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Commercial Buildings are at the Center of our “Return to New Normal” Strategy

China is starting to return to some kind of normality. In Italy, Spain, and a host of other countries that were hit early or lightly, they have introduced their de-escalation plans and have begun to ease lockdown measures. It will still take a while, but we can now begin to consider when we might return to the office, and how. For building owners and managers, that will mean switching from the remote lockdown mode they are only just getting to grips with, to the unprecedented post-lockdown reintroduction of occupants with virus-control measures.

“In the short-term, while we are required to stay at home, building owners will need to manage their investments remotely while operating with skeleton crews. Core building equipment must remain operational and in good working order. Building management, facilities controls, and Building Automation Systems (BAS) will need to be managed remotely. Monitoring systems need to be accessible through mobile apps, with alerts and warnings that can be responded to quickly. To help offset costs, enabling remote adjustments to Building Energy Management systems will also be a necessity.” “Now more than ever, building owners require immediate solutions to monitor and manage their buildings remotely and to only dispatch engineers for critical issues,” says Harry Smeenk, principal owner at Smart Buildings Online L.L.C. Soon, however, Smeenk points out, “it will be imperative that employees, tenants and building occupants feel safe and comfortable going back to a healthy and clean office environment.” There are a few key roles the smart building can play in creating a healthy and comfortable environment for workers to return to. Cleaning is the obvious one, where buildings will be expected to have full-time cleaners visibly covering key parts of the building numerous times a day. This will be a no brainer for building owners and managers, as an effective way to control the spread of the virus and as necessary to give people the confidence to be comfortable, and therefore productive. Some buildings may even introduce robots, cobots, and UV-light sanitation — the topic of our recent article titled Everybody Wants to Save the Planet But Who Wants to Clean the Floor?

Air quality will be another important health measure for post-lockdown smart buildings. While the COVID-19 strain is said to be transferred through tiny water droplets, there have been reports of transmission being dictated by HVAC configurations, so this will have to be addressed, as we discussed in a recent HVAC-focused article. A boost in air quality will reduce bacteria and viruses in general, as well as the allergens causing highly-unwanted spring sneezing in these strange times. Fresher air will also provide a sense of cleanliness to returning employees.

In addition to keeping the facilities’ as clean and fresh as possible, we will need to develop a culture of cleanliness for building occupants too. This will include personal hygiene with hand washing/sanitizing, mask-wearing, and social distancing encouraged through signage and internal messaging, building on wider public health campaigns. Social distancing can also be supported by occupancy analytics and access control technologies to limit the number of people in a specific area of the building, as discussed in a recent article and interview.

According to the World Health Organization, coronaviruses (including preliminary information on the COVID-19 virus) may persist on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days. There is no way to clean the elevator button after every press or every door handle after every use. This will create a pressure on occupants to touch fewer “things” in the workplace, which can be supported by an increase in motion sensors, smartphone apps, voice control, and facial recognition, serving as hands-free control mechanisms for various tasks in commercial buildings. According to a new report released last week by NPR and Edison Research, 35% of smart speaker owners in the US are listening to more news and information since the COVID-19 outbreak, and that rises to 50% in the 18-34 age group. The Smart Audio Report, which compares survey results from spring 2019 and spring 2020, shows a marked uptick of smart speaker and smartphone-based voice assistant usage for a variety of tasks — 10.8 different tasks per week now, versus 8.8 per week in 2019.

“With tens of millions of Americans no longer commuting, smart speakers are becoming even more important as a conduit for news and information,” said Edison Research SVP Tom Webster, in a release, “and this increased usage and facility with voice assistants will likely increase demand for this technology in vehicles once our commutes resume,” he said.

By pushing us to get used to talking to our smart speakers in the comfort of our homes, it seems that the lockdown could lay the groundwork for increased use of voice control in our vehicles, and potentially into the office too. Where voice is not suitable, smartphone apps provide a personal “thing” to touch without fear of infection. Facial recognition, meanwhile, can serve as an effective contact-free access control mechanism but may conflict with mask-wearing guidelines.

As the pandemic passes, hands-free control through secure mobile apps will provide security access, opening of doors, directing of elevators, turning on lights, adjusting temperatures and even using vending machines without ever having to touch anything. Visitor pre and onsite registration, building wayfinding and navigation, the raising and lowering of desks and chairs, along with window shade adjustments, could all be controlled by an app on our smartphones. “Basically, we will see hands-free control of anything and everything that can be controlled with our phones. Facial recognition, security access, new elevator protocols and even increased staircase use will continue to influence the evolution of buildings and app requirements,” says Smeenk, in an article for Connected Real Estate Magazine. We may be returning to normality soon but it will not be the same as before, and this “new normal” will focus largely on how we choose to start using our commercial real estate again. Be it offices, hotels, retail, or entertainment, the building owners and managers have a huge part to play in making this “new normal” as safe and functional as possible.

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