The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated interest in smart building technologies, especially for tasks such as building access control, monitoring HVAC systems and tracking density within spaces. And such systems have the added bonus that they can be monitored and managed remotely, lowering the number of property management and facilities management professionals that need to be on site at any one time.
Access control systems restrict who may enter a facility in specified areas. Most technology today relies on touch technology (for example, conference room booking screens). But with new COVID-19 concerns, managers are retrofitting to no-touch systems, including for entry into buildings.
“The most popular building solutions today center around access control,” says Dave Denslow, managing director of global innovation and building solutions at Greystar, a real estate developer. “The industry has accelerated adoption of building-wide access as a result of COVID-19 and we see this trend continuing.”
Indoor air quality sensing has also been high on employees’ lists for some time, says Jim Berry, U.S. real estate sector lead at Deloitte. Due to COVID-19 concerns, this interest has heightened as quality ventilation is an effective strategy for reducing the spread of pathogens in indoor spaces. This has meant increasing the frequency of changing HEPA filters. New tech can help monitor those systems (even off-site) and also provide warnings and reminders to building managers.
Another useful technology in the COVID-19 age is space usage measurement, such as counting the number of employees in a given space. Knowing which rooms have no or insufficient occupancy versus reservation is “incredibly useful,” says Berry.
These systems can indicate how much space is getting used and where changes might be needed as well as alerting managers if too many people are in a particularly area. This is especially important given the renewed focus on people in close contact in indoor spaces as a vector for COVID-19 transmission. In addition, knowing which areas are seeing usage can also be used to optimize cleaning services, add both Berry and Ken Carroll, certified chief architect at Deloitte Consulting.
Many offices are already equipped with smart lighting, which helps conserve energy in the building. Such systems can be embedded with occupancy sensors.
“The short answer is yes, interest has increased a lot,” says Berry. “We are seeing a move away from dense spaces. A significant tool to assist in this are occupancy sensors.”
Kasara Smith, director at Cushman & Wakefield, addst that it is vital for new buildings to have the latest technology in mind when they are designed and constructed. Putting in older systems or not thinking through their integration can prove costly.
Building automation systems are very expensive and challenging to replace due to the number of datapoints throughout a building. For this reason, Smith says upgrading a building automation system was a harder sell before COVID-19, and now it’s even more rare for a building owner to spend up to what could be $1 million on this kind of upgrade, especially if the building is already 100 percent leased and will be for the next couple of years. Smith oversees four office buildings in Washington D.C., with two 100 percent leased and the other two with some vacant spaces. She says. “We are not seeing a high number of potential tenants asking about smart building technologies.
“It should also be noted that before smart building features are brought into a building, a cybersecurity audit is conducted,” says Smith. “It’s necessary to ensure the building automation system, access control system, CCTV system and other technology is not susceptible to cyber-attacks including bad actors seizing control of building systems. An audit will ensure that new software and platforms do not put a building at risk.”
As people return to work and interact with spaces differently, Berry says commercial real estate companies will need to be agile and consider more real-time analyses of changing user preferences and be prepared to adapt, design and redevelop space and tenant engagement strategies as preferences evolve. Exploring digital transformation and the use of technologies to partner with their tenants and end users creates an opportunity to differentiate.
“I believe there will be a shift in the industry where efficiency gained from properly designed building systems will impact both operating expenses and the desire to rent,” says Denslow. “Ultimately, this will impact NOI and the property value to the point where it will become the norm, rather than the exception over the next several years. Effectively designed networks create a solid case for the return on investment which will increase as the solutions in the industry expand to integrate the large control systems.”