As we chart our return to offices and reopen the retail, hospitality and other sectors of the economy shut down during the pandemic, we must reassess how we manage our built environment. Embracing digital technologies to keep buildings safe and efficient is no longer a luxury in the new era of remote service and social distancing.
In recent months, many buildings have seen greatly reduced occupancy or even closed completely. Others, like hospitals, have been burdened with overcapacity. In both cases, facilities must be serviced, maintained, controlled and monitored, ideally remotely.
For facility managers, Covid-19 and its aftermath presents a dual challenge of maintaining high operational efficiency of critical infrastructure while protecting largely dormant assets for the eventual return of their occupants. Addressing these challenges remotely is an additional constraint that can’t be overcome without fully digitalized building management systems.
Connectivity allows building managers to fully control operations. Service providers can remotely supervise and adjust modern heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems to troubleshoot issues, conserve energy and reduce costs. Lighting settings can be remotely adjusted to appropriately reflect a building’s current usage requirements, and digital security systems can be monitored to ensure the safety and protection of personnel and assets.
All these decisions can be made and executed remotely, reducing the risk of on-site visits for service and maintenance teams and ensuring energy usage is appropriate to the building’s occupancy. At Siemens, we’ve developed a broad portfolio of digital solutions that enable facility managers to control smart buildings.
Air quality is always important, and is especially relevant in the current environment. Smart HVAC systems can play a key role in keeping people safe, but it will require making changes to normal operating conditions. Operators should consider increasing the ventilation levels to bring more fresh air into the workspace and controlling over-pressure and over-pressure. For many operators, this is a departure from their previous practice.
It’s also important to ensure the system is not recirculating extracted air back into the office, ensuring airborne particulates – including viruses – are not returned to the rest of the building. Under normal operating conditions recirculating would be an acceptable energy-saving measure, but in these times preventing the circulation of contaminated air back into buildings supersedes energy efficiency.
Technology should not be viewed as simply a way to return to ‘normal’. Embracing digitalization in buildings is an opportunity to lay the foundations of a long-term smart building strategy in which data and analytics are used to gain valuable insight into real estate. By understanding how their built environment is used, organizations can take steps to better rationalize real estate portfolios and the energy they consume, while providing a higher quality environment for their people.
Developers must also take note. While traditionally the higher capital expenditure of integrating digitalization into a greenfield project has put many off, recent events may further shift the requirements of end users. Performance of a building over its entire lifecycle, in terms of operating costs, environmental quality and adaptability to changing requirements are in increasing focus. While we can’t know with specificity what this will look like, we do know the built environments in which we work won’t look like the offices and factories we left earlier this year.
Smart buildings can reduce long-term maintenance costs and improve efficiency, and achieving these benefits requires initial investments. Cost considerations are always a priority, but public health is critical and workplace safety is now at the core of pandemic mitigation efforts. Smart building infrastructure arms facilities managers with vital tools that bolster maintenance and efficiency standards and positively influence health outcomes.
About the author: Franco Atassi is the Head of Smart Infrastructure at Siemens Middle East.