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What role can smart buildings play when we come out of lockdown?

Concept Evolution

11/05/20 | Rebecca Drewett

FSI Canada's JB (Jon) Benjamin joins the Vox Pop panel in the latest edition of Smart Buildings Magazine to discuss.

Workplace wellbeing will be more important than ever when returning to the office. Ensuring occupiers’ wellbeing and safety is paramount to productivity, moral and business continuity.

Smart technologies such as room booking management systems, video conferencing and sound masking, are integral to ensuring a comfortable and productive working space, particularly if social distancing measures continue.

Room booking management systems can work with sensors to give facilities managers real-time analytics of office spaces, desks, meeting rooms and social spaces. You can set maximum capacity settings, as well as increase workspace utilisation, link to cleaning schedules, and improve productivity.

Video conferencing is already on the rise due to remote working, but video conferencing suites in the office will transform the way that we connect, offering more intuitive and immersive ways to communicate and collaborate. With the use of technology in video devices, we can gather insights that could alter the way we approach offices and meeting spaces.

Moving onto workplace wellbeing within the office, creating a calming workplace is going to be important to ensure the wellbeing and health of employees. Sound masking intertwined with sensors and natural sounds creates a serene soundscape for your employees to escape from the stresses of work when needed.

Penelope Harrall, marketing lead, Remark Group

During this unprecedented time, the entire globe is dealing with a common challenge on how to bring people back into commercial buildings safely. Commercial office space consumes the largest real estate footprint, and today these spaces are nearly empty. Currently, playbooks are being written by consultants, manufacturers, and governments on how to return to our workplaces.

These playbooks most often share a common thread regarding the continuation of social distancing and a hyper-awareness around personal hygiene. These playbooks fall short on how people are safely traveling to/from their workplaces.

How do you maintain social distancing on public transportation? Sure, this may not be a problem if you can drive your vehicle to work, but in cities like London, New York, Paris this may not be an option unless an individual is willing to put themselves at risk of possible infection. An option to adhere to social distancing and self-isolation while maintaining a productive workforce is to provide a flexible workplace experience.

For weeks we have created a new “workplace normal.” Working from our bedrooms and kitchen tables, we will come out of this realizing, we still can have productive organizations with remote workers.

The building will become a tool, not a necessity. However, many organizations need their facilities and the workforce to support their services. Reducing and monitoring overall building occupancy is the first critical step to transition people back into buildings slowly.

We can’t police social distancing effectively, but if overall occupancy is reduced, even temporarily, it offers peace of mind to the occupants. Over time as the confidence levels rise with building occupants, the dependence on technology will enable organizations to embrace the new way of working.

Jim Phelan, and his position is Director of Smart Buildings Business Development, True Occupancy by irisys

What the lockdown has taught us is that – for the majority of usually-office-based workers – it is not actually difficult or any less productive to work from home. The old “nine to five” mentality has been gradually ebbing away over the past few years and the current pandemic situation will only help to accelerate this trend.

The cost of a single desk space costs anything up to £18,000 per annum, so is it really necessary, or cost effective, to expect staff to be at their desks for eight hours a day, five days a week? Of course, offices need to be heated, cooled, ventilated and lit; the vast majority of building management systems will undoubtedly continue to consume similar amounts of energy regardless of occupancy levels. It’s frightening to think how much energy is currently being wasted since the office doors were locked and everyone disappeared. Did the last person to leave turn the lights off and the thermostat down?

Only a small minority of BMS systems will be linked to occupancy level measurement. Intelligent hot-desk and meeting room booking systems will give insights into how many people are expected to be on site at any particular time and, linked with people-counting sensors, historic occupancy pattern data, environmental measurement sensors and weather data it is quite easy to estimate what will be required of the BMS to ensure accurate levels of comfort for those working in the building.

