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Time to get smart with BMSs

Facilities Management

10/03/22 | Rebecca Drewett

Before the pandemic, many office building landlords and developers didn’t pay too much heed to building management systems (BMSs) – that was for the contractors and the rest of the build team to look after. Paul Bullard of FSI, an MRI Software Company, joins the Property Week panel of industry experts to discuss.

Not any longer, says Dan Drogman, chief executive of Smart Spaces.

“Because of net zero, Covid and the requirement to have fresh air, and because they’re consuming all this news saying ‘you should be investing in technology in your building; it’s incredibly important', fund managers, property managers, or the person developing a property, are now interested in this technology,” he says.

So why was the property industry reluctant to embrace BMS technology, what benefits does it offer and how easy is it to retrofit existing stock, which makes up the vast majority of the built environment in the UK?

Attitudes towards BMSs were slowly changing before the pandemic, but Paul Bullard, business strategy director at MRI Software, says there was a reluctance “across the mainstream industry to deviate from anything other than calendar-based maintenance schedules”.

He adds: “This hesitancy was for many reasons, including facilities service providers’ concerns that innovation and technology threatened the value of a contract in a low-margin industry, and owners and occupiers being driven by traditional industry compliance standards that have been in place for many years.”

The other issue was cost – or, more accurately, return on investment. “A number of our landlord clients were aware of smart building management systems prior to the pandemic, but often felt the cost outweighed the benefit,” says Amy Soar, chief executive of Helix, a Hines company.

“They were seen to only be viable in larger, new builds rather than on refurbishments or operational buildings.

“More simplistic tech, such as occupier engagement apps, which don’t communicate directly with the buildings, were gaining momentum prior to the pandemic, largely due to landlords looking to compete with serviced office providers.”

Moreover, in the run-up to the pandemic, landlords and property managers didn’t need to worry about having this kind of technology in place, because vacancy rates were low and the property industry was in decent shape.

Incentives to change

“There were few incentives to change; it wasn’t necessary to automate things or have the insights and control of a data-backed strategy,” says Sebastian Abigail, principal of VTS.

“For example, it was normal practice for a security guard/receptionist to swipe a visitor into the lift or for an occupier to report issues by speaking to a receptionist on the front desk.”

But as buildings emptied due to lockdown, landlords faced a new set of challenges. “It was uncharted territory and our immediate priority was getting people in through the front door and up to their floor without touching anything or getting close to anyone,” says Abigail.

“This exposed that we needed a new digital access standard that didn’t involve key cards or humans. Contactless digital entry became prevalent and building operations more tech-driven. As people started to come back to the office, more significantly, people wanted to feel safe.”

Frictionless entry

For owners of new builds, much of the technology was already in place to allow frictionless entry to buildings to occur, particularly in larger office blocks of 30,000 sq ft to 50,000 sq ft where tech is commonly knitted into the infrastructure of buildings.

“Across our Hines UK development pipeline, we embrace the opportunity to add smart building technology as part of the base specification,” says Ivan Harrison, director, management services and operations, at Hines UK.

“It’s a relatively small cost against the total development budget, which makes it easier to incorporate; and we recognise the importance of delivering a product to the market that is leading the way in accessibility, efficiency and connectivity.”

Nick Bratt, head of business development at Swish Fibre, says if BMSs and “other smart technology solutions are carefully considered during the planning stage of a development, it is easier to implement them into the build phase, as they can be woven into the fabric of the buildings.

“This is not to say that they cannot be deployed retrospectively or in older buildings, but it does require careful planning to avoid unsightly cables run from different suppliers for example.”

Marcus Moufarrige, chief executive of Ility, agrees, pointing out that hardware and software should be split into separate categories when considering this challenge.

“It’s obviously easier if hardware decisions can be made in a greenfield site than it is retrofitting hardware into a legacy asset,” he says.

“Software has become a very different story. New technology and methodologies have made implementing software not that different for legacy and greenfield sites.”

