Last week I joined around 200 others at an LPA Smart Workplaces event at Google’s office at 6PS. It was organised with WPA NextGen with support from G&T and looked at how tech is transforming real estate.
The discussion was really interesting, plus I found the networking and drinks either side a fantastic way to carry on the discussion and hear what others are doing in the space.
My three key takeaways from the event were:
Investment is happening - smart technology is a significant tool in the development armoury to help decarbonise buildings, and we in the UK have caught up those that were ahead of us (except Aus!)
Open and secure protocols - ensure specs call for open protocol systems and devices to enable wide ranging compatibility, ease of maintenance and avoid costly call-outs. Ideally use consistent naming standards too.
Not only does ‘smart’ help optimise performance, but it improves the experience too. Ensure both are considered.
The evening was introduced by Google’s Andrew Martin, Director of Workplace, EMEA, who handed over to the evening’s host, Cal Matthews, Partner at G&T.
Panelist Dan Drogman, CEO of Smart Spaces kicked-off by sharing some thoughts with us and played a couple of videos showing us a ‘day in the life’ at a smart office building. Dan mentioned the new JJ Mack Building which he was involved in and is a recently finished ‘smart office building’… I need to go have a look. Two interesting points he made were 1) how early Smart Spaces was involved in the project (RIBA 3) to ensure the ‘smart stuff’ was understood and somewhat protected from contractor VE later on in procurement, and 2) they can build in a placebo mode into an app so that people think they are controlling the temperature but they might not be! I wonder how long that would last, although he also mentioned rather than direct control, sometimes a voting system ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ is best. This is what’s great about apps - they can be adapted quickly.
Then the panel prepared for a discussion chaired by Cal which included his questions and then audience Q&A. The full panel was:
Dan Drogman, CEO, Smart Spaces
Mike Hudson, Digital Strategy Expert, CBRE
Karen Warner, Smart Buildings Consultant, Arup
Kathy Farrington, Digital Buildings Lead, Google
There’s no one size fits all smart building. It was said that sometimes we have an ambition to ‘go to the moon’, but then we remember we live on planet earth. For me, it’s important to be ambitious and push our industry, but I think these comments probably map more to new build versus refurb. I can see a massive push for smart enablement of existing buildings coming - these are not necessarily going to be all singing all dancing, but they will leverage new tech, that is easy to deploy (retrofit) and that crucially will optimise performance as well as improving their attractiveness to potential tenants. This is where the real effort is needed - it won’t be easy.
These two ambitions - optimising performance and user experience - are both very important. Depending on kind of client (owner/occupier or developer) these ambitions could be overly skewed one way, but try to ensure they are both addressed. Kathy appeared more focused on the push to reduce energy right now… can FM teams learn about building performance and can asset managers understand how well space is being used? However Mike sees this far more as a UX challenge, working from the bottom up to address the pain points of users.
Ultimately, smart buildings help people. They can be more efficient, feel more comfortable, and be more informed. Covid, it seems, has also been a catalyst for small but important changes, such as embracing new tech and ‘contactless’.
When is comes to implementing this kind of thing, there was a clear message coming through that you should get the steps right. Focus on connectivity and protocols during construction, and build the applications on top later. This approach was described by Kathy as the best possible future proofing, because it’s the applications and software that change most rapidly.
Karen explained how consistent naming standards and open protocols - which will create data sets that can be widely interpreted regardless of platforms used - are key to us not only learning about a single building, but also being able to optimise at a wider scale. In the Q&A I asked about commissioning, and whether this would change with smart buildings - the answer was yes, in that commissioning could occur without every person being present to witness, and that manufacturers could even participate if they can see the data. Open protocols will also allow easy updating of hardware and applications over the wire or air.
One to watch in a future newsletter (next couple of weeks) is the question of “defending with green”. Recently, I have been thinking about whether our current efforts should command a green premium, or whether this is all really about avoidance of holding stranded, underperforming assets. So it was interesting to hear Mike say that smart buildings are about avoiding a ‘brown discount’ rather than achieving a green premium - I’m sure we’ll debate this for a while yet.
The whole group seemed in agreement that there is a skills shortage. Of course there are many roles to play, but Karen drew attention to the MSI role (Master Systems Integrator) which is very specialist and she thinks we don’t have enough capacity to fulfil this role in the near future.
Don’t forget cyber security. This has to be well thought through, whether it’s in the systems and infrastructure itself, or how terms of a lease might require data to be shared between landlord and tenant. When leasing a smart building, ensure you’re able to answer questions about cyber security, giving your potential tenant the confidence that they should be in your building. With more time, the panel might have explored the question of whether some tenant groups (e.g. financial services) really want smart buildings, due to the added (perceived) risk of cyber security. Mike suggested they would push back on some of the smart tech such as listening devices, but I’m not so sure, and a friend sat next to me seemed have recent precedent to suggest otherwise.
The panel ended with a question on what they see the moonshot being. So here goes…
🚀 Dan threw in the obligatory mention of ChatGPT and dreamed up a world where help-desks and these sorts of things are all AI. That’s definitely a moonshot, but AI is a hot topic and it’s moving fast so who knows? I can definitely see a world where optimisation of a digital twin and some aspects of building management could be run by AI and include machine learning.
🚀 Karen re-focused on the data and naming standards. She clearly sees a bigger picture where information from smart buildings far and wide comes together to enable learning and optimisation at a macro scale.
🚀 Mike reminded us that we’d been talking about workplaces (offices) only, and that his vision was for this kind of tech to spread further, into residential and beyond. This is where we heard another buzzword… the metaverse. We didn’t go down that rabbit hole, but take a look here if you want to know more.
🚀 Kathy talked about ‘software designed buildings’, where we don’t just add the software in amongst the bricks and sticks, but instead we use software to do the design for us, which I assume means lots more iterations and optimisation, and real-time adjustment if you make a change somewhere in the design. Sounds cool… should we be watching out for a new Google Building product?
Interested on your last comment. Have you come across Sidewalk Labs (in fact a Google building venture)? Two of their products, Delve and Mesa, relevant to points you've raised. Other tech platforms also operating cove.tool and Augmenta Construction - among many others I'm sure. Wondering if you've seen these and any thoughts on their potential for wider use?