These hardware and software systems already exist but perhaps are only used in conjunction with a specific element of the BMS, PIRs and Lux sensors for automatic lighting control being the obvious example. The truly smart building will make use of all available information and will use it to inform a truly integrated and holistic BMS. It’s just annoying that most modern buildings will contain most of these devices in some shape or form, but no one has joined them up. Perhaps our newly-acquired flexible working patterns will eventually lead to flexible building controls?

Karl Walker, market development manager, Beckhoff Automation

Building management systems are integral to optimising a building’s performance, particularly in terms of energy efficiency and reducing overheads. But as we look ahead to how buildings function post lockdown, building operators and managers can use this time to think about how smart buildings can enhance the safety of those occupying the building.

In the wake of high-profile incidents, quite rightly, people have become more aware of emergency building systems, and are more demanding about the necessary preventative measures being put in place. In terms of emergency lighting, a system that is robust and fully compliant with regulations such as BS 5266 is essential. But so too is a configuration that allows end-users to make regular checks and ensure that the system remains ‘fit for purpose’.

Increasingly, the view is that this can only be achieved by having a unified network infrastructure that allows all devices to be monitored continuously, and any potential failures to be reported at the earliest possible opportunity.

It is for precisely these reasons that KNX has become so integral to many major construction projects. Designed for a wide variety of commercial and domestic building automation applications, KNX allows systems including lighting, HVAC, security, AV and displays to be controlled and managed using the same open standard communications protocol. At a time when even major names in the lighting world are withdrawing support for their propriety systems – leaving thousands of customers with useless, unsupported technology – the case for an open, future-proofed system, such as KNX has never been stronger. It is for this reason we have adopted an open approach to building management protocols.

A consistent baseline of capabilities means that KNX can bring a welcome new level of reassurance. Moreover, it can provide users with greater flexibility and control over their emergency lighting systems – both viewed individually and within the context of overall building safety. As well as enabling more highly detailed fault reporting, this approach also makes it considerably easier to expand or amend existing systems as requirements evolve.

By integrating technology into building management systems, it will enhance overall building safety and bring peace of mind to building owners, operators and users post lockdown.

Dave Watkins, director, Abtec Building Technologies

Designed to keep their occupants safe and productive, smart buildings will play an important role for workers once lockdown measures are eased. Smart buildings are ready-made to integrate new technologies that could add an important layer of protection post-lockdown.

Body thermal detection technology is one such measure that could be implemented in smart buildings, acting as an out-of-the-box extension of an existing CCTV system. The cameras use facial recognition to act as a first-line filter, identifying those entering premises who may have an elevated body temperature. This is then flagged to operators to take appropriate measures, such as seeking medical advice.

It has one simple goal: to play a part in limiting the spread of COVID-19 and keep people safe. The technology is useful in limiting the spread of infection among workers and customers, but it's no silver bullet – it cannot prevent the spread of the virus. Rather, the technology helps to identify people most likely to infect those around them, one small step in the many it will take to protect the public.

“Under current circumstances, it plays an important role in enabling continuity at key facilities. But once offices and other venues begin to reopen their doors, we’ll likely see this technology used more widely as an important addition to the roster of protective measures keeping people safe.”

Tim Raynor, video product manager at Johnson Controls

Smart buildings are allowing facility managers to remotely manage lighting, appliances, electricity, water, gas and thermostat controls from their homes instead of coming into the building each day for status checks. This important ability to manage buildings from afar goes even further when you look at it from an industrial perspective.

Industrial buildings maintaining factory equipment can also be remotely controlled along with factory equipment and other critical operational equipment employees need from afar to keep the work flow during the lockdown period. For example, our company uses IoT technology to track smart thermostat readings in our engineering labs to prevent failures or faults of machinery during the absence of human operators.

IoT technology also enables us to run regression testing on our wireless hardware products using automated testbenches. Without IoT connectivity, an engineer would need to visit the lab, potentially risking infection.

By leveraging the new advancements in IoT and smart building technologies, many companies are able to manage buildings from afar along with managing the crucial equipment inside the buildings. These important capabilities allow employees to continue their work from their own homes, something that even ten years ago would not have been possible.

