Ave Maria University in Florida builds a new campus that integrates IT and facilities management systems — and the teams that run them.
When most major corporations talk about convergence, it’s usually about integrating voice and data communication. Bryan Mehaffey of Ave Maria University has accomplished that and more, connecting air conditioning, lighting, security cameras, fire alarms, and even the electrical and building-access control systems — into one network.
Mehaffey came up with the idea in 2003 when planners for the university near Naples, Fla., sought his help in designing the new campus on 1,000 undeveloped acres. At the time, he ran the school’s IT department, and as he began to sketch designs, the thought struck him: Why waste money installing a separate network of wires and cabling for each system, such as lighting, cooling and phone services, when he could just merge IT and building-system functions, enabling the university to run and manage everything centrally over an Internet Protocol network?
That way, Ave Maria could merge its building maintenance and IT staffs and control every IT and building system under a single roof. Although administrators gave his vision the green light, naysayers confronted him. The initial contractors and engineers he approached called the idea a mistake that would result in huge cost overruns. Unfazed, the university stayed the course, and Mehaffey proved the doubters wrong.
“I got an enormous amount of pushback because I was stepping into traditional facilities and life-safety systems. But it just seemed like the natural and right thing to do,” recalls Mehaffey, the university’s vice president for technology systems and engineering. “It didn’t make sense to manage all the different equipment separately when it could be united under one system.”
Now, four years later, Ave Maria has begun to reap the benefits of a cost-effective and efficient system that has even bolstered campus security.
In August, the Catholic university’s 600 students and 200 faculty and staff members moved from the nearby temporary campus to the new state-of-the-art, nine-building campus. An underground high-speed, fiber-optic network links all the buildings. Above ground, students can use Wi-Fi anywhere on campus. Inside the buildings, sensors for every IT and building system let the IT and maintenance teams monitor operations campuswide.
Building maintenance crews no longer take pressure readings mechanically or adjust valves by hand to tweak temperatures in each building. If a professor calls and complains that the first floor of the science building is too warm, the IT and facilities staff members simply make the adjustments at their keyboards.
Mehaffey has six employees working for him in the new Office of Systems and Engineering. They man a network operations center (NOC), fielding help-desk requests and managing and monitoring everything from office computers and servers to air conditioning, lighting and electricity. “We can orchestrate and remotely manage every device on campus,” he says.
The 900-square-foot network operations center is home to a bank of LCD TVs on one wall, letting staff members monitor the campus’ IP surveillance cameras and view real-time data from building systems. When off campus, they can view security cameras and system management software from their BlackBerrys and smart phones.
The integrated infrastructure gives the team management capabilities it never dreamed of. If a fire alarm goes off, it alerts the other building systems. The air conditioning unit automatically shuts off to prevent air from fanning the flames, and the access control system immediately unlocks all doors so people can exit. Surveillance cameras automatically point to the fire alarm’s location, giving emergency crews a live feed.
The lighting system, to save electricity, also automatically turns off lights if a classroom or office remains empty for an extended period.
The bottom line: The university spent $10 million on the facilities and IT infrastructure but saved $1.5 million by eliminating the need for separate wiring and cabling for each IT and facilities system. It’s also saving $350,000 by reducing staff, and Mehaffey estimates it will save another $600,000 in reduced utility costs each year.
Engineering consultants say Ave Maria’s effort is unusual because of the scope of the project. Its success could inspire more colleges and even the private sector to pursue similar projects, says Jim Sinopoli, principal of Smart Buildings, an engineering consultancy in Spicewood, Texas.
A few universities have completed projects that are smaller in scope, where they integrate IT and building management functions while retrofitting existing buildings.
“Ave Maria’s project is unique in that it was a brand-new university,” Sinopoli says. “You will start seeing centralized management of building systems over the Internet as a long-term technology trend, and you will start seeing the commercial sector doing this more because the savings are tremendous.”
The Building Process
Mehaffey, whose background is in IT and telecommunications, never imagined that he would manage boilers, chillers and cooling towers — much less choose manhole covers.
At the time of the university’s development and planning, Mehaffey acknowledges, he knew next to nothing about facilities systems. He boned up by reading books about facilities technology and HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems. His research convinced him that his vision was viable. Although many of these systems rely on distinct and proprietary protocols, it is possible to integrate their management on IP and Ethernet networks and to control them mostly from a single management console, he says.
