The rapid spread of COVID-19 has caused sweeping changes to our way of life including social distancing and stay-at-home orders. These new measures have left commercial buildings across the United States standing virtually empty, with hotels vacant and offices unoccupied as employees shift to remote work.
So, what does this mean for facility management teams challenged with operating building systems in uncertain times, when tenant-focused needs like heating, cooling, and lighting have shifted so dramatically? How should portfolio managers protect against low occupancy and potential loss of revenue? Perhaps most importantly, how can on-site management teams stay safe, agile, and responsive to dynamic situations when most buildings are ill-equipped to be operated remotely?
The fact is COVID-19 has highlighted clear technological limitations in the built environment. Nearly two-thirds of buildings in the U.S. were built before the end of the Cold War and now have severely antiquated infrastructure, lacking the foundation for regular and seamless control system upgrades. Many of these properties are using legacy control systems that simply weren’t designed with remote operations in mind. In my role at Carbon Lighthouse, an Energy Savings-as-a-Service company that delivers profitable climate solutions for commercial real estate portfolios, I’ve seen firsthand the majority of real estate building management systems (BMS) do not have remote operation capabilities. In fact, in Carbon Lighthouse’s experience analyzing 100 million square feet of U.S. based commercial real estate data, less than fifty percent of buildings are only somewhat, or mostly, accessible to operate and access information remotely, which, in many cases, does not mean “plug and play.” Fifteen percent do not have a BMS to speak of—no remote access or control, let alone on-site technology. The remaining 35 percent are a difficult mix of communication or non-proprietary communication protocols that require extensive software workarounds. Compounding the issue further are concerns with cybersecurity and a lack of coordination between IT and controls companies, which often make remote access difficult to achieve.
Despite these challenges, there are actions that facility management teams can take now to uncover hidden inefficiencies, recover costs, and deliver new value to building owners during times of uncertainty. When applied across entire CRE portfolios, these measures can help to ensure properties are fully optimized and even recoup some losses during times of low occupancy. Below, I’ve outlined what facility managers can do to strategically move forward, starting with a frank assessment of their current operations, followed by execution and evaluation.
First, assess the full building and identify areas that can be adjusted easily and those that cannot. There is a certain amount of equipment in every building that is simply not designed to be shut down. For example, emergency lighting and equipment still need to operate normally and many tenants may have equipment that still needs to run such as server rooms. Also, take stock of which assets can be handled remotely and which cannot. Many management systems allow access to data streams that can offer insights into optimization opportunities and critical trends. For example, a skilled facility operative could use strategies normally employed for troubleshooting to detect lack of load remotely. If the control systems are at their minimum position, the load is likely low and the standard operating setpoint could be lowered further (or turned off completely).
Second, there are several things that facility managers can implement or adjust immediately. Many buildings have “shoulder season” sequences designed for lower load situations. Normally this is designed to adjust with shifting from summer to winter operation, but they are likely employable for drastic changes in tenant headcount as well. Static setpoints and standard hours are simple sequences of operation that can be optimized to be more dynamic, with pre-fixed slopes as a function of outside air temperature and time of day. The key to success is ensuring sequences and resets are adaptive to the building load and match altered operating hours due to COVID-19, a task that can be executed with low contractor and vendor hours and at a minimal cost. Better yet, it doesn’t just have to be for one property at a time, this kind of optimization work can be done across a portfolio of buildings, resulting in substantial utility cost savings and the ability for managers to recoup some of the costs lost elsewhere during this time of uncertainty.
Lastly, take this opportunity without full occupancy to evaluate the projects that have been put aside and determine where current technology or operations are falling short. This could include installing variable frequency drives (investing in additions to motors to allow for varying speed) and more.
Investment in moderate cost upgrades today can help future-proof your buildings for tomorrow. This is also the time to evaluate vendors and protocols to identify those that will best establish a framework for long-term success. For example, it’s worth investigating in a BMS upgrade that allows for remote control or viewing. This might also be the time to invest in categorizing the building data to enable enhanced standardization and clarity around the common issues tenants identify like temperature control, giving facility management insight into operational trends they can take action on regardless of location. This is also an opportunity to sync with IT departments to ensure you’re on the same page regarding remote security protocols.
With tenants’ immediate needs no longer top of mind, now is a great opportunity for facility managers and property owners to prioritize technology investments, and energy efficiency strategies. Advancements in technology coupled with the right solutions partners are now making it easier than ever to do so. Decision makers should focus on those solutions that offer them deeper datasets, so they can credibly prove the value of their investments. This includes exploring emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and sensor technology that can discover wasted energy sources and be relatively cost effective to deploy. Pursuing strategic technology investments now will help commercial real estate decision makers more easily access data, assess trends across properties, and make more informed decisions to effectively pivot strategies where needed and future-proof. And with rising utility costs, efforts to minimize energy inefficiencies across a portfolio of properties now could result in millions of dollars in cost savings over the next few years. It simply makes business sense.