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Inside Innovation: New technology brings the touchless home and office within reach

John Bleasby
Inside Innovation: New technology brings the touchless home and office within reach

Recent advances in building access control and automated building management technology that improve occupant health and safety have been greeted enthusiastically by those employees expecting to return to commercial offices over the next several months.

A recent survey of over 1,250 office employees conducted by access technology developer Nexkey of San Mateo, Calf. revealed ongoing health and safety concerns in the workplace. In fact, nearly 50 per cent of workers had worries that will persist even after the COVID-19 pandemic passes.

These begin with the limited number of common entry points in many small-to-medium sized businesses — most workers want more. Furthermore, many would prefer to use smartphones or smartwatches as entry credentials rather than touchpads and key cards.

This heightened level of concern for health and safety will impact buildings both in the planning stage and those older commercial buildings that may be facing upgrades in order to stay relevant in the post–COVID world.

“Touchless access has changed from a nice-to-have tenant amenity to a must-have safety technology,” writes James Segil, president and co-founder of access software developer Openpath. In a report published jointly by Openpath and Propmodo on the current state of touchless office technology, Segil says that, “reducing common touch points in communal spaces will not only be expected, but required for fundamental health and wellness protocol.”

The good news is that concern over the spread of future viruses has led to design and operational modifications that are bringing the touchless office closer to reality.

A 12-storey, 90,000-square-foot office building opening shortly in Chicago appears to be the first to specifically address recent health and safety concerns through its design and operation.

For example, the Fulton East project features only three internal columns per floor and reduced floor plates, allowing maximum layout flexibility for correct social distancing. Tenants do not share corridors or restrooms.

In addition to its design characteristics, the building is also a showcase of current touchless technology — hands-free elevator systems from Canadian-based MAD Elevator Inc. ; air and surface sanitization systems that reduce up to 99 per cent of viruses, mould and bacteria; touchless thermal scanning in the entrance lobby; touchless tenant access security; and more.

The multi-unit residential rental industry is also discovering the benefits and savings made possible by both touchless access and remote building management technology.

“People actively looking at rental properties risk potential exposure to the COVID-19 virus,” said Elizabeth Grossenbacher of cloud communications service company Twilio during a recent webinar.

As a result, the rental community is moving from a high-touch model of face-to-face communication to a no-touch paradigm.

For example, using cellular IoT technology available from Twilio, companies like U.S. home automation specialist SmartRent can offer building owners and managers not only self-showing tours for prospective tenants but remote building maintenance warning systems.

SmartRent’s interface allows owners and managers of residential properties to easily view and manage critical data, such as security and maintenance work order information, across their entire portfolios in real time from mobile devices. That can save money.

Grossenbacher estimates that identifying maintenance and repair issues like water leaks quickly and remotely, before damage spreads to other units, can save $50,000 per year for every 250 units. Meanwhile, the interface allows rental tenants to control their own security access, lights, appliances and adjust their unit’s heating/cooling and HVAC settings.

Segil points out although touchless technology adoption is a win-win for owners and tenants alike, these systems require collaboration and consensus between both parties before implementation. In addition to budgeting factors for owners and landlords, the selection and installation of the various hardware options must be co-ordinated and communicated with tenants who have different timelines and perspectives.

Meanwhile, evidence-based, third-party verification rating systems, such as those being proposed by the International WELL Building Institute, are on the way and will encourage further adoption of safer operational protocols for buildings of all types. Touchless and remote technologies will no doubt be featured.

John Bleasby is a Coldwater,-Ont. based freelance writer. Send comments and Inside Innovation column ideas to




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