STEP: The Unofficial, Semi-Definitive FAQ

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Type: Article, Report or Whitepaper

Topics: Smart Building Technology (SBT); Sustainable AV

Date: November 2011

By Brad Grimes

You may have heard of it. It’s the Sustainable Technology Environments Program, better known as STEP®. Not ringing a bell? Or maybe you’ve heard of it, but you’re not sure exactly what it means (or what it has to do with you). One of the original developers of the STEP Rating System admits he sometimes comes across AV professionals who have no idea what STEP is, but that’s changing.

“Awareness is good,” says Scott Walker, CTS®-D, LEED AP. “Articles have been written, and I’ve given many webinars on STEP. So I’m a little surprised when I run into people in the AV industry who haven’t heard of STEP.”

Walker, who is CEO of Waveguide Consulting, a former president of InfoComm International® and a member of the STEP Foundation Board, chaired InfoComm's Green AV Task Force, which evolved into the STEP Task Force. “The question now is, ‘How quickly can we get people empowered to do STEP projects?’” he says.

First thing is to set the record straight. STEP has come a long way in a short time. And when something with such vast potential arrives on the scene, it’s sometimes accompanied by FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt). With STEP, that doesn’t have to be the case.

STEP and the STEP Rating System are real, living, deployable initiatives. “Think of STEP as LEED for technology,” says Allen Weidman, InfoComm Sustainability Officer and Executive Director of the STEP Foundation, referring to the United States Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program.

The STEP Foundation has its own list of frequently asked questions, plus other resources. Here we tackle some of what AV professionals need to know to start using STEP right away, taking insight from some of the people most intimate with STEP and its implementation.

As you’ll read below, STEP will continue to evolve (thus the “semi-definitive” FAQ), so it will be important to check in with the STEP Foundation regularly. But without further ado, your questions:

Q: What is STEP?

A: STEP is a voluntary system for rating the sustainability of information communications technology systems in the built environment. But just as importantly, STEP is a framework for bringing together professionals from separate but related industries in a unified effort to design, implement and operate greener AV, IT, security, and other building systems. In other words, it is not a green AV program; as its name implies, it is a green technology program.

At the heart of STEP is the STEP Rating System, which guides all stakeholders in a project down the path to a sustainable result by awarding them credits for following agreed-upon practices, depending on their role in the project. The STEP system is broken down into five phases: program, architectural and infrastructure design, system design, systems integration, and operation. Each phase has credits associated with it; the more credits a projects earns, the higher its eventual STEP rating.

When it comes to technology providers, there are STEP credits that all of them — from AV integrators to structured wiring professionals — can earn. The current version of the STEP Rating System includes credits for AV systems and design. But as STEP evolves, there will be credits that pertain specifically to IT, security, cabling, and others.

“In STEP, there are core requirements that all low-voltage systems have to hit, such as recycling packaging and electronics,” says Raymond Kent, CTS, LEED AP, and Co-Chair of the STEP Foundation Technology Task Force. “But things like dealing with power amplifiers are pretty specific to audiovisual, so we’ve identified and written credits that are specific to AV. Now as IT, security and other industries get involved, they will have their own low voltage system-specific credits. That way, for instance, a security company working on a STEP project would focus on the core credits plus their security-specific credits.”

Q: Why does STEP exist?

A: As the green movement gained momentum over the last decade, technology providers — AV professionals, IT integrators, security installers, etc. — grew interested in sustainability, too. Many wanted to do their part. And when the USGBC started its LEED program to rate the sustainability of commercial and residential buildings, some saw the opportunity for the AV and other technology industries to contribute. After all, a new office building with well integrated telepresence systems, for example, could reduce a company’s carbon footprint by reducing travel and generating other sustainable benefits.

In 2008, BICSI, the association for the association information transport systems (ITS) industry, created something called the Green Building Technology Alliance (GBTA), which included InfoComm, the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) and the Continental Automated Buildings Association (CABA), in order to write technology-related innovation credits that could be incorporated into the LEED rating system. That effort just happened to coincide with LEED’s meteoric rise in interest and popularity.

“We wrote five credits under Innovation in Design, which were all rejected,” says Brian Hansen, BICSI President and Specification Engineer at Leviton Network Solutions. “After many meetings with LEED, it became apparent that they had too many other things on their plate and that technology was a small piece of what they were trying to do.”

No one blames USGBC for looking beyond the critical role technology systems can play in greening the built environment. But it doesn’t change the fact that technology systems can be designed intelligently, energy-efficiently, and sustainably to the overall benefit of buildings and their owners. So there had to be another way. That other way was STEP.

