Can Smart Save the Post-Covid Office?

Digital technologies can enable healthier, safer, more efficient buildings – and leverage assets that owners may not realise they have

June 2020

Words by Katie Puckett

Covid-19 has presented some profound challenges to the office as we know it, from how commercial buildings can operate safely in the event of a pandemic to whether anyone will still want to go to work when they can collaborate with colleagues around the world from home. In this series, WSP has considered the post-pandemic office from many angles, and we’ve found that many people do still see enduring value in a workplace where they can come together and exchange ideas in person. But it’s also clear that there are many things that could be improved – to make offices safer, more productive, more inspiring places to be.

Smart building technologies can support this in many ways, from enabling transparent, data-driven building management to creating a compelling, frictionless experience for employees and guests. Next week, we’ll explore the emerging solutions that will transform the way the office looks and feels, and turn it into an essential destination for collaboration. But first, we need to tackle the fundamentals of operating in a post-Covid-19 world – the concerns that building owners must address before anyone will be prepared to come back at all. Some of the changes that we have to implement may be temporary, such as limiting occupancy of spaces to maintain physical distancing. Others around hygiene and reducing touchpoints may become permanent, as we internalize new behaviours. When we haven’t touched a door handle without slathering on hand sanitizer for months or perhaps years, will we ever really feel comfortable touching one again? Once enhanced cleaning becomes the norm, why would we lower our standards?

Smarter buildings are safer buildings in many ways, offering greater transparency about who is in them, how they are used and how well they are functioning. As occupiers reassess both the size of their footprint and the quality of their space, owners that can’t provide this will find themselves on the back foot, says Colin O’Gallagher, senior associate and smart building consultant at WSP in New York. “Landlords are receiving a lot of questions from tenants about how their building is going to be made safe, how it’s going to be disinfected and how that information is going to be communicated. I think there will be a dramatic shift towards deploying smart building technologies to gain a competitive edge, to either attract new leasing or to keep existing tenants.”

"There will be a dramatic shift towards deploying smart building technologies to gain a competitive edge"

Colin O’Gallagher, WSP

None of this is at the bleeding edge

The new, better normal is about familiar technologies in a through-the-looking-glass world. Up until now, features like touch-free entry or occupancy sensors have been nice-to-haves, found on a handful of brand-new exemplars or flagship retrofits, and implemented for a very different purpose. Now health is replacing hospitality as the primary motivation, and instead of optimizing for ever higher densities, we will need to set strict limits on occupation.

Covid-19 has given new impetus to a movement that has been in the wings for decades, believes Jim Whalen, chief information and technology officer at Boston Properties. “The term ‘smart building’ has been around for 20-plus years and the industry is still in the first or second innings. There are buildings with smart technologies, not smart buildings.” In February, Whalen gave a keynote speech on the next decade for property technology, or proptech. Reviewing it just a few short months later, he thinks that the key themes still hold true but the emphasis has changed: “Prior to Covid, links between healthy office environments and the productivity of your talent were beginning to enter design conversations based on emerging science. Now healthy buildings have taken on a completely new and elevated significance.”

The paradigm may have changed, but that doesn’t necessary mean the hardware has to. In many cases, making a building smarter involves reconfiguring existing systems, exploiting their functionality for another purpose, or using the data they produce in a different way, to support new business needs. Greatest attention has focused on the entrance, lobby and elevators, as the areas with the highest levels of traffic and the frontline of defence against infection. Employers will be able to use smart solutions to limit the number of people coming into the office on a given day, something we’ll consider next week. But as a back-up and to prevent too many people entering at peak times, an access control system can be set to stop the turnstiles from operating once a certain threshold is reached. For one client, O’Gallagher has discussed linking the access control system into presence sensors in the lobby and the elevator banks, as well as the automatic front doors. Then when a set occupancy level is reached in either or both spaces, the entrance doors and turnstiles can lock until they have cleared out. “We could also leverage the digital signage to trigger a notification so people know the door isn’t broken,” he says. “They’re the kind of discussions that we’re having right now, looking at the existing systems that we’re already putting into buildings and augmenting and integrating them to create safer and more informed environments for the landlords and the occupants.”

Where systems are already installed and integrated, programming in this additional functionality is relatively straightforward. But it will depend on what systems a building already has and their current level of sophistication: “It’s going to be a pretty wide range from one project to the next depending on the physical footprint of the systems, the desired functionality and how many we’re tying together.”

"Healthy buildings have taken on a completely new and elevated significance"

Jim Whalen, Boston Properties

How do we make entrances touch-free?

Creating a completely touch-free experience is much more involved, and something few owners will have chosen to invest in before Covid-19. Automatic doors, turnstiles and elevators could all be set to interface with personal devices, to authenticate someone, let them in, summon the elevator and tell them which one to board for their floor.

“It’s not VC-backed brand-new technology, it’s all stuff that has been around forever, it’s just that nobody needed to put it all together in that package and it’s not cheap to do so,” says Jonathan Flaherty, senior director, sustainability and utilities at Tishman Speyer. Flaherty has overseen one such project, on Tishman Speyer’s corporate headquarters in New York. This involved upgrading the access control system, turnstiles and guest registration system, originally installed just after the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. “For that type of equipment, 20 years is a reasonable lifespan and the technology has changed enormously,” says Flaherty. “Now I can email you a QR code and you can use that on your personal device to open the turnstiles.” There is also provision to link the turnstiles to the elevator dispatch system: “In the future, you’ll tap your badge or show your code, and it will not only open the turnstiles, but call the elevator and tell you which one to go to.”