Ross Sabolcik, vice president and GM of industrial and commercial IOT products, Silicon Labs

A week ago, I read an interesting interview with leading Harvard University professor Dr Joseph G Allen. He argues that buildings should be commissioned and regular checks made. He said: “You wouldn’t board an airplane that didn’t have regular maintenance.” But, as we all know, many buildings simply don’t get an annual check-up.

I think we need to see many more building owners and managers investing in commissioning agents to check basic safety systems and to make sure building are bringing in enough fresh air, that filters are the correct ones, and that they are installed correctly.

We know that COVID-19 is an airborne virus. So, need to really get a grip on making buildings safer through much better air handing. I am quite sure that smart technology from companies like Priva will see a much greater demand for tech that monitors filters (thereby sending alarms back into the BMS). And, I’m also sure that there will be a need for some form of directional monitors (intelligent supply air grill) to ensure airflow doesn’t affect building users - whether it’s in an office or a hospital or a school.

To get people back to work and feeling safe - this is going to be a massive part of the solution.”

Gavin Holvey. UK & Ireland sales manager, Priva

In a time of unparalleled uncertainty, all businesses need the ability quickly adapt to legislative and markets changes.

A smart, connected building is a vital component of a flexible business strategy. Not only can a smart building system optimise energy use and aid social distancing through occupancy sensors, but it enables remote diagnostics and analytics to predict future failures before they happen, reducing maintenance costs and ‘on-site’ time.

Especially in critical applications like hospitals and schools, smart buildings will play a vital role in coming out of lockdown as efficiently and safely as possible.

Kas Mohammed, VP of Digital Energy at Schneider Electric

A truly smart building can adapt to multiple work patterns.

When we come out of lockdown and return to our places of work we may still be required to carry out social distancing. This will have an impact upon the numbers of people in offices and the way in which an office is occupied. This may also may vary across the working day and week . An office whose heating system and lighting control can adapt quickly and easily to those new patterns and numbers will be an asset for the owner. This should lower cost overheads for a company at a time when money and cashflow control will be essential.

The owner of a building which can adapt to revised work requirements will be in a stronger position to offer companies the workplace that will meet these new workplace needs.

Paul Foulkes, KNX Business Manager Theben UK, KNX UK President

Reopening after an extended period where a building has been unoccupied may seem like a daunting task. With FSI’s CAFM/IWMS solution, combined with IOT partner technology from companies such as Planit Measuring and Inpixon, the task list and maintenance required to reopen your building can be greatly simplified.

From the use of sensors within the plumbing infrastructure to ensuring pipes and valves are flushed, to detecting leaks, problem areas and real time monitoring of waterways for Legionella are just a few examples. Tracking energy utilization as the building returns to optimal occupancy may help identify machinery and assets which may require extra TLC after being under-utilised for extended periods.

In the new post Covid-19 age, the use of technology to track not only assets and cleaning regimes but people it vital. It will continue to be paramount that building owners and FM providers are able to track real time movement of staff and visitors both for focused cleaning as well as infection control in the case of a visitor or staff member becoming ill. Knowing who has been in your building and who they have encountered will rapidly become the new norm not only in the healthcare space but throughout the FM industry. It now becomes as important to track staff and visitor movements within a building as tracking key assets such as ventilators in the healthcare space. Air quality testing and positive air flow are a few other examples of how a smarter building can make the work in FM less manpower dependant, managing the building by exception from sensors, rather than by manual tasks only.

In North America and around the world we are seeing sudden and growing demand for blue dot positioning and accurate historical reporting of people movement even more so than asset movement and location. We expect this trend to automate critical sensors to continue as more organisations implement IOT with FSI’s CAFM/IWMS solutions to meet the new and often time consuming demands of this brave new world and the new normal of doing business and managing buildings.”

