The interior of a hip office building with lots of natural light

Smart building sensors have helped keep people comfortable for years — but the COVID-19 pandemic makes fast-adapting smart buildings look even smarter. 

When buildings emptied out in March amid initial shut-down orders, many feared for the commercial real estate industry. And even though office sales volume was down 82 percent year-over-year for May 2020 and the office market recorded 14 million square feet of occupancy losses in Q2, commercial real estate will always be needed. 

After all, Americans spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors, with much of that time in commercial real estate: healthcare buildings, educational facilities, retail spaces, hotels, and multifamily housing, plus offices. But as work-from-home becomes more permanent, many companies are shrinking their office spaces or closing down gyms or stores. In fact, sublease listings were up 12 percent by July, a figure that analysts expect to grow as companies re-evaluate their needs. 

With this new glut of space, companies looking for space can afford to demand more. Smart buildings have a real advantage in this more competitive market. With integrated sensors and technologies, smart buildings offer potential tenants a safer, more cost-effective, comfortable — even profitable — space. 

That’s even more true when those sensors connect to a cellular network rather than Wi-Fi. Cellular connectivity lets building managers avoid constantly changing passwords while providing greater data security and enabling real-time device monitoring.

Smart building solutions that keep people safer

Many smart buildings have long used sensors and other smart technologies to track when people enter or leave buildings or spaces. These sensors can be integrated into a name badge or fob worn on a lanyard or wrist. As companies look to enforce social distancing, these sensors can also alert the wearer if they come within six feet of another badge. 

These sensors are a key component of full-on smart building solutions now being deployed for contact tracing efforts. For example, they can record when two badges are in close proximity for more than ten minutes. If someone later reports an infection, the system can notify anyone who was nearby, whether in a conference room, a break area, or at their desks. Sensors that rely on cellular connectivity help protect data privacy, too, rather than routing the information over a potentially insecure Wi-Fi network. 

New smart building solutions are evolving from established workforce intelligence software that tracks attendance. This technology can be combined with zone management systems that monitor foot traffic and issue density alerts if too many people congregate in a given area. Such intelligence can pinpoint, for example, if too many people are using an entrance, alerting building staff to open additional doors or elevators. Temperature sensors can screen for fevers as occupants enter the building. 

Smart buildings can also monitor air quality, flow, and humidity to limit the spread of airborne diseases. With COVID-19, the World Health Organization and the CDC now recommend buildings improve ventilation by increasing the percentage of outdoor air and flushing HVAC systems twice daily. Smart building systems enable these changes while monitoring for related maintenance needs, such as more frequent filter replacement — and building managers can use cellular IoT connectivity dashboards to access all this information from afar.  

Beyond diseases, other smart building solutions like Safehub monitor for signs of trouble after earthquakes or other disasters, helping building owners know instantly which of their properties — and tenants — are affected and require immediate attention. 

Potential tenants should consider which of these smart building features sound most compelling and ask landlords how they’re using technology to keep tenants safe.

Smart buildings monitor and adjust energy usage to balance comfort with efficiency — remotely

Energy efficiency — once the primary driver of smart building solutions — remains a key need. After all, building owners try to wring every bit of energy efficiency out of their smart building to keep costs (and rents) competitive. And when the tenant pays utilities, such as a standalone supermarket, a smart building that can save 20 percent in energy costs has a real advantage. 

But that efficiency must be balanced with occupant comfort. 

While building management systems have always monitored HVAC performance, modern smart building technology is far more adaptive. Rather than merely identifying a building’s status, today’s smart building systems can actually adjust on their own to meet efficiency and comfort goals. 

Zen Ecosystems offers one such system. Zen makes smart building sensors that manage thermostats and lighting systems — and cut energy waste by 30 percent. With these cellularly connected sensors, a building can adjust temperature and lighting with building occupancy. That means spaces are brighter and more comfortable during the workday but dimmer and slightly warmer or cooler at night. Smart plugs with integrated sensors also help cut energy usage by programming equipment to power on or off at set times. 

However, COVID-19 has introduced a new phenomenon: large buildings sitting empty. 

As Andrew Whelton, PhD, associate professor of civil, environmental, and ecological engineering at Purdue University explains, “The buildings aren’t designed to be left alone for months.” 

