As lockdown restrictions are eased and companies rush to prepare their office re-entry strategies, commercial real estate owners and managers can easily find themselves at a crossroad between savvy, data-empowered decision making and being left in the dark.
With occupant health & safety at the top of everyone’s priority list there is an inconvenient tradeoff with energy use – new operating guidelines will require more heating, cooling and ventilation which can have a major impact on energy. Luckily, smart building technologies can help the property sector find quick wins to improve safety & cost, increase visibility of building performance and make decisions with more confidence during these challenging times.
KEY ISSUES BUILDING MANAGERS NEED TO BE AWARE OF
To put this in context we need to understand why ventilation is so important. There are three main ways that COVID-19 can be spread: surfaces (via touching), person to person (via large moisture droplets that fall out of the air rapidly), and airborne (via fine aerosols that can linger in air for several hours). The uncomfortable reality is that even with rigorous deep cleaning, hand washing and social distancing we are still at risk of airborne virus transmission, especially when sharing indoor spaces with several other people. In order to minimise this risk, building ventilation systems must deliver as much fresh air as possible to occupied spaces and avoid any extract air recirculation or heat recovery that could reintroduce COVID-19 into the fresh air supply.
With the onset of summer, warm outdoor temperatures will put additional load on cooling systems as they try to cope with the new fresh air requirements. So, chillers and air conditioners need to be operating at their best in order to keep comfort and energy costs under control. The same can be said for heating systems come autumn when they must cope with large volumes of cold outdoor air each morning. Building management teams should also consider alternative heat recovery options (such as glycol loops) that can operate safely and efficiently under the new post-COVID requirements.
Humidity is another key issue that must be controlled to ensure health & safety. Best practice for minimising the risk of virus transmission is to keep the relative humidity of indoor air between 40-60%. In the winter, when cold outdoor air is heated up to a comfortable temperature this causes the relative humidity to drop below best practice (sometimes as low as 20-25%) making it easier for virus particles to remain airborne, and harder for our bodies to protect against pathogens. Without proper HVAC humidification control, UK buildings will struggle to maintain safe, comfortable environments for their occupants. As with heat recovery there are various humidification options available, and building management teams should carefully consider the energy efficiency and lifecycle cost impacts of these options when selecting a long term solution.
THE ROLE OF SMART BUILDING TECHNOLOGY IN MANAGING BUILDINGS POST COVID-19
With all of these new challenges for the property sector, comfort and energy costs will suffer without clear visibility and control over building performance. This is where proactive use of smart building technologies can be critical for success. Remote sensors, digital twinning, user-friendly dashboards and automatic alerts all help management teams identify and solve problems quickly, whilst gaining a stronger understanding of how their assets are operating and what key risks they face each day.
For instance, a single wireless sensor placed in a meeting room can give you an incredible amount of insight. Will the temperature be comfortable for that important 09:00 client meeting? Is it getting too warm in the afternoon because of direct sunlight, or because of overcrowding? Is the crowding also causing high CO2 levels that affect cognitive performance, and how quickly can this be resolved by opening doors & windows? What time was the room cleaned last night, and did the cleaners forget to turn the lights off? Are the cleaning products causing air quality issues, and should we be concerned about humidity too? These questions can quickly be answered with simple, cost effective solutions to help make buildings safer and more efficient.
As COVID-19 catalyses a rapid uptake of smart building technologies, it will be important to keep these tools integrated rather than isolated. Being able to share data across platforms will future-proof your digital toolkit to ensure it stays useful and relevant for years to come. Scalability is also important: how difficult will it be to add new monitoring points in additional rooms? New dashboards? New types of sensors and data streams?
These health & safety requirements also create questions around net zero ambitions and how property portfolios can navigate a pathway to reach such a goal. Will energy intensity targets need to be relaxed? Will changing dynamics of electricity supply and demand enable a cleaner power grid, reducing the need for energy efficiency or on-site renewables? We have yet to see the long term implications of this; however, taking time to review the energy and climate risks posed by COVID-19 will at least help the property sector understand where it is most exposed and what it needs to focus on in the short term.
In a time of disruption and no clear answers, we are facing a lot of challenges but also opportunities for adaptation and renewal. Now is the time to make decisions that will position our building portfolios for long term success, and make a positive difference at a time when it’s urgently needed.
If you’re concerned about the implications of occupiers returning to your buildings get in touch with our team today, we can help provide the data insight and strategy to help you reoccupy buildings safely and efficiently, email firstname.lastname@example.org