The Covid-19 pandemic has increased demand for contactless solutions and social distancing applications, making intelligent space management a priority. Falling costs and an evolving workplace offering add to an intensified focus on the true value of responsive, data-driven building management tech. Bradford Keen reports.
Covid-19 has revealed two valuable insights so far: remote working is not only possible but favourable for many, and that, despite this, the workplace remains fundamental to organisational culture, collaboration and, for some, wellbeing.
The challenge for businesses, says David Williams, smart places and real estate industry lead at Microsoft, is in providing assurances to those employees returning to the workplace; to balance the amount of space required with the ability to keep that space “safe and healthy”; and to integrate ongoing remote working into the workspace equation. Smarter buildings can help deliver these assurances, says Williams.
He talks of three smart tech focus points for returning employees – human systems, building systems, and communication protocol.
Human systems include access, occupancy and space-booking systems so that employers can guarantee that on-site personnel numbers do not exceed safe limits and prevent unnecessary employee journeys.
Building systems include the typical FM services – cleanliness, noise, lighting, ventilation, air quality, temperature – but ‘smartened’ to, for example, identify which areas have been cleaned and when, monitor air quality and increase ventilation levels to bring in more air from outside.
Finally, it is critical to communicate these solutions so that employees have confidence in the steps their employers have taken to ensure their safety.
Ben Waber, president and co-founder of workplace analytics company Humanyze, narrows the pandemic smart tech focus to “two classes of solutions” – contact tracing and risk assessment.
The former relies on wireless connections through smart ID badges or smartphones to highlight the proximity between people while preserving their privacy. But, says Waber: “The challenge with that is the accuracy level – it’s quite low.”
Technologies for solving the latter are “more useful and interesting” as they can help highlight high-risk populations of building users, and reveal office areas in which social distancing is not being observed.
Companies are also looking at how smart solutions can help them to comply with changing government guidelines. Nick Tidmarsh, consultant, information management systems at Agents4RM, says clients are requesting mobile checklists to guarantee compliance on hygiene, cleaning, the environment and waste management.
“Users run through formal checklists of predefined regulatory requirements and record any issues or non-compliance found for resolution later,” he says. “In addition to the existing objectives of this technology, proactively minimising risk of transmission has become an essential requirement.”
But Tidmarsh also notes increased interest in IoT systems to monitor and automate building energy management.
“Clients are seeing an opportunity to reduce costs whilst there is lowered demand for lighting, heating, etc., in buildings as more employees are working from home. Businesses are seeing this as an opportunity to capitalise on expected changes in behaviour and trends in what will become ‘the new normal’,” he adds.
Tech is better and cheaper
Cloud-based tech accessible through mobile apps has had a profound effect on usability, says Tidmarsh. These better front-end experiences use familiar interfaces, thereby improving engagement and enhancing the integrity of data. The cloud-based system revolution negates the need for on-site infrastructure and can result in lower capital and operational costs, while “clients are also more assured of the rigorous security measures now implemented to protect their data on these remote systems.”
Tidmarsh says AI and machine learning, with their promise of processing larger data sets for more accurate forecasts and insights, will be the next paradigm shift.
Waber asserts that a shift is under way: companies have become “much more intentional” about the technology they deploy and “proactive in their use of data”.
Cost aside, Matthew O’Halloran, director of Smartspaces, says landlords and FM teams are now adopting smart tech to engage more meaningfully with occupiers and to “create a product to meet their own longer-term strategies across portfolios”.
He adds that the need for contemporary workplaces that encourage lease renewals, the convergence of hospitality and workplace with on-demand bookable amenities, healthier environments with good air quality and contactless controls, and greater control for the end user over their immediate environment are all driving uptake.
O’Halloran explains that smart tech data provides “compelling insights” for FM to optimise space and provide relevant community, lifestyle and concierge services – “in stark contrast to the previous workplace app model, that is more akin to a Yell Directory”.
“We are probably about 15 to 20 years away from seeing the level of automation often talked about when discussing smart buildings”
The 5G effect
When fully deployed, 5G data networking will provide the pipe through which to “suck” data from a building, says Williams, while Tidmarsh explains that the improved connectivity will provide “richer analytics using larger data sets”. Greater automation of building systems will be both possible and more affordable through the use of “loosely coupled internet enabled devices (IoT) as opposed to more traditional hard-wired BMS installations”.