When employees went 100% work-from-home with minimal warning, HVAC system schedules  and planned maintenance routines were upended. Office refrigerators were left full of abandoned leftovers, and few had spoilage-sniffing sensors to alert about potentially harmful growths.

Even more dangerously, stagnant plumbing systems allowed the bacteria that causes deadly Legionnaires’ disease to grow in empty schools and offices.

But that’s where smart buildings with IoT-enabled sensors have the advantage. Smart building managers can use cellular connectivity to monitor and make changes remotely, such as following Dr. Whelton's recommendations to flush plumbing systems regularly. Without entering the building, managers can ensure that the HVAC system continues operating while minimizing energy usage. (Though a brave soul eventually needs to clean out the office fridge.)

When employees start returning, smart buildings will automatically adapt to their presence, even if they’re in fewer spaces and need less heating or cooling.

Smart buildings shift maintenance from planned to predictive

Traditionally, building managers followed set maintenance schedules for their HVAC and other systems: flushing air weekly, replacing filters monthly, or performing annual tune ups on expensive equipment.

While this met the manufacturer’s specs, it didn’t necessarily reflect the building’s true needs. Variances in local climate and occupancy affect how components wear — and sometimes that means that equipment undergoes maintenance earlier than needed. That might merit an extra set of filters over a year or paying for a maintenance visit that wasn’t yet necessary. 

These costs add up. 

But the alternative is maintenance that’s too late, which can cause unplanned breakdowns or outages. An emergency situation may require paying overtime for a repair crew, waiting for parts, or worse. What if an elevator overdue for maintenance breaks down — and you only learn of the failure when people are trapped between floors?  

After all, commercial elevators are usually maintained on a set schedule prescribed by size and usage. But a period of particularly heavy use — say, move-in at a university residence hall — can burn through that maintenance window. 

Smart buildings help avoid these expensive, reactive repairs by pinpointing potential problems before they escalate. By monitoring wear, use cycles, or other factors, smart building sensors stream data over secure cellular networks and alert building managers of looming problems. These sensors also watch for anomalies, such as excessive run times or cycling, that may indicate trouble. 

In the elevator case, several smart building technology companies are installing sensors in elevator banks that regularly report usage metrics, allowing building managers to monitor performance and weigh risk even while they’re offsite.

When all this data is fed into a smart building solution, managers can see how the building is operating as an entire system. That helps them better prioritize their maintenance list (and budgets) in a way that keeps maintenance teams busy and proactive. 

And promising potential tenants that you have a state-of-the-art predictive maintenance system that will minimize energy bills and breakdowns while keeping them comfortable? Priceless.

Smart buildings attract more customers — and sales

Smart buildings help retailers analyze foot traffic data from people counters and beacons to measure dwell times throughout their space. This data helps them make smarter merchandising decisions, such as showcasing higher-margin upsell items in areas where customers spend time or moving desirable products into less-trafficked areas. By monitoring heatmaps for popular paths, hotspots, and bottlenecks, retailers can improve store flow and staffing. For example, Kepler Analytics uses cellular connected sensors to monitor real-time store traffic and trigger alerts of bottlenecks, allowing managers to quickly reallocate staff.  

Smart building managers can use this data to tell potential tenants how many would-be customers pass the space in a given day, when the busy times are, and how long people sit on nearby benches. Kepler Analytics aggregates their store traffic data into trends that building owners can use to calculate rent per passerby and rent per square foot. With this data, shopping center owners can direct tenants to the most lucrative storefront. An ice cream store might prefer being near a nicely landscaped area where people linger.  

Retailers also use eye tracking technology to understand their customers’ gaze patterns, such as what catches their attention, when they shift to looking at another product, and what they ignore.

This data can sell ad space for dynamic display boards in common spaces. Captivate, for example, installs displays in lobbies, elevators, lounges, and other areas, adjusting displays based on occupancy, time of day, and other factors. These boards might highlight local restaurants right before lunchtime or coffee shops mid-afternoon.

COVID is accelerating smart building adoption in commercial real estate

Smart buildings have always been attractive, but in a competitive COVID-19 era real estate market, they are even more appealing. As long as a glut of commercial real estate space allows tenants to be picky, they will look for smart buildings that can promise safety, efficiency, worry-free maintenance, and higher sales.

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