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Delivering Smart Building Options to Tenants With a Surprising Solution: Wi-Fi

EagleBank Arena is a 10,000-seat venue at George Mason University, not far from the nation’s capital. Last November, teams of first responders arrived as part of a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) exercise to locate and evacuate people during an active shooter scenario.

Typically, when first responders sweep a building they are limited to finding only the people they can actually see. In a large building with many levels or floors, this limitation means it can take a long time to find and rescue civilians. On this day, however, that was not the case.

The DHS was testing a new technological platform using WiFi signals to track the location of cell phones and other smart devices in the arena. The first responders wore special tags to differentiate themselves from others in the venue. At the command center, teams received all this data on a display that visualized the flow of crowds through the space, identifying the first responders from the civilians. Coordinators could direct officers to specific locations in the arena and even infer where the shooter was located based on the movement of people.

This was the first program to successfully harness WiFi-based location for an indoor emergency response scenario. That’s because early WiFi solutions could only identify a person within 10 meters about 60 percent of the time and GPS doesn’t work inside buildings. Now, it’s possible to pinpoint indoor location within two meters 90 percent of the time, making WiFi a viable option for indoor location solutions. This novel test led to faster evacuations, a quicker ability to resolve the situation and, ultimately, the possibility of more lives saved.

This was a striking example of how buildings can leverage WiFi, a ubiquitous technology in today’s world, to deliver new innovations to tenants and municipalities. Smart buildings are a trending topic with quite a bit of speculation but, as it turns out, the key to making any piece of real estate “smart” has already arrived.

It is early days in the development of truly smart buildings, but it is not early days for the technology that will eventually enable them to achieve incredible efficiencies and valued experiences. Consider that for many years, WiFi was not a prime concern for property owners, leaving corporate tenants to hunt for their own reliable internet connectivity. Yet today, as the importance of WiFi has grown, many property owners now provide it as amenity in leasing agreements to make their spaces more attractive. Eventually, we believe it will become a must-have offering for all modern buildings.

While the Homeland Security exercise may seem unrelated to typical corporate real estate concerns, it leverages the same data that drives most elements of what constitutes a smart building. Indoor location technology that harnesses the innovative use of WiFi enables owners to provide smart services to tenants in an informed, intelligent way.

At EagleBank Arena in Fairfax, VA, first responders tested a new systems using WiFi signals to track the location of cell phones and other smart devices in the arena to make sure everyone was accounted for. (Credit: EagleBank Arena)

Such technology begins with an awareness of where and when people spend the most time in an office space, as well as real-time patterns of movement. This fundamental data can then be used by both tenants and building owners to make operations more efficient and cost-effective.

For example, on each floor of a building, lighting and temperature control can be adjusted based on when people are actually in the area. Doors can be locked and unlocked based on patterns of use and occupancy trends. Cleaning and maintenance crews can be scheduled for key times following high use rather than arbitrarily cleaning everywhere each evening. An entire HVAC system can be programmed to be strategic, rather than provide unnecessary blanket coverage to seldom occupied zones of a building. In fact, at our property company we have found that optimizing HVAC and lighting alone based on occupancy results in cost savings of 18 percent across typical corporate building environments.

It can be daunting to decide how and when to invest in infrastructure that makes a building smart. One entry point into smart buildings is the smart office. In some markets, companies pay up to $100 a square foot to lease corporate real estate. There is a big push to maximize efficiency, which begins with analyzing how to reduce the footprint each employee needs in an office in a positive way. But to do so, companies must first understand precisely how their space is being used. That requires data to inform them if their space is used effectively and, as importantly, if and where it is not.

Can they get more value out of their existing space? Can more work be accomplished in the same footprint? If they need to scale and hire more employees, how can their office be redesigned to accommodate them?

The search for such answers ultimately leads most to look at technological solutions that capture and analyze the (anonymous) data they need to make decisions, while prioritizing individuals’ privacy. The easiest move is to pair such solutions with the building’s WiFi infrastructure.

Security, which is a common need across all corporate real estate, also makes sense as a starting point into the smart building market, with an eye to what we know is now possible and the likely future of smart buildings: public safety. Ensuring that first responders can be guided throughout a building to respond in an emergency situation is a measure of public safety that goes far beyond unlocking and locking doors, and is now proven to be effective with WiFi.

While owners could deploy their own customized solutions to detect the location of people inside a building, that represents considerable infrastructure and management costs. By far, the most straightforward way to configure a smart building is to consider whether owners can simply embrace advanced software that relies on the same WiFi access points that are already present.

We’ve seen what’s possible when precision indoor location technology is integrated into existing building management and workplace systems. The insights that flow from a smart building help tenants and their employees alike. Companies can reconfigure their office space to best meet specific needs, measure the impact of such changes in advance of implementing them, embrace the rising trend of flexible work arrangements, and use patterns of employees to plan and resource accordingly for the future. Meanwhile, their workers can locate in real-time the workspace they need, find resources quickly, intelligently plan their days, and easily connect with colleagues. Importantly, by not storing or using any personally identifiable information, the right platform protects privacy, which is a common concern in any corporate office environment.

Indoor location brings myriad new advantages to owners and tenants of any building, with many more to come, from smarter lighting systems, more efficient cleaning crews, and redesigned office space to a future with defacto public safety capabilities that are in step with fire extinguishers and exit lighting.

All signs point to indoor location technology becoming a building amenity as common as WiFi itself. Aside from the clear benefits to property owners and tenants, this technology builds the foundation for the smart buildings of tomorrow. Yet nobody has to wait until tomorrow. Because the solutions exist right now in something as ubiquitous as a WiFi signal.

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Propmodo is a global multimedia effort to explore how emerging technologies affect our built environment.

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