STEP emerged from a pair of task forces established by InfoComm. It was written by a diverse group of industry professionals, including several LEED Accredited Professionals (LEED APs), to help promote sustainable technology where no similar program exists and to answer the call from technology professionals who have been looking for a way to play a role in the green movement.

Q: So STEP is an InfoComm program?

A: It was. It isn’t anymore. Remember all that AV/IT “convergence” talk? Well, it extends to sustainability, too. Although an InfoComm task force created STEP, the sustainability issues that STEP aims to address are bigger than just AV. They extend to IT systems, structured wiring and more. It’s not enough just to green the AV systems if the networks they increasingly run on aren’t green, too.

So when the STEP Rating System was finished this past summer, it became the jurisdiction of a new, separate, non-profit organization called the STEP Foundation. The STEP Foundation, launched at InfoComm 2011 in Orlando, started with InfoComm and CompTIA, the Computing Technology Industry Association, as its first Sustaining Members. They have since been joined by BICSI and TIA. Each of the four current Sustaining Members has seats on the Board of Directors.

Moving forward, the STEP Foundation is expected to grow to include members at varying participation levels: Associate Members, Sponsors, and Friends of STEP. So while InfoComm is intimately involved with the STEP Foundation, it does not run STEP. All Sustaining Members have equal say in STEP’s development, no matter when they joined.

Q. Why would the building community embrace sustainable AV and other technology now that STEP has been created?

A: Here’s one reason: LEED backlash. LEED is arguably the most recognizable green building guide in the world. However, it’s received some negative press recently because highly rated LEED buildings haven’t performed like their owners expected. And in most cases, that isn’t the fault of the USGBC or the design/build team. It’s the result of user error.

“One of the most significant challenges LEED has faced is that you have building owners who thought they were promised X amount of efficiency and they weren’t achieving that,” says Kent, who also works for architecture firm Westlake Reed Leskosky. “But the fact is, you can design someone a Ferrari, you just can’t teach them to drive it. In other words, you design them a very energy-efficient building, but if they leave all the windows open and the lights on 24 hours a day, it’s not going to be an energy-efficient building.”

STEP, as a complement to LEED, introduces ways of using technology to manage building systems, such as HVAC and lights, in order to make the building more energy-efficient during operation. Moreover, the existence of STEP stands to spur major end users of technology — particularly those with significant sustainability goals, such as the government — to request its use by contractors, subcontractors, and others, causing a domino effect of STEP adoption.

TIA, one the STEP Foundation’s Sustaining Members, has a strong public policy arm. “From a public policy perspective, we think we can get recognition for STEP,” says Herb Congdon, Associate Vice President for Technology & Standards Development at TIA. “STEP gives us the opportunity to take information into the types of programs that the General Services Administration is implementing, for example, so that they’ll recognize the STEP program as a way to identify solutions and vendors that [are sustainable].”

GSA is the federal agency that, among other things, oversees U.S. government buildings. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, $4.5 billion was earmarked to convert GSA buildings to high-performance green buildings. STEP can help.

Q: I’ve heard that attaining LEED certification can be expensive. Will STEP be expensive, too?

A: The short answer is, it depends. “It depends on how long your project is. It depends on how big your project is. It depends on how many STEP credits you’re striving for,” explains Walker.
To run a project through STEP will require paperwork and administration, which may have associated costs. If the project is relatively small and lasts a short time, those costs could be quite low. Obviously, the more STEP projects a company does, the more familiar it becomes with the process, to the point where it’s a natural business process and doesn’t incur added cost at all.

“The first one may cost a lot because you’re creating the templates and the spreadsheets and the methodology,” Walker says. “The second one will cost less, and by the fifth one, you’re opening a template, filling in some numbers, and you’ve complied with a credit.”

On the flip side, very ambitious STEP projects that aim to achieve the highest ratings, including credits for smart building technology, will likely mean more work because it includes major building systems, such as HVAC. But those projects are also the type that could pay for themselves very quickly, generating demonstrable return on investment.

The good news is, the technology systems that go into a STEP project need not necessarily incur higher costs. “That’s the neat thing about this,” says Hansen. “There’s no a lot of extra cost people will need to add to a STEP project. There are so many products already being manufactured that would qualify under STEP.”

“Technology-wise, STEP can actually be less expensive,” explains Walker. “For instance, STEP pushes you to look at reclaimed equipment. What can you reuse that the client already has? Are the racks still good? Will some of the speakers last longer? It rewards you for not just throwing everything out. Obviously, that doesn’t work for many systems. If a company is going to all-digital routing and their existing equipment is analog, that’s justification for replacement. You still get points in the planning phase for considering it and determining you can’t reuse certain equipment. In that way, STEP rewards good intentions.”