JB (Jon) Benjamin, Regional Vice President, FSI Canada

Companies can use building occupancy data to help get their employees back to work safely and help them reduce costs after lockdown.

At this unprecedented time, it is vitally important to work out how their spaces are being used and how they can adapt to the new situation they find themselves in. The focus will be on cutting costs spent on unoccupied office space and ensuring staff adhere to strict social distancing measures.

Occupancy analytics will help businesses determine which square footage is already vacant and could be cut. With the possibility of more people continuing to work from home, some offices could find themselves only 60% occupied but paying for 40% they don’t need. Placing occupancy sensors in conference rooms, under desks or on chairs can provide business owners with the data they need to make decisions.

A further development is the ‘People Counter’, an intelligent occupancy sensor that has been reprogrammed to not just look at occupancy levels but to look at how many people are in a space at any given time. Not only does this tell you whether a space is occupied but gives an approximate figure of how many people are in that room. The sensor measures infrared light and when programmed accordingly, will inform of the approximate number of people in that room. If there are more than should be in any given space, then an alarm will be set off. Following lockdown and the gradual return to the workplace, this sensor will be invaluable to ensure that there are the correct number of people in any given space to make sure social distancing is adhered to.

Maintaining workplace hygiene will be vital after lockdown and the smart restroom concept will also get a lot more attention. Placing sensors on soap dispensers and hand sanitisers that determine the fill level will automatically notify the maintenance staff as soon as the threshold value is exceeded and need refilling. Also, by utilising door contact sensors to establish how often the restrooms are being used will prompt staff to clean the room as needed. Self-powered wireless sensor solutions bring another big advantage: due to not requiring any cables or batteries, the smart devices are maintenance-free, minimising maintenance effort while increasing cost reduction.

After lockdown, smart buildings will help play a role in reducing costs for unused office space and maintaining a safe workplace that ensure measurements are in place to assist social distancing and hygiene control, which in turn will reassure employees.

Graham Martin, Chairman & CEO EnOcean Alliance

The owners and operators of commercial buildings with BeMS systems are bringing benefits both during and after the Corona Virus lockdown.

There are many features within the modern BMS that are being used to achieve this:

  • Though we may be working remotely, there often remains a high dependency of support services from offices and factories; computer suites that are remotely accessed is an obvious example.
  • In some instances, we hear of office staff maybe working remotely but warehouse or factory personnel are still satisfying customer demand. In these instances, and where building services allow, the BeMS will be scheduling main plant to only serve the occupied areas and zones – avoiding energy wastage in unoccupied spaces.
  • The monitoring and supervision of plant allows maintenance resource to be prioritised to address the urgent failures soonest. Automatic change-over of duty and standby plant can ensure plant remains operational in the case of failure.
  • The periodic exercising of pumps and valves can help ensure water systems do not silt-up. This settlement of undissolved solids can cause failures on restart.
  • Though the risk of frost or freezing may have passed, low overnight temperatures can cause condensation to occur internally. By sensing this and instigating protection strategies, the BeMS can prevent damp and damage occurring.
  • The BeMS can keep the unoccupied or partially occupied building ticking-over, saving energy and maintenance costs.

If these precautions have been taken and the HVAC services properly regulated, we should see a smooth start-up and our plant ready to serve for when we are all allowed back to work.

Terry Sharp, president, BCIA

Not wishing to sound too high-brow, I read an article in the Financial Times recently written by the author Arundhati Roy called ‘The pandemic is a Portal’.

It’s an interesting, well written article and basically suggests that pandemics have always happened and they always force humans to break with the past and think differently. She doesn’t see this C-19 pandemic as being any different and views it as a ‘portal’ between one world and the next. There are two choices to make; we either walk through it dragging our ‘dead ideas, our dead rivers and smokey skies’ behind us, or, we walk through light on our feet with little luggage ready to imagine another world.

