Buildings, data and the future of property

Written by Adam Schultz

As featured in the Australia & New Zealand Property Journal, September 2018.

Future-gazing is a difficult art. It’s almost impossible to predict which technology innovations will transform how we live and work in a decade’s time. There is, however, value in bringing the horizon a bit closer, and examining how the Internet of Things (IoT) technology will impact developers and building managers in the next few years. This allows us to focus on three things of critical importance: what we will expect buildings to do on their own thanks to IoT, what will still need human intelligence and interaction, and why we should expect buildings to change at all.

Let’s focus on the latter part to begin with – after all, even the grandest innovation needs a true business case to be adopted. A successful innovation needs to solve an issue, or meet a demand. When we think of buildings, we tend to think they solve specific issues within society in a very absolute sense – i.e. when more space is needed, build more.

If demand for a specific type of property is needed and supply of land is low, we renovate or rebuild. Property is a very reactive sector in this sense – we need a significant change in the market to occur before we take action.

Quietly, this kind of significant change is taking place. In fact, what is happening now is unprecedented – we are changing the way in which people are utilising buildings. Shared workspaces are becoming more commonplace, just as we are using shared services like Uber, GoGet, and Airbnb in our daily lives. Today, people don’t necessarily have a desk and chair they go to every day at the same time. There is an increasing move to sharing environments and increasing efficiency, which is going to have a massive impact on demand. In order to facilitate this kind of shift effectively, we’ll see more forward-looking building managers and owners look to install technology that enables monitoring at a granular level.

Equally, businesses are more demanding of their assets than they have ever been. Through the gig economy and other innovations, an unproductive asset such as an empty apartment, office suite or even a single unused room is an unconscionable waste. From the tenants, knowledge of how they can keep costs low and if the building they use is compliant and eco-friendly is quickly becoming an expectation they have of their landlords.

When it comes to meeting this demand, buildings need to be gathering data. When are they empty? When are they using too much energy? Fortunately, there are solutions at the ready to address these problems. The technology required to take measurements of temperature, energy consumption, water consumption and a whole host of other data points is already available. But IoT providers need to be doing more than that if they are to truly solve the problems building managers face.

A bunch of data points on a screen is not the end-goal. Today, we can expect that these data points are going to be crunched into actionable insights and reports automatically. The next step after that is to automate the response to the data.

Many large and mid-sized buildings have embedded energy generation into their designs and the move now is to be ‘Net Zero’. This means the total amount of energy used by the building on an annual basis is roughly equal to the amount of renewable energy created on the site. It’s no small feat, and not too many have truly achieved it. Businesses are taking significant amounts of their money and investing into solar/storage and efficiency measures – not just because it pays off in the long term (public businesses are famously short-term in their views), but because it is something that is genuinely valued by our society. Monitoring what you use vs what you generate is vital towards reaching this goal. Automatically adjusting lighting, HVAC and other power intensive assets in accordance with energy generation is going to make these investments in solar and storage far more effective.

The future building will be actively working to be independent of the grid. It will know how much energy it generates, how much is stored, what its targets for consumption are and be able to adjust how it uses assets to meet these targets. It could even automatically purchase carbon credits to make up a deficit in event of a failure.

Buildings will still, however, need people. In the above example, the ability to get real-time, remote notifications when close to these targets or thresholds to a facility manager or service provider will make a massive difference in the efficiency of that building. When a HVAC unit begins to fail, it can use a lot of energy to achieve the same result. Automatic monitoring and notifications will allow for buildings to spot failures and fix them much faster, in partnership with human managers.

But the buildings need to do much more to empower them. Buildings will need to be able to provide contextual insights – the right information to the right person – in order to continually increase their efficiency. A building manager does not need the same kind of insights as a building owner, and a developer might want different data points again to inform their plans.

The sensors in the building are a critical component; the promise of smart buildings is built on a foundation of smart sensors in hidden places. But the focus is now finally moving away from the installation of sensors, and onto how this data can help people demonstrate excellence. It’s people, alongside IoT, that will ultimately make better decisions and have the biggest impact. We have lived in a world where competitive differentiation has involved a few key factors (price, location, condition, etc.) – through IoT technology we are throwing other factors into the mix: how the building is managed, how you access its data and how easy it is to make changes.

The Internet of Things is going to change the way we build and manage buildings forever. Each building is often unique, and will have its own set of challenges, but with that comes the ability to demonstrate excellence to key stakeholders, and be rewarded for that excellence. This is a great thing – enabling those who actively improve their buildings and developments to demonstrate they are a superior service and raise the bar for the industry.

This has benefits not only for the bottom line of a business, but also for the environment and society as a whole.