The biggest challenge to maximising value throughout a building’s life? It’s neither construction costs nor energy use. It’s tenant productivity. Here are some emerging technologies that will help boost their output

Simon Parsons

Building industry professionals know all too well the challenges posed by the rapid proliferation of “green” standards.

From rival material certifications, to overlapping voluntary building codes, to regulatory revisions, the plethora of details can distract from our ultimate goal: to design, build, and operate buildings so well that they both boost the bottom line - and help the environment in the process.

But all too often, tenant experience can be another casualty of this standards proliferation. It is irrelevant how “state of the art” a building’s design, materials or intelligent systems are if it fundamentally fails to create a healthier, more productive workplace,

This misalignment can be measured in real monetary terms. As a rule of thumb, the 30-year cost to operate a conventional building is about five times its design and construction price. And the value of work performed within that building over its life is roughly 200 times larger than construction costs.

It’s therefore interesting to note that the majority of green building efforts such as BREEAM are focused on the first two parts of this 1:5:200 rule; i.e. the design/build and operations phases.

The final figure in that ratio — the value of a building’s lifetime productivity — is for most of us, at best, a guesstimate. Challenging as it is to develop rigorous technical metrics of a building’s performance, even less is known about how tenants use a space, or how to measure and respond to their explicit and implicit needs over time, once a structure is up and operating.

Technologies are fast evolving that, for the first time, offer the flexibility and intelligence to help us measure and optimise the largest part of buildings’ value

That is, however, all about to change. Technologies are fast evolving that, for the first time, offer the flexibility and intelligence to help us measure and optimise the largest part of buildings’ value.

These five technologies — some of which are already becoming familiar — are converging in ways that, when combined, will help us fine-tune building performance and improve productivity.

  • The internet of things The internet is fast evolving from a network filled with web pages, media and commands largely input by people to one in which the bulk of the data originates from devices. In the built environment, this means that the cost of connecting and controlling humble pieces of technology - whether a hallway thermostat or an electric motor on a rooftop chiller — has plummeted. With more and more of these controllers coming “awake” on the Internet, they’re churning out more data, and more regularly, than ever before. Already, devices outnumber the internet’s billion-plus human users. As these connected devices continue to multiply, so too will the opportunities for software to interact with the physical world in productivity-boosting ways. Imagine being able to “friend” a building that learns your lighting, temperature, and noise-level preferences. As you commute, this building would prepare itself based on your likes, assigning you the most productive naturally-lit workspace, the optimal meeting room, and reserving and testing the equipment you need, all before you arrive.

  • Machine-to-machine communication As the volume of signals grows, increasingly it is another device, rather than a human, which evaluates and responds to the flow of data. Indeed, as the number of these inputs rapidly rises, automated computer controls are fast replacing manual, standalone systems. And as the ability of software to “learn” advances — inferring answers by detecting patterns in human decisions — it can make decisions on your behalf. For example, within IBM’s own portfolio, a recent survey of one of our major campuses — a 3.5m ft² factory, R&D and training centre in Rochester, Minnesota – identified some 300,000 sources of building performance data, spanning everything from metering points to lighting status and HVAC metrics to security systems. No team of humans can effectively monitor or orchestrate this digital menagerie. However, we were able to implement rules-based analytics to manage the campus. Rather than optimise each piece of equipment individually, software can orchestrate the far more complex challenges of harmonising operations across thousands of devices and scores of buildings. The result is a more task-orientated campus with an incremental 8% reduction in campus-wide energy consumption.

  • Big Data Ask 10 people what Big Data means, and you’ll probably receive 10 different responses. Of course, part of the answer is volume. As these building sensors multiply, the scale of data they relay into central controllers is accumulating at rates once thought impossible. Less well understood is the fact that Big Data also relates to diversity, and in most cases, this data is relatively new. Some 90% of the world’s data was created in the last two years, and 80% of this new class of information is completely unstructured, requiring a new set of capabilities to exploit it. Data feeds from building systems now include video from security cameras; audio from microphone-enabled monitors, and of course —-a dizzying array of numerical data - whether from a vibration sensor on a 50-year-old boiler or a sun-tracking sensor on a rooftop solar system. With the right analysis of these mixed inputs, advanced software can not only predict the complex effects of changing weather but tweak building settings to improve workers’ comfort: for example by rolling up blinds to let in more natural light as cloud cover grows. Big Data makes that all possible.

  • Analytics and cloud computing. Legacy building management systems are simply not able to store, analyse or process the volume or mix of data emerging from modern, state-of-the-art buildings. Rather, by relaying data to powerful remote computing centres, cloud-based systems can deliver unprecedented analytical horsepower to meet the needs of occupants when and where it is needed. Cloud computing enables new kinds of applications, services and types of data, while running analytics on this data creates new kinds of insight.

  • Mobile computing. The final piece of this puzzle may already be in your pocket. Smart phones are the most important link in the emerging technologies that will better link people with their buildings. Mobile devices are emerging as a natural conduit to collect feedback from within a building, or across a campus. The best way to monitor if a building is providing the most productive environment is to ask the people living and working in it. People are the best “sensors” when it comes to assessing if a building is doing its job effectively, while smart phones with intuitive, geo-enabled apps make great reporting tools that can connect directly to building management systems.

For instance, the Los Angeles Unified School District launched a programme last year that lets children, teachers and staff notify maintenance departments about faults — whether flickering lights, broken windows or leaky taps - via text message and photos. By combining phones’ GPS abilities with images, the programme lets maintenance staff respond faster than, and at a fraction of the cost it would have in the past. In time, it’s easy to imagine building management systems “listening” to tenants’ Twitter feeds, watching for complaints about heat, cold, or disruptions, etc.

Data feeds from building systems now include video from security cameras; audio from microphone-enabled monitors, and of course a dizzying array of numerical data

These technologies are fast converging in ways that are making it easier to listen to, analyse and actively improve the performance of the buildings in which we live and work. It makes sense to embrace their promise. If not, and if tenants don’t reap benefits in productivity, health and quality of life, then the green building movement will have solved only a fraction of the fundamental challenge we face.

The maths is compelling. If we can put more effort into the final part of the 1:5:200 rule — by tending better to the needs of tenants and their productivity — our efforts will be paid back many times over.

Simon Parsons is the European lead for asset management consulting services in IBM’s business services; travel and transport; life sciences; consumer products and retail industries