IoT Smart Buildings For Post-Pandemic Digitized Workplaces

Propelled by IoT platforms, smart building technologies are transforming facilities into agile, sustainable, and health-conscious ecosystems.

By Michael C. Skurla

Global Workplace Analytics estimates that 56% of U.S. workers have jobs that are at least partially compatible with working remotely. And a Gallup poll showed that half of Americans currently working remotely would rather continue even after pandemic restrictions lift. With a post-pandemic rush to prepare commercial buildings for the full or hybrid return of staff and employees, smart buildings are being reconfigured in design and spacing to allow for the safety and health of the occupants while also accommodating what is being seen as a permanent change of some more remote workers as a staple to business. Guidance has been slow given the changing dynamics of COVID-19, but guidance in the prop tech space from organizations such as ASHRAE have emerged for practices and procedures to mitigate (though not eliminate) risk as the U.S. and other countries continue to roll out vaccinations.

smart buildings
Photo: Getty Images

Buildings’ technology has evolved from the pandemic. This isn’t to say that new hardware has emerged, but the point of smart technology and ecosystems in buildings has changed and grown due to the nature of the epidemic. Smart buildings are not a recent phenomenon. First-generation smart buildings focused on efficiency infrastructure, with sustainability on its heels. Primarily focused on operation, these systems allowed for smart infrastructure and integration to take root from a facility management perspective. With this in place, a second generation added on to this (notice I didn’t say replace), adding conveniences to occupants and owners to better utilize spaces. This addition, driven mostly by integration of various systems, better software, and data-driven analytics, also incorporated technology traditionally not considered as pure building infrastructure, but often as IT additions such as room scheduling, geolocation services, space utilization, and Wi-Fi. Hence property and business worlds mixed with an enablement that was driven by the rise of IoT devices and associated technologies.

North America will lead the IoT smart building movement with 36% market share by 2023. This will be driven by the third generation of smart building technologies, propelled by IoT platforms; transforming buildings into automated, agile, sustainable, and health-conscious ecosystems.

This is not a technological hardware upgrade however, but a move to utilize what was already deployed for sensing, data, and other purposes, but using it to drive different analytical outcomes for facility owners, tenants/occupants, and operators.

In our post-COVID return to office buildings, IoT platforms and the sensory network of other systems behind them, will take a front and center role enabling a full range of benefits and advantages for the employees, employers, and the commercial facility owners.

Benefits Of IoT Smart Buildings For Facility Owners, Employers, Employees

IoT Platforms enabled through analytics services — both native and third-party — serve a wider range of purposes for data collected through subsystems and IoT integration. The challenge facility operators faced to date has been collecting and allowing access to this data lake of IT and OT information in a consolidated format. The ability to gather in a cohesive manner, data from all disjoined systems and provide insight, has allowed AI/BI tools to impact the workplace environment in various levels and facets throughout the software. And this has been without the need to install more subsystems and hardware to extrapolate different outcomes.

Sensors as part of existing HVAC, lighting, and other systems are already integrated into most commercial facilities. IoT platforms enable a consolidated approach to the data provided, allowing building owners to integrate multiple BI/AI/ML services — without major overhaul or investment. This allows the data already in place, to be used for many different purposes.

In recently released guidelines by ASHRAE for educational institutions on the readiness and operations of existing facilities to be reoccupied following the pandemic shutdown, there is specific guidance for designers to retrofit and “plan for the improvement of indoor air quality and to slow the transmission of viruses via the HVAC systems.” While the concern is to “increase outside air to the spaces and treat return air” the integration of an IoT platform into the existing HVAC system can easily help manage and monitor the air filtration and minimize the spread of airborne exposure to the virus.

For building owners, IoT platform integration will provide real-time information access from across all their building infrastructure and subsystems in a single pane of glass approach to management. This extends the functionality and possibilities greatly to analytics beyond the existing abilities to perform hardened logic, which was a base function of the second generation IoT solutions such as:

  • Program dynamic alarms and alerts based on known conditions
  • Foster compliance, energy, and sustainability reporting
  • Dynamically change power, lighting, air-conditioning, and heating based on conditional factors, not just time
  • Understand trending to foster preventative maintenance and continuous commissioning
  • Applying new logic to old solutions. Examples of this include the idea of using traditional CO2 sensors as part of HVAC systems to understand better the reality of fresh air flushing through spaces to limit exposure risks.

During the pre-pandemic era, employees used the office in a more dynamic fashion for collaborations, meetings, and company resources beyond just occupying an office space or a cubicle during business hours. With an IoT platform integrated, employees in smart buildings, equipped with geolocation and indoor locations services, can schedule meetings and conferences by locating available desks, space, or rooms and sending notifications to employees/staff required to attend the meetings. Employees can expedite control over their workplace — without having to master complex AV systems know-how.

Additionally, employers can get insight on space utilization and occupancy across all their leased space — within the same building, or in buildings across the city or the country. They can view employees’ office space, know the percentage of occupied space, or find additional office or desks availability for employees. Employees can also access this information from their smartphones to understand and schedule their day to maximize their useful interaction time, while also using the facilities more intelligently in the event where density may be lower.

Employers can also automate a range of tasks across their buildings, remotely. These tasks range from automating locks for safety of employees and building staff, to operating window shades to bring in the sun during the day and close the shades at sundown, to occupancy monitoring, to receiving real-time reports from employees on building problems requiring repairs and more. Employers can address maintenance and a whole range of issues without having to locate employees. With access to all their data from one dashboard, they can fully manage, in real-time, occupancy and space utilization, and plan for space optimization and leasing.

No doubt, in our post-pandemic return to office buildings, IoT Platforms will play a prominent and central role. Beyond providing full control and monitoring of the building facilities, these holistic solutions will ensure social distancing rules are adhered to while maintaining the safety and health of the building occupants.

smart buildingsSkurla is the Chief Product Officer of Radix IoT, offering limitless monitoring and management rooted in intelligence. He has over two decades’ experience in control automation and IoT product design with Fortune 500 companies. Skurla is a contributing member of CABA, ASHRAE, IES Education, and USGBC and a frequent lecturer on the evolving use of analytics and emerging IT technologies to foster efficiency within commercial facility design.

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