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New Technology for Old Buildings Will Change Facilities Management

Construction and real estate have become the focal point of technology companies and venture firms across the world. They are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into an industry that has been largely devoid of tech investment for decades. Smart buildings appear to be at the center of this conversation.

Connecting the technology infrastructure to the physical spaces where we work and live can deliver significant benefits in terms of managing the use of energy, optimizing space utilization, and of course controlling operational and maintenance costs. But new intelligent buildings represent a tiny fraction of the built space. Statistics show that for every new commercial property we build, there are approximately 100 existing buildings of a similar type. If you consider all building types, the numbers become staggering. According to IFMA (International Facilities Management Association), one in every three buildings is more than 50 years old. More than 70% of buildings are 20 years old, or older! 

Because these existing buildings are not “smart”  (after all, they were built before the idea even existed) accessing information about them is difficult. In fact, more than 60% of existing buildings are managed using paper drawings, specifications, or manuals. One crippling result is that a whopping 86% of facilities managers admit they are not prepared for an emergency or a catastrophe! Even when information has been scanned and collected on computer hard drives, the scenario isn’t much better.

Imagine this: There is an explosion in your building, and everyone is trying to get out, including Fred, your facility manager. Jim at the front office shouts across the hall “Hey, Fred! Emergency Services are here. They need to know where the shut-off valves are!” 

Fred pauses and turns to his desktop only to find the power is out. He reaches for his laptop just as his mobile phone rings. It’s his wife who is traveling. “Honey you are OK? Someone posted that there was an explosion in the building!”

What’s wrong with this picture? 

Even though Fred’s wife is thousands of miles away, she sees a social media post about the incident and calls within minutes to check on him. Meanwhile, Fred is still stuck in his building trying to find the shut-off valve!

Sadly, this scenario is alarmingly common.

In 2017, Burton Barr, the iconic flagship headquarters of the Phoenix Public Library, suffered serious water damage. According to Phoenix Fire Captain, Reda Bigler, a sprinkler pipe in the ceiling of the building’s fifth floor ruptured when a storm lifted the roof of the building and slammed it back down. The damaged pipe caused about 50-60 gallons of water per minute to start flowing through the building. (To put that in context, a fire hydrant typically sprays 90 gallons of water per minute according to Bigler.)

It took facilities managers at Burton Barr three hours to find the shutoff valve. As a result, the library lost thousands of precious books and building suffered damages of $10 million. 

A similar incident occurred at Ohio State University when a student left a dorm room window open on the sixth floor during a cold winter and a water pipe froze and burst. Again, no one could find the shut-off valve, and worse, the facility manager was on vacation. The result was that all six floors were flooded causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage within a few hours.

Incidents like this happen more frequently than we think in older buildings – every two years, according to one recent survey – often because of the lack of instant access to existing information. In fact, we have to wonder if these “catastrophes” might simply have been accidents if information was available as it was needed.

As in the Ohio State incident above, the problem becomes even worse when specific knowledge about a facility exists only in the memory of its building managers. IFMA statistics show that 40% of today’s facility professionals will start retiring in the next eight years, leaving the next generation with no access to critical data in emergencies, not to mention in their performance of scheduled maintenance. 

While much of today’s building information is stuck in basements and boxes of old documents, we live in a world where Google searches 30 trillion pages within a second, and Amazon can search the inventories of 600 million products in the same amount of time. 

This level of speed and access has become a common occurrence in our daily lives using mobile apps because they consumerize information and make it easy for anyone to use. We can find directions, check the weather, search for the nearest gas station, order food, listen to music, get a boarding pass, and on and on. Apps are easy to use and give us access to even the most obscure information within minutes. And yet it still takes facilities professionals hours to find a simple shut-off valve.

What if Fred reached for a mobile phone in our earlier scenario, and was able to tap into his building information app and shout to Jim, “The shut-offs are on the second floor behind the stairwell,” while he was running down the hall? What if someone at the Burton Barr library or at Ohio State University had immediate access to information regarding plumbing controls on a tablet or other mobile device? If that happened, we would not be describing these accidents as catastrophes. 

The facilities space is no stranger to technology: the profession has been using computer-based tools for decades, but most of the tech in use today is dated. Solutions are often proprietary in nature, information is server-based, and most importantly, it lacks instant access.

This is why we believe the way we access information in facilities management will change rapidly in the future. We’ve seen the advantages of technology when applied to the industry, and we know it can be even better. We’ll want easy access to existing information in plans, blueprints, operating manuals, emergency and life safety manuals, but we will also want immediate access to it no matter where we are, what time it is, or what device we’re carrying at the time. 

And that will require a mobile app – the kind of technology that moves complex and voluminous information to the cloud, and provides instant access to it from a mobile device. That’s how companies like Google and Amazon are able to respond to our needs so fast. The use of Artificial Intelligence and machine learning tools are further enhancing this capability.

Today we live in an app economy, and apps are coming to the facilities space. They will change the way we access information. Not just information related to building use or occupation, but also critical information for emergency, safety, compliance and the day-to-day functions of building operations and maintenance. 

The use of apps will transform the job of facilities managers regardless of the age of the building or the sophistication of its systems. Facilities managers will have instant access to any building-related information not only to prevent accidents from becoming catastrophes, but also to reduce operating costs and significantly improving customer service. Plus, when (not if) major problems arise at a building, old or new, the solution will only have to do the very thing that we have trained our reflexes to do: reach for our phones.

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