By Matthew Ganser
The outbreak of COVID-19 has put an unprecedented strain on global health networks and local and nationwide municipalities — not to mention the global market. But as businesses embrace the new remote norm, what happens to the buildings they leave behind, and those responsible for running those buildings? How are on-site facility teams managing the operations of these newly empty properties, much less doing so remotely? Are there any opportunities now that tenant experience is no longer top priority?
The current outbreak is highlighting where technology, and associated operations, are falling short in the built environment. Commercial real estate (CRE) has lagged in adopting the necessary infrastructure for remote building management, further compounded by the current remote work mandates.
As organizations navigate these uncertain times, the good news is the solutions for CRE are well within reach. Some are long term and industry-wide, but many already exist, are cost-effective, and readily implementable to help drive building operations towards a more flexible future.
Identifying The Hurdles
Currently, nearly two thirds of buildings in the U.S. were built before the end of the Cold War, and most lack the foundation for regular and seamless control systems upgrades. Given that buildings aren’t updated with the frequency of our iPhones, that means their control systems aren’t being updated either. Because of this, many properties are still using legacy control systems that weren’t designed with remote operations in mind.
Then there’s the issue of building data, and ensuring secure, remote access. Unlike advanced, cloud-native enterprise-grade solutions, physical buildings are not beautifully instrumented ecosystems. There is a lack of uniformity in naming conventions of data sets, data storage, meta data — that’s even if there are systems in place to collect data at all. In fact, in Carbon Lighthouse’s experience analyzing 100MM sq ft. of building data, we found that 15% of buildings don’t have a building management system (BMS) in place at all. Even in cases where there is some sort of data collection happening, fewer than 50% of those buildings have the tools in place to access or view it remotely. And for those lucky few with off-site capabilities, it is hardly ever a simple “plug and play,” given the lack of standardization in communication protocols and demand for extensive software workarounds. There are also extensive cyber security concerns, given the complex coordination needed between multiple IT and building operator players. All of this makes it hard to unlock value for facility managers remotely in today’s environment.
Getting Started Today
It’s not all doom and gloom. There are a number of short-term solutions that facility managers can implement to ease the burden as remote building management becomes increasingly necessary. Start by getting more information. Consider expanding the number of discrete sensors that track basic data points like occupancy, as these can be used to direct simple on/off commands for larger systems.
Get creative with approaching remote operations — for example, facility management can use strategies normally associated with troubleshooting to detect the lack of a load remotely (i.e. if control systems are at the minimum position, load is likely low, and the standard operating setpoint could be decreased further). Consider implementing remote site walkthroughs, using technology like GoPros, so engineers can continue working productively with partners and outside groups. Prioritize communication with IT personnel to ensure everyone is on the same page, and IT issues don’t stand in the way of remote access.
As tenants and employees isolate in greater numbers, and buildings stand empty, facility managers also need to reconsider their control sequences. For example, most buildings have “shoulder season” sequences designed for lower load situations, such as relaxed temperature or pressure setpoints that use less energy to keep the building comfortable in periods of moderate weather conditions. This can be quickly deployable for any-season tenant changes as well. In addition, conduct a sequence audit that identifies opportunities for more dynamic shifts. Rather than setting a pre-fixed time for temperature controls, identify the complex trends that can maximize efficiency. Facility managers should also begin outlining new sequences and resets that can be adaptive to building load and eliminate the need for a building engineer to set foot physically on the property. Optimizing controls during periods of light tenant occupancy will not only have a positive environmental impact, it will also drive operational profitability — helping building managers recoup some of the costs lost elsewhere during this time of uncertainty.
Investing In The Future, Beyond The COVID-19 Crisis
Quick fixes will help keep properties operating efficiently as the crisis runs its course, but this is also an opportunity to solve larger issues in the long term. For example, it’s worth investigating a potential BMS upgrade to a system that allows for remote control, or at least remote viewing. Another good solution is to expand and categorize the number of data points that are recorded by the BMS to better integrate with third-party solution providers. This enables greater standardization and clarity around the common issues tenants identify, like temperature control, giving facility management insight into operational trends they can take action on regardless of location.
The cost of many technological advancements have come down significantly, making them more viable options. Solar was not possible for many buildings, but pricing has come down so much that, in certain regions, it’s a very cost-effective solution. Soon battery storage will be an option to consider. This may also be the right time to evaluate vendors and solution strategies and identify those that best set up the building for long-term success.
Furthermore, upgrading the underlying controls infrastructure from pneumatics to Direct Digital Control (DDC) can enable more adaptive sequences that are specifically catered to the needs of the building, rather than a patchwork of controls built as a result of one-time changes that persist needlessly across larger systems. Investment in moderate cost upgrades today can also help future-proof the building for tomorrow. This could include installing variable frequency drives (investing in additions to motors to allow for varying speed) and more.
Reprioritizing for Tomorrow
Facility managers are seeing their job roles and responsibilities shift as they contend with running operations in empty buildings. Navigating this unprecedented situation requires engineers, operations managers, and facility executives to all work together to re-examine building priorities. Now is the time to invest in both short-term and long-term solutions to create operational efficiencies and remote building management options that simultaneously cut costs today while optimizing the building for tomorrow.
Ganser is the EVP of Engineering & Technology at Carbon Lighthouse, where he oversees the teams responsible for developing, executing, and maintaining the technology and energy solutions that reduce energy consumption in buildings. He joined Carbon Lighthouse as one of the first employees in 2012 after graduating from Stanford University, studying first in the Atmosphere/Energy and then the Energy Resource Engineering programs as a National Science Fellow. Prior to grad school, Ganser worked for Shell Oil Co, focused on drilling engineering and operations in natural gas tight sands in the Rocky Mountains. While at Shell, he was also responsible for developing a novel diesel gen-set emissions technology, which later won a Federal BLM Best Management practices award. Ganser graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in Mechanical Engineering.
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