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The COVID-19 Outbreak Is as Good a Reason as Any to Learn More About Our Buildings

We talk a lot about how our buildings need to know us, to anticipate our needs before we even say them. But, how much do we know about our buildings? How much do we know their staff, their owners, and their vendors? How much do we know about who is in a building with us or what condition it is in? The fact of the matter is that we know next to nothing about our buildings except for the small part of it we occupy at any given time. The coronavirus outbreak might change that forever.

Already, we are finding out that what we don’t know about our buildings can be harmful in an emergency. Beyond just knowing what a building’s emergency plan is, there are a lot of questions that building occupants are finding themselves wondering about their homes and offices. Questions that were never previously even considered before the pandemic are now pressing. How many other residents have tested positive? When was the last time the common areas were disinfected? How purified is the air from the ventilation system? A little over a month ago these kinds of questions were considered superfluous, at best. Now they seem imperative to our very existence.

So, if we are now interested in our buildings, how can they tell us about themselves? Well, there are certainly a few obvious solutions. Cleaning checklists have been around for a while, now they just might be a bit more conspicuous and easier to read. Confirmation of sanitation could get much more granular, “some cleaning services have started putting stickers on desks that have been disinfected,” said Colette Temmink, President of property services at office management platform Eden. We joked about ways that these stickers might become a somewhat overlooked detail like the neatly folded toilet paper embellishment than we have all come to expect from our hotel bathrooms. “This only goes so far though,” she said. “With real-time communication you could tell occupants when something has been cleaned and when the next cleaning is scheduled.”

There is much more that a building can tell you besides its hygiene, of course. A building’s occupants might want to know about the vendors themselves, whether or not they are licensed and certified, for example. It could also show off a bit. Many buildings have invested heavily in sustainability goals or wellness programs, others work hard to only source from local businesses. These types of initiatives will only increase if they are able to reap a public relations benefit from them. Communicating to the occupants helps buildings get credit for the work they do and helps building management establish a brand for a product that was always viewed as a commodity.

To enable this kind of communication many property managers are turning to tenant-facing mobile phone apps. These technologies have the added benefit of being able to collect information from tenants as well. We have all walked past the smiley-face buttons that are supposed to help bathroom attendants keep their areas sanitary. I suspect now we will see a lot more responses from unhappy patrons about the state of a facility, especially if they don’t have to touch some gross communal display in a public bathroom to do it.

Knowing about our buildings can tell us much more about ourselves as well. While so many people claim to be interested in reducing their consumption, they often make little progress without some sort of a feedback loop. Buildings that have been able to set up tenant energy tracking and benchmark dashboards have been able to encourage their tenants to reduce their energy usage. Tenant occupied space often accounts for the majority of a building’s energy use. Since building management can’t force their tenants to do (or not do) anything, setting up a dashboard that helps them understand their consumption can go a long way toward nudging them into better practices.

Our buildings are increasingly learning about us, personalizing their services to our needs (even if we don’t know what our own needs are). Now it is time for us to learn about them. Occupants are just as important building stakeholders as anyone. In order for buildings to improve both their operations and their stewardship, occupants need to be part of the solution. Technology can help the surrounding world understand us in a much more personal way, but that goes both ways. We already have many of the tools necessary to know more about our built world than ever before, if we are willing to use them.

Editor and Co-Founder

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

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