The result for FM will be the eradication of network blind spots such as in plant rooms, crawl spaces and other areas that typically fall outside of standard Wi-Fi, 3G or 4G coverage.
“Most mobile apps have the ability to work offline, but this feature requires extra development to ensure data is synchronised correctly and without error,” says Tidmarsh. “This tends to mean that only key mobile app features, such as request management, can work offline. 5G will enable the use of all mobile application features as the user’s device is expected to always be online.”
Smart building technology, along with the gradual roll-out of 5G, presents FM with opportunities. For a start, says O’Halloran, visualisation is becoming much more sophisticated, with digital twin technology combining 3D models, BIM, occupier Cat B fit-out and smart building operating systems with integrated controls to give building engineers insights to “optimise in real time and apply science to the data longer term as AI becomes increasingly available”.
“Where a building is smart but without a digital twin, the same data is available using flat visuals and data via a web dashboard. As the pool of building engineers becomes increasingly smaller, the option for remote access and control over a building’s rules to react and adapt in real time is compelling for large FM companies,” adds O’Halloran.
FMs will also be able to use smart building tech to optimise energy and CO2 levels by, for example, using sensors to enable and disable HVAC in areas based on occupancy levels rather than timed schedules. O’Halloran says integrating the BMS with an app for end users shows them how adjusting air conditioning temperatures, for example, affects energy consumption.
Although the pandemic and factors such as cost and landlord competitiveness are driving the adoption of smart building technology, Tidmarsh thinks “we are probably about 15 to 20 years away from seeing the level of automation often talked about when discussing smart buildings. This may seem conservative to some, but there are still many practical issues to overcome before most buildings have the level of autonomy to be considered ‘smart’”.
Of course, retrofitting smart tech into existing buildings will often be “cost-prohibitive due to the perceived ROI”, Tidmarsh adds. However, this assumption should be routinely tested. The sheer potential value of the IoT and the sensors enabling it will make such work more likely and important in the years to come.
What’s the smart tech best able to support the move out of lockdown?
Matt Gooch, commercial operations manager at Pest Pulse
“Smart sensors that detect pest activity give real-time insight into where problems lie and indicate pest activity.”
Eric Van Bael, CEO at Spacewell
What’s needed is a clear understanding of how workspaces are used in real time, based on “unobtrusive data collection (IoT) and analytics”.
Byron BeMiller, director of marketing (smart building and smart home verticals), Semtech
“Space occupancy measurements can save opex by enabling a predictive cleaning model and by right-sizing leased space. In the era of pandemics occupancy data can also be used to ensure that social distancing guidelines are enforced.”
Paul Sheedy, founder of Unifi.id
Security, cleaning and utilities will benefit from smart technology. Cleaning: “Where based on clear occupancy data, triggers will inform staff where they are needed next.” Utilities: Improved analysis and “the ability to lower aircon, for example, based on the volumes and specific data on floor by floor occupancy”.
Bart Klaver, MD at SALTO KS
“It is important to remember that the term [smart] simply implies that a building is optimised in the smartest way possible. This is manifested in integrations which can streamline your access control with video surveillance, intercoms, management systems etc.”
James Bellingham, head of Digital Buildings, Siemens Smart Infrastructure, UK&I
“IoT platforms capture occupancy data and identify high-traffic areas in the office to prioritise cleaning or close them off. Workplace apps show real-time desk/room availability and allow bookings, so time at the office can be staggered. Scalability is an issue for some solutions, especially with bespoke or in-house development. A modular platform can ensure scalability across real estate portfolios.”
Matthew O’Halloran, director at Smart Spaces
Contactless entry to buildings via end users’ smartphones is “the quickest – and least complicated integration – of the smart building platform that was already available pre-lockdown”.
David Williams is smart places and real estate industry lead at Microsoft
Nick Tidmarsh, consultant, information management systems at Agents4RM
Ben Waber, president of Humanyze
Matthew O’Halloran, director of Smartspaces