STEP also incentivizes the use of multifunction systems that can perform several jobs, rather than a series of single-purpose devices. In that way, a STEP project may cost less than a project that doesn’t take multifunction systems into consideration as a matter of design and planning.

Q: What good is STEP to me in attracting business? How am I going to sell it?

A: Like this: “I was in an interview for a project at Westlake Reed Leskosky,” says Kent, “and the client was very much about sustainability and achieving LEED and it gave me an opportunity to say, ‘Not only can we make the building sustainable, but we also have the opportunity, if you select us, which they did, to make the technology sustainable as well.’ And you could see their eyes light up, thinking, ‘Wow, we didn’t know that existed.’”

LEED is popular because it offers a selling proposition. The International Green Construction Code is in development because people think sustainable building practices should be the norm. Building owners and other clients want and need sustainable solutions. And the fact that technology providers now have STEP could actually help them grow their businesses.

Scott Walker says selling STEP is all about taking conversations with clients to a new level.

“We’re all here because we have customers,” he says. “Without customers, we don’t have an industry. Someone has to buy something from us. So what are the things that either get people to buy more or prevent them from buying less? [Clients] may be under pressure to use less energy and be more sustainable. If you don’t have an answer for them, they may simply buy less. On the other hand, if you want to differentiate yourself from your competitor, you want to be the one leaning into this sustainable future to be a trusted resource for customers.

“We talk a lot these days about dwindling margins and how low you can go. But can you change the conversation with your client? Instead of saying, ‘I’ll sell you that projector for less than I did last time,’ tell them, ‘Let me come analyze how much energy you’re using on this stuff and figure out a way we can save on energy costs.’ A dollar is a dollar at the end of the day. If you can save the client two dollars on the back end, maybe you’re not squabbling about that one dollar on the cost of the projector.”

Q: Is STEP recognized by any accrediting bodies?

A: As of now, it is not. But InfoComm members know that the association is an Accredited American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Standards Developing Organization (SDO) and has already published three ANSI/InfoComm standards. InfoComm and the other Sustaining Members of the STEP Foundation believe in the power of standards.

The good news, according to Allen Weidman, is that up to this point, STEP has been developed in a way that sets in down the path toward ANSI accreditation. The plan, Weidman says, is to begin the ANSI process by 2013. And TIA, which is also an ANSI Accredited Standards Developing Organization, will likely lead the way.

“Documents and programs like this tend to have more legs, more legitimacy as published standards developed through a consensus ANSI process,” says TIA’s Congdon. “While the STEP standards may go through a TIA ANSI process, long-term, the documents may be published as joint standards to increase the exposure for the documents themselves.”

Q: I’m working on a terrific project now that would be perfect for STEP. What can I do?

A: The STEP Foundation is soliciting pilot projects at this very moment. Pilot projects will implement the STEP Rating System and provide the valuable feedback for its long-term development, including the types of case studies required for ANSI accreditation.

If you’re interested in participating as a STEP pilot, first visit the STEP Foundation website to learn as much as possible about the program, including the different levels of STEP certification. Then download the registration form [PDF] and return it to the STEP Foundation. If your project is chosen, you will receive the documents required for tracking STEP credits throughout the process.

Q: What’s next for STEP?

A: There are a couple of significant next steps (pardon the pun) for the STEP program, according to Weidman. First, Sustaining Members from outside the AV industry will develop credits specific to their technologies. This doesn’t mean that a technology provider can’t use STEP in its current form, which includes more than 50 core credits that aren’t specific to one industry. And because AV credits already exist, AV professionals can start learning about STEP and applying its principles right away. As credits are developed for IT, telecommunications, security, and other systems, people can begin to use STEP for other parts of their technology projects.

Second, the STEP Foundation and its members are starting to develop education around the STEP Rating System. “It all comes down to educating the client and making sure that the people doing the education really understand what they’re doing,” says Kent.

At this point in its development, it takes time for an AV professional to get his head around what STEP entails. There’s currently a nearly 200-page STEP Reference Guide [PDF] that details every current STEP credit. The foundation’s Sustaining Members will soon be tasked with developing courses—whether online or in-person—to teach members how to use STEP and achieve individual credits.

Longer term, says Walker, it will be necessary to certify trained STEP professionals through an accreditation program similar to the LEED AP program. But none of this should slow STEP’s considerable momentum. Even as pilot projects are underway, new credits are developed, and technology professionals become proficient in STEP, clients — the ones clamoring for sustainable solutions to begin with — can help advance the process.

“End users can jump into STEP right away,” Walker says. “They’re into it; they’re green. They can simply put into an RFP that they want the AV professionals working on their project to run it through the STEP process. If they have a strong sustainability advocate inside their organization, there’s nothing to stop them from doing it right away.”