Mehaffey had to find consultants, contractors and vendors who would embrace the university’s vision. In the end, the university was able to consolidate the cabling needed in each building but not eliminate separate networks completely.
All but two building systems could connect directly to the IP network: The electrical power management system and a science building system that controls the room temperature of research labs required their own subnets, but do have access on the IP network through network gateways, Mehaffey says. Overall, instead of having to build six separate networks with their own cabling for each building, the university reduced it to two per building.
Mehaffey hired one vendor to customize management software to include HVAC, lighting control, electrical power management and the science lab system. That lets the NOC staff manage those systems with just one application, through the Internet. For security reasons, the university also runs separate applications for its fire alarm and access control systems.
The management software has already paid for itself, Mehaffey says. During construction, a power surge fried about $200,000 worth of equipment. Because the facilities management system keeps detailed records of utility use, Mehaffey was able to show the power company the time the surge occurred and that the voltage nearly doubled. The power company paid to replace the equipment.
During the last six months of construction, Mehaffey and his colleagues pulled 16-hour workdays to oversee the installations. “We had some problems installing the boilers and cooling towers, but as far as the technology went, it worked great,” he says.
Other Infrastructure Tidbits
To ensure uptime, the university built two data centers on campus. If the main center in the library goes down, it fails over to the backup center in the student union. As part of the project, the university also laid a fiber-optic network — a 10-Gigabit Ethernet Synchronous Optical Network — on campus and throughout the adjacent town of Ave Maria that far exceeds current bandwidth demands.
“If we grow from 600 to 6,000 students, we don’t want to have to forklift anything,” Mehaffey says.
For physical and logical access, students and university staff members swipe wireless smart cards by proximity readers at doorways to gain access to buildings and computer labs. An identity management database lets the IT team manage users’ privileges and monitor access. The card also doubles as a debit card, letting students buy books and food or make copies at copy machines on campus. The library system uses them as well, to check out materials.
To make communication easy, Mehaffey says, the university also installed a Voice over IP system campuswide that resides on the IP network. Now, it’s common to spot employees and priests sporting new Wi-Fi phones so they can get calls anywhere on campus, he says.
Overall, Ave Maria administrators say they are thrilled with the technology.
“There’s been a lot of excitement among students and staff in moving to our beautiful new campus, and part of that excitement is having the most advanced technology,” says CFO Paul Roney.
Mehaffey says he’s still pulling long hours but nothing compared with those weeks of back-to-back, 16-hour days. The university has begun construction on Phase 2 of the campus, which includes a new dormitory, a law school building and a recreation center. And the IT team is in the midst of building a metadata directory that will let users search, find and update data across all university databases — something they’re unable to do now, Mehaffey says.
Seeing the campus vision become reality makes the hard work worth it, he says. “I put my career and reputation on the line for this construction project, and it took a lot of inspiration and perspiration to pull across the finish line. All the university leaders and I are just ecstatic that it’s been a success.”
The Pizza Connection
Before he founded Ave Maria University and helped build the city that surrounds it, Tom Monaghan built a pizza delivery empire.
The 70-year-old founder of Domino’s Pizza opened the first storefront in 1960. He sold it in 1998 for nearly $1 billion, but kept a 7 percent stake. Despite his business success, the wealthy entrepreneur always maintained that his dream was to build a Catholic university. He realized that dream in 2003, when Ave Maria began offering its first classes at an interim campus in southwest Florida.
Through the Ave Maria Foundation, Monaghan partnered with real estate developer Barron Collier Company to develop 10,000 acres 30 miles east of Naples, Fla. The campus spreads across 1,000 acres. The new city of Ave Maria will be built on the remaining acres. The design plans call for 11,000 homes. So far, Barron Collier has built 350 homes and created a business district, says Bryan Mehaffey, the university’s vice president for systems and engineering.
A commission with no ties to Monaghan or the university runs the new city, Mehaffey says. The profits that the Ave Maria Foundation receives from developing the land go to the university’s endowment fund, he adds.
So far, there are no plans for a Domino’s Pizza franchise in the city.
Ave Maria Tech Roundup
- Network: Cisco Systems switches, fiber-optic, wireless and IP telephony equipment
- Data Centers: 50 rack-mount servers in the main center and another 10 in the backup center — housed in APC InfraStruXure enclosures that handle battery backup, cooling and security
- Software: Microsoft Windows, SQL Server and Active Directory
- Building Automation and Access Control Security System: Johnson Controls
- Electrical System: Eaton