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Smart buildings during COVID-19

Clever building systems and good integration helped some businesses better manage the pandemic. The future may be more promising as a result.


June 9, 2021
By Neil Sutton
Image: Iaremenko / iStock / Getty Images Plus

The way buildings and office spaces have been used in the last year has been very much tied to the evolving pandemic situation.

Offices closed or reopened or closed again depending on jurisdictional health requirements and company policies. With the end of the pandemic possibly in sight, these facilities may be able to start planning for more permanent employee access, while still factoring in lingering work-from-home policies for some
of their workers.

Throughout the COVID-19 saga, smart building technologies have helped to carry building operators forward.

Tighter and more efficient integration of surveillance, access control, intrusion, lighting, parking and environmental controls allows those systems to leverage each other’s strengths while generating useful data for building owners.

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“We’re definitely seeing more integration between physical security systems and wider business systems,” explains Owen Kell, senior IoT research associate, Memoori. “In terms of IoT and how it fits into the world of smart buildings, it’s through these integrations with previously siloed data sets that you start to get ‘more than the sum of its parts’ value generation.”

The security ecosystem — specifically video, access control and intrusion — was already coming together quite successfully, says Tom Mechler, regional marketing manager, intrusion and access control, Bosch Security Systems. “An alarm system or intrusion system is very good at reporting events. In the case of video surveillance, we’re seeing the improvement of video content analysis,” he says.

“By integrating an intrusion system with a surveillance system, you get that ability to report these events. An access control system can tell you where people are, and who’s going where, and should they be there? The intrusion system can tell the other two systems, ‘I’m armed, so nobody should be here.’”

Adds Paul Garms, director of regional marketing, video systems, Bosch: “These things are all coming together where you’ve got very powerful sensors generating vast amounts of data. There’s got to be software behind this that’s then triggering actions like alarms or, even better, giving you some predictive ability.”

Knowing where people are in a building generates useful information in terms of optimizing HVAC and energy usage. That type of information is also tailor-made for implementing a building occupancy policy during COVID-19, when a building manager really needs to know how many people are inside a facility at any given time.

The ability to access this data and manage systems from a remote location also means a building operator can implement security pol- icies at a distance. “Remote access is really important,” says Mechler. A building that can be managed remotely needs fewer people on-site to manage it.

During the pandemic, this is particularly advantageous. And while these systems weren’t necessarily built with a pandemic lockdown in mind, in many cases they were “already flexible enough to handle these new requirements. There’s going to less people [in the office] at certain times, and there’s going to be more flexible hours, and we’re going to be using our buildings differently,” he says.

Knowing who is in a building and at what time can help facilities plan other services, such as cleaning or catering, more effectively, adds Kell. “It’s also through more partnerships, more open APIs, and data-sharing between previously siloed building systems that’s enabling this kind of thing to happen,” he says.

The cloud

As much as building technology can be integrated successfully to realize efficiencies inside a facility, hosting some systems, like access control, in the cloud creates a different set of dynamics.

In some ways, the cloud has changed the relationship between the systems integrator and the customer, says Jason Ouellette, director of technology and business development, Johnson Controls. In some cases that customer may have a more direct relationship with a vendor as the host of a solution.

“Adapting to those changes and how integrations work is, I think, also vitally important,” says Ouellette.

“Some of the hosted side of it becomes easier for the integrator. They get to really focus more on the field deployment, potentially offering services for the managed aspect of things over the hosted, because that part’s resolved. It allows them to differentiate themselves and provide services in a different way.”

Systems integrators are traditionally very strong on the operational technology (OT) side but may have some catching up to do on the information technology (IT) side, argues Kell.

Physical security systems like surveillance cameras, for example, must be installed with the network — and cybersecurity — in mind. “It’s an understanding around cybersecurity and the implications of adding new nodes to the network and making sure that security policies are maintained across the organization. Those are the two main areas that the OT guys need to skill up on,” he says.

But it cuts both ways: those more skilled in IT will still need to step up their game on the operational side.

“It’s the melding of those two worlds that’s the key challenge.”

Post-pandemic

With vaccinations on the rise and COVID numbers declining in most places, a return to “normal” seems possible soon. But whatever “normal” is, it’s not likely to be exactly the same as life pre-pandemic.

“We will get back to where we’re having meetings, working in teams and we’re solving problems on a whiteboard together. Those things are going to happen. But we won’t get back to where everybody’s in an office 40 or 50 hours a week and then they go home. There will be some change,” suggests Mechler. But the flexibility of building technology — which in many cases was put through some major trials during the pandemic — can allow that to happen more easily.

Pandemic-readiness, i.e. the ability to move from “normal” to a potential lockdown or other emergency measure with minimal disruption, could actually be a key differentiator for a building operator or tenant in the future, says Ouellette.

“If I’m offering space in a building for a company…I want to be able to put people at ease that, when you’re here, you’re going to be safe,” he says. “Those are going to be ways that you can now leverage as a competitive advantage to attracting talent and doing business.”

Some security technology has become “supercharged” as a direct result of the pandemic, says Kell — particularly contactless and biometric access control, along with mobile access and apps that can integrate a variety of different building services. Those are likely to continue to have an impact long after we pack away our masks and worry less about social distancing.

But smart building integration, particularly complex integration that engages multiple systems, is still in its infancy.

“I think there is a lot of that going on, but I think it’s early days. I would anticipate as things move forward, you’re going to see a much deeper level of integration and improvement on its capabilities,” says Ouellette.

Adds Kell: “There’s so many diverging factors influencing this whole thing. Overall, the digitization of building assets and the value to be derived from the IoT in smart buildings is still in the very early stages.”

Garms agrees. “There’s a ways to go here, but I think we’re on that path. It’s recognized that there’s a big opportunity out there for integrators and manufacturers like us. A lot of technology that’s making that possible is cloud connectivity and different sensors that we can bring together.”

The future of work is unwritten, and how or where people do their jobs a year from now, or 10 years from now, is difficult to predict.

There are some who may crave a return to the workplace and closer interaction with their co-workers. And others who will cling to the home office where the commute is a staircase and the nearest cubicle mate is the family dog.

Likely, we’ll see a mix of these approaches and some flexibility between the two. If smart building technology has in any way eased these transitions during the pandemic, its future should be interesting to watch and integrators who stay on top of the trends may reap the rewards.


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