Heat Mapping, Contact Tracing, Sensor Grids: The Tech That Will Empower Office Returns
As Americans debate when to return to offices, schools — or, for those who retreated to the country when the pandemic hit, their apartments — commercial real estate stakeholders are scrambling to find ways to give tenants, and themselves, the peace of mind to bring people back through those doors with confidence.
But business-as-usual cleaning and sanitization methods aren’t going to be enough to keep people safe. Developers and owners also need to brainstorm ways to encourage social distancing and protect their buildings for whatever new challenges the future may hold. This is where a mix of new — and not-so-new — technology comes in.
“Digital building systems may seem like they have just sprung up, but these technologies have been utilized by data centers and government sectors for decades now,” Lighting Environments CEO Erin McDannald said. “Companies are now just coming in and perfecting it to meet our current needs.”
McDannald and her team have launched a new practice, simply called Environments, which is focused on honing existing tech tools and creating new ones to help stop the spread of viruses in CRE properties. Bisnow recently sat down with McDannald to learn more about the tools her team is developing and how owners and developers can keep people safe from both the dangers of today and whatever the future may bring.
Bisnow: Outside of a vaccine, what do you think it will take for tenants to feel comfortable returning to a large office building?
McDannald: I think it all comes down to two words: proven solutions. Developers and owners need to show tenants that they have implemented solutions that have been proven to mitigate dangerous pathogens in a space. Thankfully, we are seeing promising evidence that our technology can do just that.
Right now, we are working with a company in Texas that is using Ultraviolet light, or UV-C, push carts and UV-C air treatment systems to mitigate pathogens in their space. This company has been operating throughout the pandemic and their 300 workers have not been practicing social distancing. Five of their workers came in while they were infected with COVID-19, but there has been no person-to-person spread of the virus. These are the kind of positive results we’ve been seeing that will hopefully make people feel more comfortable returning to the office.
Bisnow: What tools do you have that can help developers keep buildings safe and sanitized on a long-term basis?
McDannald: I mentioned some of our UV-C technologies, which include tools that can be installed in HVAC systems to help clear the air of pathogens and UV-C portable fans to keep air churning. We also offer air quality monitoring systems that can provide real-time insight into a building’s air quality and can be automated to exchange air in and out of a building faster during times of high pollution.
But cleaning and monitoring the air is only part of the problem. You also need to monitor where people are congregating. We have contact tracing and heat mapping sensors that allow you to assign tags to people and see where they go in a building and who they’re grouping together with. This way, if someone is sick we can know what rooms they spent time in and who they were within 6 feet of so we can tell them to quarantine. We can view this information with the click of a button while maintaining employee anonymity.
These sensors can also be used to create cleaning maps that let cleaning staff know which heavily trafficked areas they should focus on, and lets people know if cleaning staff has visited a room recently so they can determine if it’s safe to go in.
We also have mass temperature screening technology that can detect if someone has an elevated body temperature and alert them.
Bisnow: People want to feel safe collaborating with their co-workers. What tools can help them feel more confident in their day-to-day interactions?
McDannald: It’s an awkward time to be in an office. You want to collaborate with your team but you also want to adhere to social distancing measures without having to say to co-workers, ‘Please step away from me.’ This is why we offer tools that can be installed on your phone that beep when you’re standing too close to someone, which takes the responsibility of always knowing if you’re 6 feet apart or not off of individuals.
We also have a number of touchless office solutions to keep people from having to manually open doors or press elevator buttons. Instead, they can control them on their phones, or owners can even program sensors that will automatically open the door based on a person’s identification using facial recognition, voice commands, or even using electronic health screening criteria.
Bisnow: When the coronavirus came, almost everyone was unprepared. How can technology help developers and architects prepare for future unprecedented events?
McDannald: Our system consists of a grid of sensors that track everything from air quality and temperature, to people mapping and contact tracing, to lighting, sound and more. Once you have the infrastructure in place, you can easily add on new sensors with new functions, and integrate new software to adapt as needed. All it takes is a software update to decipher the data in different ways. Last year we were tracking gunshots, this year we're introducing sensors to help mitigate pathogen threats among interior spaces.
Also, these systems offer benefits that go beyond crises and pandemics. Heat mapping tools allow owners to see which parts of their buildings are being used more frequently than others, which can help them make informed decisions about how to heat and cool a space more efficiently, or even let them know if they should be helping tenants look for more or less space. Many of these systems pay for themselves in two years or less through both energy savings and the data insights owners can derive from them. We’re not just focused on solving the problems of today, but planning for the future as well.
This feature was produced in collaboration between the Bisnow Branded Content Studio and Environments. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.