Flaherty says that they will now look at rolling out the same technologies through the rest of its portfolio, depending on the age of the building and the solutions currently installed. “We buy buildings as well as building them for ourselves, so you get all sorts of diverse systems, and it’s hard to get that perfect, seamless experience. But anything we’re planning on holding for any period of time, we’re going to look at that as soon as we can.”

This does take time, not least because any failure of an access control system can very quickly become a customer nightmare. Boston Properties has been piloting and implementing touchless access solutions for several years: “You just don’t turn the switch,” says Whalen. “The technology is getting there, but it’s going to take time to meet the requirements of certain use cases. In a large multi-tenant building, you can have thousands of people coming through a set of turnstiles in an hour, so you need absolute reliability and performance.”

"It’s all stuff that has been around forever, it’s just that nobody needed to put it all together in that package"

Jonathan Flaherty, Tishman Speyer

A mesh of sensors: the new essential

Beyond the entrance, a mesh of sensors throughout a building can support a whole range of use cases. In a Covid context, as well as identifying when there are too many people in a space, they can also be used to direct enhanced cleaning to where it is actually needed. “A landlord could have a very aggressive cleaning strategy that is comprehensive, so that every six hours a cleaning crew is cycled through the building,” says O’Gallagher. “But it will be a lot more efficient to target disinfection at spaces that have been used.”

There are various sensor solutions, offering different levels of granularity. The highest resolution data, and the most intrusive, is provided by people-counting cameras, which track occupants based on their physical descriptors, such as hair colour, glasses or types of clothing. “We can get the most meaningful data out of a system like that because we can know that there are 15 people using the space and track to some extent the places they go to within the office, as opposed to just using cameras for security,” says O’Gallagher. “The system doesn’t necessarily know that it’s looking at you, as personally identifiable data is not assigned to any other records, so it is anonymized to some degree, but it is seeing very descriptive information about individuals.”

For simple people counting, infrared or ultrasonic sensors merely detect a presence – which may be sufficient for cleaning purposes. “If I see multiple subjects in a space for a long duration, I know it was used heavily and that it needs to be disinfected,” says O’Gallagher. “I don’t necessarily need to know that there were 20 people there in order to make that judgement call.”

In the middle, and most versatile, are Bluetooth beacons, which can be standalone or connect to mobile devices to track their movements through a space. These can be anonymized or not, depending on what the data is needed for. Because they identify individual devices, these can be used by the access control system for secure touchless entry, for space utilization analysis or for asset tracking of equipment.

“This isn’t about throwing everything out and putting something new in, it’s an evolution of established systems"

Herbert Els, WSP ThinkBOLDR Innovation Center

Maximum impact, minimum investment

All of these upgrades can be bundled as part of other projects, and the data they produce can be used for multiple purposes. The crucial thing when making any improvement to a building is to look at how it can be leveraged for maximum impact, says Herbert Els, national leader of the building technology systems group at WSP’s ThinkBOLDR Innovation Center in Colorado. Presence sensors can be installed as part of a lighting upgrade to support space utilization or room bookings; video surveillance can also be used for people counting. Building owners may already have access to rich, untapped seams of data. “There are many ways of leveraging the same infrastructure,” says Els. “I think there’s going to be tremendous investment in what we would call a building analytics platform, that actually gathers data from these various control systems – the building management system, lighting controls, your vertical transportation, surveillance, space utilization sensors, acoustic data, and so on. A lot of these systems are already present in buildings, and most are already able to exchange data. This isn’t about throwing everything out and putting something new in, it’s really an evolution of these established systems.”

It doesn’t matter how you get the information, the point is to use it, says Whalen: “Whatever technology you’re applying and sourcing data from, the ultimate goal is to have insights that are actionable, to gain visibility into what’s occurring so you can proactively optimize the performance of your operations and buildings.”

"Maybe we should think of this as a springboard into zero carbon ... So it’s not a question of taking energy away from people, it’s about what we allow to be added back on"

Matthew Marson, WSP

Smart can be used for quick fixes, but it has much greater potential as an enabler of effective, efficient and transparent building management, as well as resilience against future shocks. The data that a mesh of sensors can provide would have been invaluable in the early stages of the lockdown, points out Matthew Marson, head of smart places at WSP in London. “If companies had done this already, then they’d know exactly how their spaces were used and they could have updated them as necessary to maintain social distancing. They would have had better operational agility too, in that they’d have been able to turn parts of the plant on and off as things were ramping down then ramping back up. Now someone’s got to go in and do it manually, and they’re not making decisions based on real data. There’s a lot of wasted energy and maintenance and management time.”

Covid-19, and the likelihood of future pandemics, should indirectly improve the management of buildings, he adds, through enabling energy analytics. “Maybe we should think of it as a springboard into zero carbon. If we’ve now got a building that is basically running on zero, we have the baseline. So it’s not a question of taking energy away from people, it’s about what we allow to be added back on.”

As well as offering new opportunities, smart technologies do open up real estate to new vulnerabilities – cybersecurity is not a new threat, but it is increased with more building systems being tied together. Privacy too will come to the fore as employees become more conscious of the amount of personal data they are indirectly handing over to buildings. “I think that if people can swap a little bit of privacy for guaranteed health, they will,” says Marson.

In fact, office users could stand to gain considerably more in return for their data in tomorrow’s smarter offices. From a customer-facing point of view, there are a whole host of value-added services that buildings can provide when combined with smartphones and wearables, to remove frictions so that going to the office becomes easier and more pleasurable, and to add an all-important wow factor to inspire people to come to work instead of staying home. We’ll consider all of these things and more in the next part of the series.

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