Digital standards for smart systems

Inconsistent asset tagging can bedevil the integration of smart systems into existing buildings, but new software can help


  • Matthew Marson
  • James Kinch

17 December 2020

As more of us realise the benefits of using smart systems such as heating, ventilation and air conditioning analytics, or advanced sensors on our projects, the more we are finding complexity in the way those systems are designed, installed, configured and procured.

The challenges are even greater in existing buildings, where legacy systems need to be integrated with those that are being retrofitted. As all buildings are different, the mix of systems and the way they need to interact is also different – and this leads to complexity. Outdated skill sets, a limited ability to make informed decisions, and overpromises by vendors have resulted in corporate real-estate departments and their facility managers being cautious of innovation in existing buildings.

To overcome this and foster a culture of responsible innovation, we must first clarify best practice for implementing technology in buildings. We must also upskill and support all those maintaining, working with, and using technology to ensure it provides the value being promised.


From a technical standards perspective, it is challenging to integrate systems and enable meaningful information transfer between them, with a significant hurdle being the way that different systems are codified. It is common for separate systems in a building to use different identification tagging formats for the same assets; a computer-aided facilities management system might identify a light fitting as LGHT-001, for instance, while another system might tag it LT-001.

If these systems are to be integrated without using the same tagging system, an additional layer of abstraction will be required in the form of mapping. Putting a mapping table in place will reduce the technical burden of updating one or both systems with the same ID formats, which is a costly and time-consuming process.

That problem can also arise in new buildings: while all systems may have been originally set up using the same asset ID tagging, new assets installed as part of ongoing maintenance may not be named consistently with the previous format.

“From a technical standards perspective, it is challenging to integrate systems and enable meaningful information transfer between them”

Asset naming standards

In response to this growing problem, an asset-naming standard called Project Haystack has been developed. Haystack is open-source, and specifically designed as a pre-built standard that can be deployed in any building at low cost. Developed originally from JavaScript object notation, it establishes a clear format by which all building systems can be described, preventing deviation and inconsistency.

Haystack is by no means the only naming standard, so inconsistency remains a risk. However, as it is open-source and free of charge, it is in a strong position to become the most commonly used, and can remain relevant thanks to ongoing contributions from users.

Brick Schema was developed as an extension to Haystack. Acknowledging that system information often needs to be read by people as much as by machines, Brick Schema applies a layer of semantic description to make it easier for people to understand the relationship and hierarchy of various building systems.

Device integrating and verification

Another hurdle being tackled by such standardisation is that of integrating devices into existing set-ups and verifying that they are compatible. Smart buildings can often have scores of digital systems, and the process for integrating and configuring them is frequently laborious and expensive.

In response, and in an effort to improve building security, a new standard called Manufacturer Usage Descriptions (MUDs) was developed. MUD files can be preloaded on to a building’s IT or operational technology infrastructure to act as verification and configuration files when new devices are connected.

To take the lighting example again, as soon as the operational technology-enabled fixture is installed, the building checks the ID it presents against its MUD database, first to verify the fixtures network permissions and then to execute the correct configuration procedure, all automatically. Knowing the location of assets in BIM, with their assigned MUD identifiers, it is possible to automate data flow set-ups between systems.

Put together, Haystack, Brick Schema and MUD files each seek to enable the greater integration and use of technology in buildings. For advanced BIM, these techniques and standards enable a rudimentary model to take a first step towards becoming a digital twin.

Standards can only go so far in nudging building owners and operators towards better working practices, though; technology thus remains at risk of obsolescence after implementation, despite these moves towards greater standardisation. The answer lies not with new technology but with well-established methods for stakeholder upskilling and engagement.


As smart systems become more normal than novel, building managers will need to pivot their skills to become more digitally specialised. There are an increasing number of anecdotes across the British construction industry about implementation mangers leaving companies without fully instructing staff in how to operate systems. Often, the building mangers who take up their responsibilities do not have the skills to unpick, understand or modify these systems.

This is typical for bespoke integrations, where the system specialist can use whichever configuration method they prefer. Implementing standards such as Haystack, Brick or MUD will enable building managers to understand and update data flows, dashboards and automations in an informed and tactical way.

Skills such as basic coding – for rule writing – and database maintenance will become necessary so operations staff can run a smart building. Leading facility management firms are already investing in these skills and capabilities.

As property developers use smart building technologies to compete for tenants, and occupiers use the same technologies for COVID-19 compliance and talent retention, building managers will be called on to update their skill sets and support their client’s objectives.

Until there are more advanced ways to deal with the issues raised in this article, we as professionals are going to have to challenge our clients. Three steps in particular are recommended to support the retrofitting of smart systems into existing buildings.
  • Challenge vendors: work with your construction and technology partners to ensure that you are getting systems configured to Haystack, Brick and MUD, and that people have the skills to use them. Today, there is a tendency to rely on traditional methods and systems – designers and contractors are using value engineering to reduce risk from by making critical systems integrations less complicated. However, if they were trained in using the technology, they could instead exploit it to its full potential.
  • Appoint a master systems integrator (MSI): an MSI combines knowledge of controls and digital technology to create systems that fulfil your brief. They have the necessary skills to code a range of systems integrations to prepare data for a control platform.
  • Keep learning: organisations such as digitalbuildingsboot.camp now offer easy courses to help built environmental professionals become digitally conversant. Being able to understand the key terms and concepts will ensure that you can make informed decisions about purchases and implementation.

Taking these steps will ensure that smart buildings can fulfil their full potential, whether they are new or retrofitted. Progress towards net-zero carbon, enhanced space use and a host of workplace improvements are certainly worth the technical difficulties.



Related competencies include: Construction technology and environmental services, Sustainability

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