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Unified Buildings Key to Post-Pandemic Return to Commercial Property

By Harry Smeenk & Ben Steinberg

The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in the commercial real estate (CRE) market. While traditionally this industry has been slower than others to embrace innovation, it is now leveraging technology at a rapid pace to meet new demands stemming from COVID-19.

The truth is that for most businesses and organizations, continuing to keep their doors closed to customers, students, worshipers and workers is not economically viable long-term. However, the return to commercial buildings is predicated on property owners and managers being able to ensure they are clean, safe, and healthy for everyone, and technology is critical to achieving this.

Current industry estimates indicate 80-85% of workers will return to the office post-pandemic, just as classrooms across the country will eventually welcome back their students, sports stadiums will host fans and parishioners will once again attend in-person religious services.

To help get us to that point, we are witnessing Property Technology (PropTech) companies and their service providers pivot to quickly introduce a new generation of smart building solutions that use Internet of Things (IoT) technologies and advanced data analytics to help deliver healthy air, clean surfaces, enhanced security, touch-free access, integrated, automated control and more.

But the key to all of these new solutions lies in the ability of CRE owners and operators to unify their legacy building systems with new controls, sensors and IoT devices for real-time, seamless access, management and optimization.

The CRE Tech Evolution

Prior to the 1970’s building management systems were local with a simple pneumatic control. While still pneumatic in the 1980’s, electric controls where introduced and the Local Controls era began. This was followed by the introduction and use of computers and distributed digital process controllers across CRE in the 1990’s dubbing it the era of Centralized Controls.

Fast forward and the 2000’s saw the Intelligent Buildings era with the introduction of common in-building communication protocols such as BACnet and LonWorks. These protocols allowed individual devices to communicate back to a central building system.

Over the last decade, Intelligent buildings have transitioned to the “Smart Buildings” of today with central controllers communicating with powerful cloud-based software and Artificial Intelligence (AI) based machine learning applications that can optimize building designs, energy consumption and predict equipment failures before they happen, demonstrating a vast improvement to building management overall. Unfortunately, in 2020, these systems are still disconnected, and sometimes proprietary, leading to multiple applications, silos of data and user frustration.

Today, CRE innovation is truly taking off both in response to new pandemic requirements and the growing number of new Building Internet of Things (BIoT) products and solutions being introduced to enhance a property’s level of efficiency and overall health and safety, such as indoor air quality, automatic lights, HVAC and thermostat controls, alongside analytics and services. When properly designed and implemented, these BIoT technologies help further optimize airflow, monitor and direct space usage, and use occupancy sensors to detect where people are to better determine compliance with social distancing and public health goals.

With thousands of BIoT solutions that optimize a physical space for essential functions and emerging services now available it can quickly become overwhelming for building owners and operators. Sensors have been developed to better manage and control air pressurization, ventilation, filtration, temperature, humidity and air composition, while other solutions provide real-time insights on contaminant risks, UV-C disinfection and cleaning notifications, proactive property protection, occupant behavior and flow reporting.

While these advancements are solving one issue at a time, collectively they have created another overriding issue—the need for a single platform to monitor, manage, and control its growing number of systems and each BIoT sensor and device. Today each solution comes with its own interface, website or mobile app forcing building owners, operators and occupants to jump between tens if not hundreds of different management systems.

It’s worth restating, while these BIoT devices and new systems bring tech advancements to the CRE ecosystem they are disconnected, sometimes proprietary, and while some data is being collected, they are not consolidated and do not offer building and occupant-centric insights that enhance efficiencies and productivity. Instead they create silos of information that must be accessed one at a time. Now is the time for smarter building management and automation systems to evolve to a fully integrated and centralized platform that manages a buildings control systems and BIoT technology, while providing valuable information to occupants to create a truly unified building.

The Next Era of CRE Tech: The Unified Building

A Unified Building copiously connects and integrates all intelligent control systems, components, sensors and connected devices on a single platform to allow seamless access and management, and provides an integrated view of the building on a Single Pane of Glass (SPOG).

But a unified building platform is only the beginning. As massive amounts of data are collected, analyzed and utilized for true AI and machine learning applications, the unified platform becomes the integration and aggregation solution across business, operation technology systems and BIoT devices. This not only replaces traditional building management systems that focus only on energy, security, and other operation technology-related systems, it now expands the overall capability to deliver enhanced occupant productivity and well-being.

Fully integrated and unified solutions such as occupant sensing, hands-free access, temperature screening and other across-the-building services can now be delivered. Real-time sanitation, wayfinding, and location services improve visitor satisfaction and safety. Additionally, workforce-based and logistics applications can help increase productivity and efficiency to improve an occupant’s quality of experience (QoE).

Overall, a unified building can assist building owners and operators to deliver energy efficient and sustainable buildings that positively impact the global environment. Low cost sensors and controls placed everywhere in the building can measure and control temperature, particulate matter, carbon dioxide, humidity, volatile organic compounds and other air flow related items to deliver a total Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) measurement to assure safe air to boost health and wellbeing. Data from these sensors will also provide predicative maintenance information thereby providing improvements to the day-to-day building operations. These efficiencies deliver cost reductions and improve the building’s overall health.

By unifying technologies, devices and systems into a single platform, the next generation of CRE building management systems will look and act very differently. In addition to effectively and efficiently managing the traditional responsibilities of a building management system, the new, unified building will be able to compile and analyze a multitude of new and valuable data in real-time to improve the health and safety and overall experience for occupants.

The benefits will extend far and wide to commercial properties of every kind from office buildings, restaurants and schools, to senior living communities, government buildings, retail shopping centers and more while tenants and visitors alike will see an increase in comfort, security and convenience, not to mention an endless list of essential wellbeing amenity services to satisfy new demands in a post-pandemic society.

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