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“Imagine this… There is an explosion in your building, and everyone is trying to get out, including Fred, your facility manager. Jim at the front office shouts across the hall “Hey, Fred! Emergency Services are here. They need to know where the shut-off valves are!

Fred pauses and turns to his desktop only to find the power is out. He reaches for his laptop just as his mobile phone rings. It’s his wife who is traveling. “Honey you are OK? Someone posted that there was an explosion in the building!” What’s wrong with this picture?” writes Suri Suriyakumar, CEO of facilities management software solution provider ARC in an article for Propmodo.

“Even though Fred’s wife is thousands of miles away, she sees a social media post about the incident and calls within minutes to check on him. Meanwhile, Fred is still stuck in his building trying to find the shut-off valve! Sadly, this scenario is alarmingly common,” he continued.

Suriyakumar, who actually co-founded the predecessor to ARC 30-years-ago, went on to list real incidents that match his story. The $10 million worth of damage caused by a water pipe that was left gushing 50-60 gallons per minute for three hours as facilities managers at Burton Barr – the iconic HQ of the Phoenix Public Library – tried to find the shutoff valve. Or the hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage caused by a burst pipe at Ohio State University, made worse because the facility manager was on vacation.

“Incidents like this happen more frequently than we think in older buildings – every two years, according to one recent survey – often because of the lack of instant access to existing information. In fact, we have to wonder if these “catastrophes” might simply have been accidents if information was available as it was needed,” says Suriyakumar. “As in the Ohio State incident above, the problem becomes even worse when specific knowledge about a facility exists only in the memory of its building managers.”

Knowledge silos, legacy knowledge, and other knowledge draining buzz terms are banded about the commercial real estate industry. However, according to Suriyakumar, more than 60% of existing buildings are managed using paper-based processes and 86% of facilities managers admit they are not prepared for an emergency. A trend that is no doubt more prevalent in older, dumb buildings that make up the majority of the urban landscape.

15% of buildings in the US were built before 1946, this rises to 21% in the “old world” European Union, according to data compiled from the BPIE and EIA for our recent report on Human-Centric Lighting. While the International Facilities Management Association (IFMA) estimates that one in every three buildings is more than 50 years old. More than 70% of buildings are 20 years old, or older.

“The priority for our urban evolution must be retrofitting the majority of building stock with smart technologies,” concludes our recent article: A City is Only As Smart As Its Buildings – Making a Case for Retrofits.

According to Suriyakumar, the answer to this problem will come from Apps. “We can find directions, check the weather, search for the nearest gas station, order food, listen to music, get a boarding pass, and on and on. