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Even In Tech-Forward Buildings, The Focus Is Still On The People

Even In Tech-Forward Buildings, The Focus Is Still On The People

For Ross Miller, the promise of artificial intelligence isn’t just that it will make us more productive, but also that it will enable buildings to provide our favorite creature comforts and adapt to our lifestyles.

“When an employee walks into a building, security systems and turnstiles will recognize her, know what floor she works on and dispatch the fastest elevator,” said Miller, who serves as CEO of the Asia-Pacific region with CohnReznick Australia Pty Limited, a subsidiary of CohnReznick. “The facilities management system will know each worker’s meeting schedule, temperature settings and even their taste in morning beverages — coffee, tea or juice.”

These technologies, Miller said, exist today, but the question is: At what point will building owners invest in them and, more importantly, how sophisticated should owners make them?

As members of Generation Z enter the workforce, the expectations about how workplaces should function and support employee needs are evolving. The smart spaces of tomorrow will connect with the people inside to create a personalized, convenient experience. Making that connection will require developers, owners, operators, property managers, investors and tenants to craft a coordinated strategy to deliver a heightened experience.

Intelligent Space Strategy

Typically, when CRE professionals think about return on investment from intelligent buildings, they think about driving down costs: utility systems that save energy by shutting off the lights in empty rooms, security systems that track occupant keycards, freeing up building staff to focus on other tasks.

But building owners also need to think about ROI in terms of driving tenant experience up and differentiating themselves in the market, according to Julie Miner, partner and real estate advisory services leader for the Americas at CohnReznick.

“Today, buildings might have a line of five people at a security desk waiting for a visitor pass — they might be important clients or prospective hires who are looking at the building with a critical eye,” Miner said. “In the future, the calendar invite could embed an access code that allows the visitor to breeze through security with Bluetooth or a near-field connection.” 

But in order to take advantage of those human-centric benefits, Miller said, building stakeholders will have to begin with an “Intelligent Space” strategy. First, organizations need to ask why they want to invest in being “intelligent,” then consider the outcomes they expect to receive from the investment. Only when these questions are well understood, Miller said, can building stakeholders start discussing how to go about making investments. 

Intelligent buildings employ an array of sensor-based technologies that enable more efficient energy consumption, facilities management and predictive maintenance. These sensors generate huge volumes of data that can be used to track customer behavior, understand product preferences and automate the operation of facilities and plants. At their peak, these intelligent systems can be used to drive interactions, not only within a building but also between all the people who move throughout it. 

“Real care needs to be taken with this data, not just in terms of data privacy, but to ensure that it is well understood and managed,” Miller said. “To operate a building, you don’t just need big data, you need big decisions.”

Even In Tech-Forward Buildings, The Focus Is Still On The People

Innovate To Integrate

The only way intelligent systems work is if all of a building’s processes and technologies are orchestrated seamlessly. Disparate systems need to be integrated in order to deliver personalized services for occupants.

“The real opportunity lies in being able to orchestrate process across multiple systems,” Miller said. “This integration needs to not only be north-south, from the building management systems, but also east-west, that is, to the supporting systems, which have data that is needed to inform the automation of process.”

When a repeat guest checks into a hotel, for instance, the room thermostat should automatically set to her preferred temperature. While that task may sound simple, Miller said, it requires integrating many separate technologies, including customer relationship management, enterprise resource planning and geographic information system software, not to mention the building's physical access control and HVAC systems.

Another essential component to integrate technologies is building information modeling, or BIM, which creates a digital representation of a facility, including its physical and functional characteristics, and maps out all its infrastructure, systems and data points. A BIM model, for instance, would identify all structural conduits in office ceilings and allow owners to more efficiently install new electrical wiring or repair a leak in fire sprinkler systems. 

Currently, Miller said, BIM models are used extensively in the design and construction process but then often filed and forgotten. But the opportunities for using BIM as an enabler to facilities management are huge.

“BIM is really the link between the physical and digital worlds,” Miller said. “Stakeholders need to use it throughout the building’s life cycle, from architectural design to demolition.” 

Putting People At The Forefront

As they adopt new technologies, property companies must ensure that the human element of smart building design is not subjugated to technology. 

Though many developers and vendors say they are able to build in the intelligence that workers and consumers have come to expect, very few have done so on a large scale, Miner said. 

Rather than invest right away in a single technology solution that seems attractive, companies would do better to build out a holistic, human-centric strategy that carefully integrates digital services and facilities. The strategy should also consider the organization’s aspirations: Some companies want to be more sustainable than their peers, while others are looking for the highest returns. This blending of corporate goals with human-centric design is the key to achieving the desired ROI, Miner said.

“The starting point for any investment in building technology is to know what you are trying to achieve and why,” Miller said. “Today, too many companies delay the thinking about the technology needed to drive the building until well into the design phase. Yet the real benefits can be unlocked by moving the discussion to the concept phase.”

Companies’ best starting point, Miller said, will be to objectively set a strategy from the driving principles of the business, understand the outcomes that are being sought, then assess the current state of their digital assets and processes. While many companies have come around to the idea that technology will change every aspect of their business, others are reticent to learn to balance technical innovation with humanity.

The result, Miller said, is a delicate balance between overinvesting in technology that will generate no ROI and stagnating while competitors embrace technology and change.

“Developers must embrace change as an opportunity, not a threat,” Miller said. “A focused Intelligent Space strategy helps ensure that smart-building investments result in real value, spark innovation and deliver new levels of intelligence.”

This feature was produced in collaboration between Bisnow Branded Content and CohnReznick. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.