As with any maturing technology, while originally, the cost of implementing an all-singing, all-dancing system may have been beyond the reach of many landlords – especially owners of small office blocks – the price of these systems has fallen a lot over the years.

“These solutions are also not just reserved for ‘trophy assets’ in city centre locations; the value of this tech is its accessibility and applicability across existing stock,” says James Hallworth, senior associate and head of building technology at Workman.

Cost-effective systems

“Whereas traditional building management systems have been inherently cost-prohibitive for smaller commercial assets, cloud-based, smart building systems can be right-sized and cost-effective for buildings of any footprint.”

The beauty of some of these newer BMSs is they can easily be rolled out across older, existing stock. “In fact, we often see really strong performance applying workplace experience technology in less ‘amenitised’, older buildings,” says Samuel Warren, managing director, UK and Ireland at HqO.

“It’s easier and at times more cost effective than extensive refurbs or speculative delivery of amenities. It has certainly helped drive leasing at older assets where a workplace experience platform is seen as a real value-add to prospective companies. Workplace experience certainly doesn’t have to be the reserve of new assets.”

Drogman says his company does a lot of retrospective work on existing buildings and that the latest generation of ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) sensors, “especially the battery-powered ones, are such an easy retrofit”.

It is a view shared by SPICA Technologies chief executive Tim Streather, who says: “One of the biggest benefits of IoT is how easy it is to retrofit in existing infrastructure. By improving traditional BMSs, IoT provides the flexibility needed for flex workplaces, as well as another level of data granularity to provide deeper insights in a post-pandemic environment.”

The rollout of this type of sensor technology is set to grow rapidly in the coming years. “From speaking with our supply chain partners and MEP consultants, by 2025, an estimated 26 billion connected devices will be in service to provide a better digitised picture on how a building is performing,” says Mike Lewis, senior executive director at MAPP.

“At MAPP, we believe the use of IoT devices will continue to grow because their purpose and outputs so closely correspond to the technology needs of hybrid workplaces.”

The main reason adoption of this type of technology is anticipated to accelerate in the future is the recent focus on ESG, which has helped drive the uptake of BMSs.

“Alongside the pandemic, growing pressure to deliver on things like ESG has only increased the need for BMSs,” says Streather. “Greenwashing will no longer cut it.

“If landlords want to remain relevant and continue attracting and retaining tenants at premium rents, they have to digitise to make meaningful changes, prove their accreditation, and remain competitive.”

Net-zero necessity

Drogman says if building owners want to achieve net zero, they have to put a BMS in place. “If you haven’t got full visibility of how your building is performing, you are never going to be able to optimise it and improve its energy performance,” he adds.

As well as ESG considerations, a BMS also gives landlords and their occupiers a better understanding of office occupation and this data can inform decision-making, says Teresa Lee, vice-president of strategic engagement at Round Hill Ventures.

“For instance, deploying sensors in meeting rooms and on desks will provide an indication of whether the space is near capacity,” she says. “This is key for those who want to ‘hot-desk’ effectively – a trend that has really accelerated with the return to work.”

As a result of the sharp increase in the number of hybrid meetings and employees only working in the office a couple of days a week, “landlords must ensure that technology in offices facilitates working remotely or risk losing valuable tenants both new and old”, adds Lee.

However, while the pandemic has forced many building owners and managers to embrace BMS technology and accelerated the digitisation of real estate, for some people, like Guy Windsor-Lewis, chief executive and founder of Locale Group, this shift is not happening quickly enough.

“Despite clear evidence that a digital framework could support and unite operations, engagement and communication, adoption remains sluggish,” he says. “There is a lot of hot air about digital acceleration in real estate, but this is not really translating into adoption.

“Growth has slowed significantly as property managers, who have typically been the driving force to its adoption, have taken a backseat as they navigate the challenges arising from Covid-19.”

But with occupiers increasingly pushing to get staff safely back into offices more days a week and landlords under growing pressure to up their ESG game, it is surely only a matter of time before BMS adoption rates in the office sector accelerate.