Smart Buildings

Cabling Considerations: Greenfield vs. Brownfield Smart Building Design

Henry Franc

Smart buildings are making their move. Around the world, more than 115 million smart buildings are expected to be operational by 2026 (up from 45 million in 2022).


But what many fail to consider is that there are two types of smart buildings represented in this number—greenfield and brownfield smart buildings. As the industry rolls out 70 million more smart buildings in the next four years, it’s safe to assume that most will be brownfield projects (renovations to existing building) vs. greenfield projects (new construction).


Brownfield and greenfield smart buildings come with their own benefits, challenges and cabling considerations. As a result, they must be managed differently. This blog highlights just a few of the many important differences between the two.


What to Know About Greenfield Smart Building Design

Because they’re designed and built from the ground up, greenfield projects don’t face the restrictions and constraints often found in brownfield projects. In a greenfield project, it’s easier to align visions and goals across teams because everything is fresh and new.


Although this “newness” may seem like an advantage, it can also create unanticipated obstacles. With a blank canvas, it’s easy to get carried away with possibilities and lose sight of needs and practicality. It can also be difficult to prioritize needs vs. wants.


As a basic example, we’ve seen customers invest in outlet-monitored power distribution units (PDUs) for their data centers—and then not actually monitor outlet status. Sometimes this is due to lack of resources. Other times, it’s because the data center team doesn’t need to monitor power usage at that level. Either way, just because something seems “cool” doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for every project.


Along those same lines, just because two building systems can interact with one another in a new facility doesn’t mean they should. Creating a “smart building” doesn’t mean that all systems must be integrated. Instead, a smart building establishes purposeful, meaningful connections between systems to add value to people and processes based on what needs to be observed and managed.


For example, a smart hospital many want its irrigation systems to connect to the internet to check upcoming weather and adjust accordingly. (Rain in the forecast tomorrow morning? The system would see this and realize that watering isn’t necessary.) But does the irrigation system need to communicate with the hospital’s imaging systems? Even though it’s possible to make this happen, it’s not beneficial because it offers no advantage.


As another case in point, there are obvious benefits to integrating access control and video surveillance systems in most cases. For instance, potential security incidents can be addressed as they arise (you can view real-time footage of someone attempting to gain unauthorized access to an entrance). But is there a need to integrate access control and videoconferencing systems? Probably not.


Because they have no existing infrastructure to work with, greenfield projects typically take longer than brownfield projects.


Project planning may begin several years before a facility becomes operational. Because technology evolves so quickly, telecommunications budgets and scopes that are created in 2022 may not address what will be needed in 2028 when a building opens its doors. Technology, needs and priorities will change over time—and cabling designs, plans and programs of work need to be agile enough to adapt to these shifts.


What to Know About Brownfield Smart Building Design

With nearly 6 million commercial buildings in the United States alone (according to the Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey), 350,000 industrial buildings (according to the Manufacturing Energy Consumption Survey) and 275,000 military buildings (according to the Department of Defense Base Structure Report), brownfield projects are much more common than greenfield projects—but they’re talked about much less.


In a brownfield project, distinct personnel and technology silos with established historical records already exist. There are also dynamic relationships and interplay to consider when it comes to working with existing contracts with vendors, responsibilities, liabilities and capabilities.


In addition to managing the traditional cost, resource and time constraints that come along with any project, brownfield smart building projects must also work around existing restrictions and limitations. This may include legacy platforms and systems, facility layouts that can’t be changed and fully occupied buildings that can’t be vacated in order for work to take place. All these situations create additional complexities that are significantly different from those found in greenfield projects.


From an ICT perspective, legacy systems in brownfield projects must often be integrated with new systems, technology and network architectures.


Using healthcare as an example once again, a brownfield smart building project always needs to take into account the maturity of existing technology. Nurse call systems, for example, may be in place for 25 or 30 years, which means that the systems currently in place may not be built for Ethernet or IP. This can make integration difficult.


It’s also important for the project team to understand the expected lifespan of the technology already in place. Are there end-of-life concerns?


Some systems, like nurse call systems, can’t simply be taken offline or removed and swapped for something new. They must remain operational until a new system or new infrastructure is installed, tested and verified—including integration with other smart building systems.


In a brownfield smart building project, you’ll also often find a mix of network topologies: bus, ring or star, for example. Pathways and spaces will already exist, too, so cabling plans will have to work around their current locations, sizes, configurations and contents.


Existing cabling often poses challenges during brownfield smart building projects as well, with a menagerie of cables and connectors—many with different ratings—that have been deployed over the years. In the end, these differences need to be able to work together.


When working in an existing environment, visions of new technology and capabilities must be tempered with reality. What’s possible and what isn’t based on the facility and existing infrastructure? What works for one existing building may not work for another. Buildings are designed to last decades or longer, so creativity is often necessary to turn a 60-year-old building into a facility that can efficiently and economically use technology.


Based on these factors—existing systems and infrastructure—a brownfield smart building project could vary from a simple bootstrap upgrade to a major forklift upgrade (and everything in between) that requires significant changes to existing IT infrastructure.


Start Your Next Smart Building Project

Greenfield and brownfield smart buildings are both crucial to creating a safe, sustainable and efficient future. But they also need to be approached differently. Belden’s team of experts understands the intricacies of smart building design—and the cabling infrastructure required to support greenfield and brownfield smart buildings to meet your goals.


Learn more about our smart building team and capabilities.





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