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Smart buildings are getting smarter, but can building managers keep up?

Enabled by technology, smart buildings have the potential to consume less energy, generate less waste and provide better quality spaces to inhabitants.
Enabled by technology, smart buildings have the potential to consume less energy, generate less waste and provide better quality spaces to inhabitants.

With trillions of dollars in commercial real estate assets, building and facility managers are searching for innovative ways to maintain structures in a state of good repair while reducing operating costs by cutting waste and energy consumption.

In the U.S. alone, buildings account for 40 per cent of the total energy consumed, which outpaces energy used by any other sector.

The recent advances in communication and information technology, advanced computing and smart algorithms in a hyper-connected world present new opportunities for managing buildings and structures. Enabled by technology, smart buildings have the potential to consume less energy, generate less waste and provide better quality spaces to inhabitants.

While the concept of energy-efficient green buildings is appealing, its implementation relies on a smart workforce to join the ranks of building and facility managers. A trade show focusing on building and facility management recently revealed that the shortage of skilled professionals could be the Achilles’ heel for the energy-efficient future.

A series of expert panels at the REMI Show ’19 earlier this month in Toronto discussed how the Internet of Things, which enables an extensive network of interconnected computers, sensors and objects combined with smart algorithms driven by deep learning and artificial intelligence, has the potential to transform building and facility management.

Whereas current estimates of the market for smart technology in facility management stand at around US$15 billion, that figure is expected to soon grow to $137 billion.

The use of data in building management reveals performance indicators that remain hidden otherwise. A 2015 article in the journal Sustainable Cities and Society reported water use from 2,046 multi-residential buildings in New York City. The buildings had a minimum size of 50,000 square feet. The research found that buildings “in neighborhoods with a greater proportion of renter-occupied units have far higher water use intensity than similar-owner occupied structures.” At the same time, water use was found to be lower in co-op buildings. Without data, it would not be possible to know what type of neighbourhoods or buildings have higher or lower water consumption.

While data enables the facility management industry to make smart decisions, the industry faces labour force challenges. The ageing workforce implies that many front-line workers will soon be retiring. The industry is struggling with attracting younger cohorts. Careers in facility management are not high on the list of professional pursuits of millennials or Generation Zs. Furthermore, the opportunities to train building managers in analytics are also limited.

The nature of work in the future is somewhat uncertain. Advances in automation and artificial intelligence are likely to disrupt the work being done by humans. Many jobs will disappear when autonomous machines replace human labour. However, evolving technologies are giving birth to new opportunities and careers. Facility management is one such field that is about to transform from being hardware focused to software enabled.

Modern buildings are equipped with thousands of sensors recording air quality, humidity, motion, temperature and the presence of noxious gases. The sensors continuously record energy consumption and waste. Smart algorithms running on networked computers analyze sensor-generated data in real time.

The advanced instrumentation generates sophisticated building performance statistics that are displayed on information dashboards. The workforce needed to make informed and smart decisions from the treasure trove of sensor-generated data needs to be both building-science and data-science savvy. Such workers are in very short supply.

Research by Stanford University’s Professor Rishee K Jain, which was published recently in the journal Building and Environment, also observed that those responsible for building energy management “lack the background and experience in data analytics and/or resources to create, interpret and translate results of complex simulations into actionable insights.” Their research concluded that “professionals need more and improved training, especially for simulation tools.”

The facility management industry will be one of the largest sources of instrument-generated data. Most colleges and universities in Canada do not offer degrees in analytics applied to building energy management.

Educational programs to train workers in building informatics, a cross between building science and data science, is an example of a forward-thinking curriculum that will prepare the workforce for the fast-evolving field of building and energy management.

Murtaza Haider is a professor of Real Estate Management at Ryerson University. Stephen Moranis is a real estate industry veteran. They can be reached at www.hmbulletin.com.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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