Think for a moment how, in the past month, we have adopted and positively engaged with online meetings and document sharing. When we get further down this path and eventually get a glimpse of the light at the end of the portal, will we all jump back in our cars and drive to meetings or will we walk lighter and adopt this seemingly new-found technology that has been available to us for years? Perhaps the reason we haven’t adopted it before is because there was no reason to break with the past.

Smart buildings fit into this very same category; the technology and capability has been there for some time, what is needed now is the engagement. This new world of ‘smarter working’ will demand smarter buildings that are efficient, effective and flexible – this is what smart buildings do.

Jon Belfield, immediate past president, BCIA

As we return to our buildings, I believe we'll see a focus on ways automation systems can help keep people stay safe and perhaps more importantly, give them peace of mind.

I believe we'll see more people counters and CO2 sensors to ensure there are not too many people in a given space. You may also see public-facing dashboards showing indoor air quality data. I've even heard some people discussing using body temperature scanners to identify building occupants who may have a fever.

Scott Holstein, Director, Marketing & Business Development, Computrols, Inc.

During the period of the lockdown ABB Smart Buildings has completed the acquisition of Cylon Controls, which provides a complete Building Management System (BMS).

This was the missing link in our ability to provide an end to end solution to our customers. As we emerge from the effects of COVD-19 ABB Electrification will be able to combine our distribution products with world class Building Management, Energy Saving and Automation products that will satisfy the demands of a new low carbon, digital based economy

David Lowen, Product Marketing Director, Smart Building, ABB

With an increased focus on health and safety, smart building technology supports sanitary environments and prevents the spread of illness.

This technology includes thermal cameras to perform body temperature scans; motion detectors or people counters to indicate high traffic areas that would require more frequent cleaning; and conference room reservations systems that generate notifications of occupancy limits based on room size.

Wade Leipold, vice president of solutions, Faith Technologies

The Coronavirus crisis has shown the importance of reliable mobile coverage and high-speed internet access inside any residential property, not only because they underpin all homeworking infrastructures, because they have given society some semblance of normality during these difficult times by allowing friends, family and colleagues to remain in regular contact.

Mobile traffic in particular has peaked over the last few weeks, with the GSMA reporting a 50% increase in some European countries.

Access to a good mobile phone signal has become even more important as it provides the single point of contact required by business users and a voice quality not achievable via WiFi and broadband (WiFi is prone to clipping and call dropping). The US has seen a surge in voice traffic too, AT&T, for example reported a 44% increase in just one week.

The aftermath of Covid 19 is likely to lead to fundamental changes, particularly consumer attitudes and expectations towards homeworking. Lockdown has highlighted that, given the right tools, devices and platforms, many employees can be as productive working from home as they can in an office environment, if not more so.

Equally, organisations that have actively avoided or discourage the concept for fear of motivational issues have been forced to rethink their attitudes and a U-turn could have many negative repercussions. Uninterrupted access to mobile and home broadband services inside any building should be a right, not a privilege, and moving forwards, the construction industry will need to make sure that both are factored into any new building project, along with smart heating, smart security and other smart home applications. Since Ofcom relaxed the rules concerning the installation of equipment to enable ubiquitous mobile coverage, this is something that can be easily incorporated into any new development.

Colin Abrey, vice president, international sales EMEA at Nextivity

It is reasonable to assume that the coronavirus, and the restrictions imposed to fight the spread of the virus, will stay with us for a considerably long time.

On the other hand, the pressure to get “back to normal” and re-open businesses and schools will continue to increase. Communities and businesses will therefore have to adopt new ways of conducting everyday life and work. The latest technologies for smart buildings can play an important role in achieving the right balance between getting back to work and maintaining precautions.

One example is exercising social distancing in buildings. Technologies which use sensing, AI and communication to determine the presence and the number of people in a given space can be used to warn against overcrowded meeting rooms, lobbies and other areas, as well as insufficient distances between individuals. These technologies already exist, as I am aware of at least one member of the ULE Alliance who has developed such a solution.

Avi Barel, board member of the ULE Alliance