What’s Stopping Innovation in Buildings?

The Overlay Approach to Building Operations and Management

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If you’ve been paying attention to the building operations and management space, you know there’s plenty of frustration around the slow pace of technology adoption. While other industries are building driverless cars and using AI to predict shopping habits, building teams are still struggling to meet minimum requirements. And it’s not at the fault of the operators. It’s the ramifications of poor technology interoperability, data access and exchange, and inefficient processes. There’s definitely room for improvement.

The pandemic is not to blame for this, but can actually be credited with pushing the industry in the right direction. “Fundamentally, a lot of things have changed, and even when we’re back at 100 percent occupancy, how people interact with and live and work in buildings will never go back to the way it was,” explained Rajavel Subramanian, Co-founder and CTO at Facilio. “The technological advances that would have happened over the next 10-15 years are now likely to happen over the next five years due to the pandemic’s acceleration of technology adoption.”

Old tech and new challenges

Yet, the sad truth is that many buildings are still managed with 1990s technology and spreadsheets. The irony is that the technology currently exists to change this and bring buildings into the 21st century but, like a big ship, changing direction is a big undertaking and many have opted out or pushed it to another day. However, the pressure is mounting for changes to take place. Operations and management teams are tasked with keeping spaces comfortable, sustainable, efficient, safe, healthy, and well-maintained and the list keeps growing as buildings are expected to deliver more. More can include meeting climate change goals or meeting occupants’ experience expectations. The O&M teams are the best point person to head these initiatives but the tools needed to do their jobs right and do them well are readily unavailable.

Buildings create an incredible amount of data every day. Core data sources can include HVAC, lighting, metering, access control, video surveillance, and elevators while other sources of data can include indoor air quality, occupancy, WiFi, and reservation systems. Data experts would look at this list and see dozens of opportunities to improve processes through data but, unfortunately, data is dispersed, fragmented, and inaccessible. Getting to data becomes a bottleneck for stakeholders looking for information in the complex and decentralized landscape. Adding to the pain and redundancy, many of these systems utilize an outdated UI.

The current O&M landscape is fully analyzed in a recent report by Rajavel Subramanian and Nexus Lab’s Founder, James Dice. The report dives deep into the information architecture within buildings and portfolios, and the silos that O&M teams must run between in daily operations. The issues briefly mentioned previously are system silos where, at the building level, there is a lack of focus on a holistic and integrated technology design, making it challenging, if not impossible, to meet increasing expectations that require data integration and transparency. These issues can be expanded as portfolios grow and each building becomes its own silo of data, known as building silos. Finally, functional silos are created by systems based on needs such as CMMS, energy management, tenant billing, and more.

Each silo on its own is a powerful data warehouse but lack of standardization and integration are monumental barriers for innovation. With so much data already in existence with complicated UIs and backend infrastructure, moving in a different direction to a better way of managing a building can feel overwhelming. Fortunately, there’s more than one way to turn a ship. “Depending on context, O&M teams can prioritize which silo problems to address, and then focus on specific systems, buildings, or functions instead of using an all-in approach,” explained Subramanian. “Since new systems and buildings will be added to the portfolio, and because functionality needs evolve over time, the solution needs to be flexible and extendable.”

Complexity of Building Portfolios: A report by James Dice and Raj Subramanian

A new and unified software architecture for connected building operations 

Part of making buildings better for O&M teams today is preventing the backlog of issues from ever happening again. To do that, technology infrastructure in buildings needs to be future-proof. “When we’re installing systems into buildings, we have to think about what’s next and if what we’re building now will be able to handle something new if it’s added later,” said Phillip Kopp, CEO & Co-founder of Conectric Networks, a wireless sensor company focused on energy usage in buildings. But this isn’t exclusive to software as Kopp stated that when the device’s batteries die, the device dies with its batteries.

The answer isn’t simply adding something new to these tech stacks. “For the challenges associated with deploying new data sources, none of the existing systems are equipped to handle any of that data. It’s going to add a lot more to the plate of O&M teams instead of making it simpler for stakeholders,” explained Subramanian. No one wants that. “The solution is a new type of architecture to tackle the problem and bring the transformation that O&M teams need.”

The right solution architecture shares and consolidates data while promoting interoperability and openness. The old “rip and replace” of existing hardware and software just isn’t feasible in many of today’s environments. Based in a cloud environment, a modern overlay software constitutes an edge layer that supports integration with the underlying building systems and closes the data and usability gaps between silos. Overlay software sits on top of existing infrastructure giving access to and expanding functionality of available data sources to stakeholders who need it. Based in a cloud environment, modern overlay software can close the data and usability gaps between silos.

An extensible overlay architecture: A report by James Dice and Raj Subramanian

This data is useful beyond the day to day operation of buildings and can be essential in ensuring safety and comfort for occupants within buildings. “Right now O&M teams are in a position to monitor occupancy in different spaces but also to ventilate the space properly, with visibility into indoor air quality and other important metrics,” said Subramanian. “Possibly most importantly, they’re able to communicate that information effectively to occupants so that they’re comfortable and know spaces are safe to be in.” 

When data is normalized and standardized, analytics can be applied over these unified data sets. This visibility into building operations could be easily shared with stakeholders and other applications that require the data to optimally run. It’s possible that the right overlay software will lift the innovation barrier that many commercial real estate companies and building managers are hitting instead of meeting their goals. Building teams struggling to hit deadlines and expectations may shy away from adding “more” to their tech stack but the current state of the building technology is unsustainable and, honestly, exhausting. Something needs to change for us to move forward. This will only happen by connecting disparate building systems to create the holistic environment that O&M teams need to do their jobs better, faster and more efficiently.

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