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Your Building is Struggling Under Social Distancing, Too

Being home 24/7 has resulted in a lot of discoveries. Some people have learned to create an imaginary coworker to blame for the dirty dishes in the sink (I am talking about you, Cheryl), while others have realized their partner is “that guy” who takes all his calls on speakerphone. Ok, maybe these are not completely relatable for everyone, but I am sure you have a few of your own. Some of these discoveries have led to more than a fair amount of stress. COVID-19 has caused new strains on our lives, on our relationships, and on our multifamily buildings.

The average American home pre-coronavirus was actively used a third of the time. First, just think about how much time most people are either at work or sleeping. Then add in commute time, gym trips, dinner and movie nights, weekend day trips, and more, and you start to realize how homes are consistently empty.

This simple math illuminates an interesting change during this time of social distancing: we are asking more than ever from our buildings. With occupants at least doubling the time that they’re within their four plus walls, buildings are feeling the strain of the great work-from-home (WFH) experiment in a number of ways. They are seeing increased load on their systems and higher daytime energy usage than ever. They are keeping up with service calls and dealing with vendors in the midst of a lockdown. They are communicating with tenants and lenders and investors and just about everyone else they are partnered with. They are experiencing more waste than usual. This uptick in activity is putting extra strain on every part of a building’s operations, even their software. Buildings often need multiple different software relationships for daily operations, resulting in the people running buildings and those that live in them switching between multiple software apps every day.

Having the ability to take care of even the most complicated tasks via mobile access has gone from personal convenience to outright necessity due to the precautions needed to slow the spread of this virus. For many multifamily buildings, the facility teams that take care of them may be quarantined to their homes in another part of town and dependent on the capabilities of remote monitoring platforms to see how the building is holding up. The teams that have data available to them and can change system performance from afar were much more prepared for a global pandemic than they could have realized.

“Remote monitoring was becoming common before the stay-at-home recommendations were put in place, but I predict it will soon be a standard offering of all building platforms,” said Reza Alaghehband, CEO of Envio Systems. “Analytics aren’t just about saving money, they can identify anomalies or excess operations and can be the basis for remote troubleshooting and managing. That kind of capability is no longer a ‘nice to have’ when the unexpected like COVID-19 happens, but it’s a necessity for buildings that are busier than normal or now empty.” 

Empty buildings are experiencing challenges, too. Unlike the natural ecosystems that seem to be flourishing with the absence of people and fresh pollution, commercial buildings are programmed to operate best in line with people’s habits. JLL states unused buildings that shut off unnecessary lighting and change other processes can reduce their energy by up to 85% and to help with these urgent decisions, Scotland-based Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) recently launched a maintenance guide for empty buildings and ASHRAE released guidance on HVAC preventative measures.

“Energy efficiency is a great opportunity for buildings to reduce overall operating spend, and analytics software is an enabler,” explained Joseph Aamidor, Founder of Aamidor Consulting. “First, without having facilities staff in the space as frequently, it is important to have a software solution that can identify what is on and off, which can inform opportunities to shutdown or setback non-critical infrastructure. Second, tracking the building’s peak demand, before a utility bill has arrived, will provide data that can help to identify opportunities to drive cost-saving reductions.”

Hatch Data, a commercial real estate software company focused on building operations performance management, has studied how the coronavirus is affecting operational practices across buildings over 400 million square feet of occupied space. Their findings show electricity reduction is following the movement of stay-at-home orders.

Ben Mendelson, Co-Founder & Chief Commercial Officer of Hatch Data, explained that commercial buildings don’t simply “shut off” during this unique time of non-occupancy. “We’re having weekly conversations with operators to review reporting and make performance adjustments across their portfolios. This fits into a broader need to control costs right now, with energy being an important component, but we can’t forget the primary focus remains the health of tenants. Buildings need to continue to meet lease obligations, operate critical systems and ensure proper maintenance to be prepared for re-occupancy. That’s why you’re seeing a 20% reduction benchmark versus more.”

To keep buildings healthy, operators must do everything they can to keep air circulating, filters changed, and water moving. Without regularly running sinks and flushing toilets, pipes hold stagnant water and become the perfect petri dish for Legionella Disease.

A new important element of keeping buildings healthy is in removing any COVID-19 remnants before people return. Most bacteria and viruses are inactivated when exposed to UVC light which is a common methodology for disinfecting drinking water, air, and more, but the lighting is not safe for people to be around. Companies such as Xenex in Texas and UVD Robots in Denmark have seen a sales surge in their disinfecting robots. The robots range from almost $70,000 to $125,000 each and effectively remove the virus’ presence in rooms before people enter. But in many cases, these costly robots fall outside of the building’s budget. 

“Buildings operate on a budget built off assumptions, and none of those included sitting at near zero occupancy for two months,” continued Mendelson. “There’s going to be a need to update forecasts for 2020 and adjust 2021 planning, and we’re helping operators through this time by using data science to help make in-year adjustments and predict future performance.”

Maybe there will be a silver lining for the FM teams after this experience. As Kieron Lillis, Facilities Manager at the National Theatre in the UK said, “When the full company returns, and the building reopens, we hope colleagues will take a moment to reflect on how their work environment was cared for in their absence. Perhaps the relative obscurity in which the facilities management teams previously operated will be a thing of the past and we will remain visible.”

Our routines have been flipped on their heads and our new habits would have been laughable a few short weeks ago but COVID-19 has revealed we are all connected and our actions affect others. From quality family time and Frozen 2 marathons, our days continue to evolve into unknown territory. Our buildings, and of course the people that run them, are also navigating uncharted waters. Let’s be grateful for our buildings and those that are working hard, even risking their own health, to keep us safe at home. Hopefully this strain on our buildings will help make them better for the next unprecedented disaster, whenever and whatever that may be.

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