp. of Mississauga, Ont. Although Cisco has partnerships with real estate companies around the world, this was the first with a construction firm. “This industry has been evolving rapidly over the last eight, nine years with the emergence of IP in the construction world.” says Stephen Foster, EllisDon’s director of ICT services, in explaining his company’s interest in a pact.

Meanwhile, construction of PwC Tower had started months before under a design from developer GWL Realty Advisors. Initially the developer was cautious to the idea of a single converged infrastructure in the building, Foster admits, as was PricewaterhouseCoopers.

“Didn’t understand it,” confessed McGrath, “tried to avoid a meeting (with Cisco and EllisDon) for a week or two.” But, she added, eventually PwC ran the numbers and saw the potential for capital and energy savings.

For PwC’s own network, there are Cisco Catalyst 3700 switches on every floor which can connect to Power-over-Ethernet devices like IP phones and Catalyst 4510E workgroup switches. They funnel data to two Catalyst 6509 core switches, which are guarded by several Juniper Networks Inc. firewalls. PwC also has a wireless network on its floors.

Other building tenants will make their own network and application arrangements with the help of EllisDon’s ICT division, but they only have to connect to one backbone. In the basement is a demarcation point where a number of service providers connect their fibre to the backbone.

This was the first of several collaborations between Cisco and EllisDon. In the works is a new building for a Toronto-area college and a suburban hospital, both of which want to integrate their buildings systems even further than PwC has.

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