How technology is turning buildings into butlers

Building systems are advancing as quickly as smartphones, and they're becoming more connected as building engineering becomes more sophisticated.

November 24, 2016

You enter your office and check your phone. An app displays your day’s schedule and prompts you to reserve a room for your next meeting.

When you settle down to work, the smart building controls automatically adjust the lighting and temperature just for you, and even plays your most productivity-enhancing background music. Morning coffee? The office espresso machine knows you prefer a double.

Sound a bit too futuristic? Maybe in the average office in 2017—but  technologies like these are already in use at The Edge in Amsterdam, largely occupied by Deloitte. And other workplaces could be following suit in the not-too-distant future.

Buildings that act like butlers are made possible by mobile app and smart building technologies. Building systems are advancing as quickly as smartphones and tablets, and they’re becoming more connected as building engineering becomes more sophisticated.

Like a butler, the building learns user preferences, and anticipates their every need—include tracking their coffee preferences. While The Edge, with its 28,000 sensors linked via custom-designed lighting panels that double as Internet-connected data hubs, may have the most advanced implementation of smart building systems in the world, the technologies involved are already widely available.

Singapore’s Capital Tower, for example, has a smart parking lot with real-time maps that help drivers find empty spaces. While the building was completed in 2000, it now has not only the smart lot, but an integrated building management system that auto-manages many building functions.

“Smart building and facility management technologies are evolving rapidly, and becoming more affordable and mainstream every year,” says Maureen Ehrenberg, Executive Managing Director, Integrated Facility Management at JLL. “An increasing number of companies are adopting smartphone apps for their employees, making it easier for them to reserve meeting rooms, find a parking space, order drinks or meals and control temperature and lighting in their workspaces.”

Mobile apps for a better employee experience

It’s all part of what facility managers and workplace strategists call “the employee experience,” where the workplace is more than just a place to sit (or stand). The focus on the individual and their needs is no coincidence. As Baby Boomers retire and the war for fresh, top talent intensifies, creating a compelling workplace is essential.

“Many companies view their facilities with an educated eye toward attracting employees—and, ultimately, keeping them engaged, productive and excited about their work environment,” says Ehrenburg. “Smart, connected facilities that deploy modern workplace technologies can help companies meet and surpass employee expectations with an interactive, enjoyable and comfortable experience that provides a sense of personalization.”

In fact, simply creating a comfortable and responsive environment can make a difference in employee satisfaction and productivity. HOK research argues that offering a building’s occupants greater control over the temperature and lighting of their workspaces—via a customized mobile app, for example—can contribute to direct productivity gains.

“Temperature is a top complaint in most offices, but it can be difficult to provide an ideal temperature for each person at the same time,” notes Ehrenberg. “By offering personal workstation controls or even cooler or warmer seating zones, a company gives employees the power to decide what temperature preference will help them be the most comfortable and therefore the most productive.”

Services, anyone?

‘Smart’ technologies are already transforming how people experience the built environment. In most workplaces, for example, employees have come to expect that their mobile devices will automatically connect to the wireless network, no matter where they are working.

Some facilities and workplaces already offer mobile applications tasks such as scheduling conference rooms, adjusting a room’s temperature, or ordering a drink from the coffee shop in the lobby without leaving the office—all from a mobile phone or tablet. On a larger scale, some university, healthcare or business campuses provide wayfinding applications for navigating a web of buildings, or finding a particular space.

Modo Labs, for instance, worked with a Fortune 500 financial services firm to create @Work, a mobile app that provides a hub for multiple functions across numerous corporate locations. The app includes real-time information for each location like dining options, shuttle tracking, indoor maps, the option to search for building amenities, report facility issues and more. It simplifies and consolidates a range of real estate services for employees, from finding a conference room to request a replacement light bulb. Perhaps most useful, it “knows” which facility an employee is in, and provides information specifically about the particular facility.

Another new app, Comfy, addresses one of the most common office complaints: temperature. JLL research shows that that thermal comfort, as it is called, can boost logical thinking by four to six percent—which is why applications like Comfy are so promising. Tell Comfy that you are too hot or too cold and it automatically blasts air in your direction. Over time, it learns what temperature a group of coworkers prefer at a certain time of day, and it automatically adjusts.

“In the past, companies and investors focused mainly on the energy efficiency advantages of smart buildings,” says Ehrenberg. “Today, they’re beginning to see how mobile apps, smart building technologies and a holistic approach to occupant experience can have a measurable impact on employee productivity, engagement and satisfaction.

“As this trend progresses, the very nature of the digital environment being created by these smart building environments will create additional value itself through collection of the data, which will advance the property into the realm of cognitive analytics and digital business.”

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