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Can Smart Buildings Outsmart Coronavirus?

As Boris Johnson, the prime minister, urges a return to work, could the smart office be the coronavirus-proof solution the UK government has been looking for?

Thanks to social distancing sensors, air quality monitors and fever detection lanes, the new normal can operate as efficiently as the old, advocates argue.

But does the latest approach to master-systems integration really offer the chance to make the post-pandemic workplace hum with life, or is it just another big upfront risk for landlords?

Can Smart Buildings Outsmart Coronavirus?

Manchester is about to get its first seriously smart office, and like so many other landlords, developer Ask Real Estate wants to know if smart technology can help shape the post-pandemic new normal.

Ask has drafted in Smart Spaces, which runs a building operating system and customer-experience app, to rethink 261K SF of offices and 21K SF of retail at the latest nine-storey phase of its First Street development.

“Technology offers a solution to a number of these concerns in addition to helping maintain a sense of community,” Smart Spaces Chief Executive Dan Drogman told Bisnow. “This includes how people enter and exit the building, lift control, control over meeting room spaces and access into areas like washrooms."  

Drogman insists that such systems can alleviate the anxiety of workers returning to the office. His list of wins includes using sensors to judge room capacity and therefore keep control of social distancing, and smart indoor air quality sensors, so property managers can analyse and monitor the levels of airborne particulate concentration. All useful if you want to put employee concerns to rest.

Fever detection lanes could be even more significant, Drogman said.

Artificial intelligence is bringing safety measures to the next level. Pairing speed lanes to fever detection technology, which integrates AI capabilities, provides an effective solution to scanning large numbers of people,” he said. “As high fever is one of the coronavirus’s main symptoms, this measure could potentially prevent affected people from accessing office buildings. The procedure is done in an unobtrusive way, keeping the privacy of people in mind as much as possible.”

“It also means that members of staff don’t have to control, one-by-one, those entering the premises with a handheld thermometer. Feedback shows us that in addition to identifying people with a temperature it also provides people with a measure of reassurance.”

Add this to contactless building entry, alerts via the tenant experience app to inform users who have come into contact with someone infected by the coronavirus, and a community feature to provide things like in-app food ordering to avoid queues, and the new normal begins to feel like something most workplaces could live with.

Can Smart Buildings Outsmart Coronavirus?
First Street, Manchester

If landlords and developers are hesitating, it is because taking the plunge into the latest smart office technology is an expensive leap in the dark.

Speaking as part of the Bisnow webinar on How Technology Is Driving Insight And Profit In Real EstateBritish Land Head of Strategy, Digital and Technology Sally Jones said that with occupiers uncertain, unconvinced or confused, it is up to landlords to take the lead.

“We’re having to make our first investments in smart technology before we know what occupiers want at 100 Liverpool Street [524K SF at London’s Broadgate]," she said. "We have put in the infrastructure and will engage with tenants as they think about fit-out. But we’re still in the early stages. This is very much landlord-lead. In putting in the infrastructure we’re taking a punt on this building.”

For the time being tenant occupiers have plenty of reasons for not being sure what they want, and cautious about more spending. Yardi Regional Manager Paul Orrock told the webinar audience that many are already on the latest of several rounds of investment in new tech infrastructure.

“People ask about the value proposition on implementing smart technology. Of course as people become more attuned to technology in life so they become more attuned to delivering it in the buildings they occupy, but some are on their third or even fourth iteration of their wireless network,” Orrock said. 

He added that most tenants know a good baseline infrastructure allows them to deploy smarter smart solutions. But there is still a cost to face.

Can Smart Buildings Outsmart Coronavirus?
100 Liverpool Street, British Land's new Broadgate offering

Yet as webinar moderator and NODE Technologies principal Christian Anderton pointed out, there is no prize for smartness, only prizes for supporting landlords and tenants in meeting their targets. This source of distrust can hold back investment.

“Relations between providers and occupiers require trust, but that has to evolve,” Anderton said, and the point was picked up by Edge Executive Development Director Bernard Heersche.

Heersche acknowledged the problem, and its effect in slowing down investment in smart building solutions.

“In the early days, when we were doing Unilever’s U.S. HQ, we promised them our smart technology would cut their energy consumption by 50%," he said. "And they said ‘why should we believe you?’ So we guaranteed it, and today their savings have been 75% so we never had to pay out. But we did have to giver them confidence.”

Smart technology is not a panacea, any more than social distancing or face masks. But it can bring reassurance, and for landlords with an eye to the future, it brings the comfort of knowing they have done the best they could.

Back in Manchester, Ask is pleased with its investment. “As First Street continues to expand and we work towards a start on-site later this year, the commitment we have made in introducing Smart Space technology means that on completion, this building will be one of the smartest and most sustainable buildings outside London,” Ask Managing Director John Hughes said.

“We believe that having a smart platform integrated into the design ensures the efficiency and sustainability of a building, both key business drivers for future occupiers.”

Contact David Thame at david.thame@bisnow.com.