Power to the People: How Tech Is Making Buildings Better for Occupants

San Francisco, Seattle, Newmark Knight Frank, Rockpoint Group, Bay Area, CalSTRS, CBRE, Beacon, Unico, AEW Capital, Puget Sound

This article also appears in The VIEW, the quarterly publication jointly curated by the three Bay Area chapters of Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW)—CREW San Francisco, CREW East Bay, and CREW Silicon Valley. CREW is a nationwide business networking organization dedicated to the advancement of women in commercial real estate. For chapter news, events, and membership information, visit the Bay Area member organization websites at crewsf.org, creweastbay.org, and crewsv.org.

By Erica Levine and Amy Shen, Arup

On our friend’s first day of work, she was given a blanket and a warning: the office is eternally freezing.

Historically, the remedy for the ubiquitous frigid workplace was excessive tea consumption. But times are changing. As technical innovations enable personalized comfort, real estate professionals—designers, landlords, property managers, brokers and lawyers—have opportunities to create and market comfortable and efficient workplaces.

The evolution of comfort
Cold offices result from design rules developed in the 1960s and based on a seated man in a suit. These rules are challenged by recent research on comfort that recognizes the diversity of today’s workforce and workplace.

First, the research confirms the obvious: the desired temperature fluctuates with what you wear, and women’s professional fashion varies widely. How can we expect both a woman in a sundress and a woman in a wool suit to be comfortable if the entire open office is the same temperature?

Second, comfort depends on more than temperature. We tolerate a wider temperature range if we can control the set point ourselves (e.g., with a window or thermostat). This holds true even if the thermostat doesn’t work, as long as we have the illusion of control!

Offices can be uncomfortable, and new research suggests that individual comfort levels are more diverse and dynamic than designers formerly understood. We now have better knowledge about what makes people comfortable and the technology to enable us to design more comfortable spaces. There is a huge benefit to making occupants comfortable, and recent advances in sensors and other smart building technology are enabling us to do just that. And when occupants are more comfortable, they are happier, healthier and more productive: Improved comfort in the U.S. could generate $20 billion per year!

Smart buildings
Unlike traditional landlord-provided systems, smart buildings collect data from occupants and adjust systems in real time to enhance comfort and efficiency. The Comfy app allows occupants to vote on temperature and lighting levels with their smartphones, then automatically adjusts conditions in each space accordingly. Companies like Enlighted gather occupancy data from lighting sensors to inform space utilization.

Simultaneously, the consumer electronics industry (think Google Home) is changing expectations about the workplace environment. A personalized comfort experience will soon be the norm through wearable devices, individualized lighting and HVAC, ubiquitous measurements of space health and utilization, and data analytics.

So how will smart building technology affect the real estate industry?

Designs will have to provide the comfort and customization that tenants are starting to demand. As tenants seek connection to the outdoors, daylight, views and natural ventilation will have to be prioritized. Color-tuned lighting that matches the sun is already on the rise as LED lighting costs decrease, and benefits to health are proven. New sensors are quantifying the toxins released from carpet, paint and furniture, so architects are specifying healthier materials and engineers are increasing ventilation.

As workspaces become more personalized, lighting and HVAC systems will interface with third-party apps, enabling tenant control of lighting and temperature or integrating with fitness and healthcare services. Sensors that track building performance must be supported by robust communications infrastructure and secured by authentication and encryption.

Landlords and property managers
Landlords and property managers will be expected to give tenants data on—and control over—their spaces.

Property managers will need to manage links between cloud-based platforms and local building controls for integrated command of lighting and mechanical systems. Property managers will be expected to provide measured indoor environmental quality, temperature, occupancy and energy data and to use analytics to identify improvements.

Landlords should prepare to share data and be proactive in addressing any concerns that might elicit. If landlords decline to provide such information, tenants will be able to employ mobile sensor kits that measure environmental quality and record it in the cloud. This data can be reviewed by potential tenants choosing a new space, or by existing tenants seeking service upgrades or a rent reduction.

When seeking a space, tenants will be interested not just in location and floor area but also access to daylight and views, control system capabilities and ventilation airflow. Brokers will therefore need to consider the comfort and intelligence of a property. These qualities are addressed by two new building rating systems: Wired Certification assesses smart building technology provisions, and WELL Certification evaluates a building’s impact on health and well-being. Brokers will also need to mediate negotiations between tenants and landlords regarding data access and control.

Smart buildings have significant legal implications. With data collected on everything from occupant location to air quality, policy questions arise: Who will have access to the information? Who owns it? What can it be used for? How will privacy be protected? Increasingly sophisticated data requirements for each platform necessitate a universal approach to simplify the access and usage negotiated by tenants and landlords.

Integrated control systems bring up further questions over who controls building systems and which party can override the other in order to allow tenants to achieve comfort and facilities managers to run systems efficiently.

Lawyers must also address indoor environmental quality sensing. What happens when sensors indicate unsafe levels of toxins in the air? Who is expected to respond? Who will be liable? Lawyers should expect to address these questions in leasing agreements and work with landlords and tenants to develop mitigation plans.

The future of comfort
Smart technology enables buildings to adapt to occupants, making us happier, healthier and more productive. A smart watch, sensing an elevated heartbeat, can dim the lighting in an occupant’s office to a more soothing setting. Administrative software, reviewing employees’ task lists, can suggest a seating arrangement that collocates people working together that day. Sick leave requests can be correlated against air quality and lighting readings to identify the common characteristics of spaces where sick people are seated.

The smart building movement is coming, and it presents exciting opportunities for the real estate industry to create efficient workplaces full of healthy and happy tenants.

About the Authors

Erica Levine

As a senior energy consultant with Arup San Francisco, Erica Levine identifies, analyzes, and designs practical energy solutions that provide value to building occupants, owners, and the environment. Erica’s interdisciplinary background in engineering, construction management, and policy enables her to perform a variety of services for clients, ranging from design of net-zero energy buildings in the Bay Area to cost-effective implementation of corporate sustainability goals across a global retail client’s 6,000+ properties. Her work spans the building, campus, and portfolio scales and includes office, retail, residential, education, healthcare, and industrial sectors. In addition to projects, Erica also manages learning, research, and knowledge sharing for Arup’s 1,500 mechanical engineers and has spoken at conferences in the US and internationally.

Amy Shen

Amy Shen has been with Arup for 10 years, specializing in bringing digital to the built environment through multidisciplinary collaborations, from project inception to completion and operation. With an engineering degree from the University of Cambridge and professional experience in both the UK and China, she identifies solutions for where technology is disrupting how the built environment interacts with people and nature. She has a proven record in managing multidisciplinary designers and specialists in total building design, master planning, and smart building smart city consulting services. Amy has also spoken at a number of conferences and provided technical support for digital interactive art installations. She has provided significant input to Arup’s methodology for digital discovery and realization in projects.

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