What will office buildings look like in the post-COVID future? How will occupants relate to them? These are critical questions for those considering a new project or updating an existing commercial structure in light of a changing, competitive market.
And yes, there will be change. Despite the significant work-at-home migration during the COVID pandemic, many real estate pundits don’t believe the trend will hold at current levels.
“It’s naïve to think that all folks at home right now are working the same way they would in the office,” says L.D. Salmanson, founder of real estate data firm Cherre. “I don’t think the vast majority are as motivated just sitting at home compared to seeing the hustle and bustle.”
Nevertheless, he also agrees the concept of office work will change. This will require owners to make their buildings as attractive as possible to tenants, more than simply lowering lease rates. The return to the office will likely be for specific reasons, perhaps as a hub of operations or to close important deals face-to-face.
To understand future tenant usage, there will need to be meaningful and transparent information exchanges between owners and occupants in order to provide feedback that can be acted on. Although easier said than done, the first step is to gather current use data using Artificial Intelligence (AI).
What does building AI actually do? Sam Ramadori, CEO of Montreal-based BrainBox AI, explains AI helps managers learn about their buildings by creating what he calls a “rich set of data” of tenant usage. This can then be turned around to develop management systems that adjust and predict occupant needs in various zones around the building.
It’s all about making new or existing buildings smarter. However, Lee Butz, founder and CEO of tenant experience app District Technologies, argues that simply adding more and more technology is not the answer.
“It’s the age-old dilemma about adding more technology to make a building smarter,” she says “That’s often misunderstood. I believe strongly that instead, it’s about the user experience and removing friction. Is the individual person having a more productive day or better experience through their integration with the building?”
Butz uses the example of a phone app to control office lights. It might take an individual 10 attempts to simply turn a light off, when instead they could just use the light switch.
“Why did you integrate this app and waste all that money without improving anyone‘s life? The real estate industry is just beginning to understand that, and what the definition of a smart building is.”
In addition to adjustments in HVAC, lighting, heating demands and controls that monitor access and elevators — the most basic elements of building management — AI data collection also helps to monitor equipment maintenance and alert when vital systems need replacement before they fail.
Patrick O’Shei, director of marketing for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), explains it takes time to purchase and plan the installation of major building equipment. Reacting to an equipment failure leaves no time for intelligent decisions, he says.
Making a building more attractive also means a response to demands for reduced carbons from building operations. For example, there’s a lot of wasted energy and cost when a building is not occupied on weekends, says O’Shei. Tenants have increased expectations that their building is part of the GHG reduction solution, not part of the problem.
It’s a given that new buildings will have advanced monitoring and measurement systems built in.
However, designing the required AI infrastructure into a future project is one thing, upgrading an existing and occupied building is another.
As a consequence, the evolution in building management technology could widen the gap between new buildings that have it and old ones that don’t. The good news is that COVID may offer the opportunity to install the required AI wiring and sensors in existing buildings while occupancy and usage is low.
John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont.-based freelance writer. Send comments and Inside Innovation column ideas to email@example.com.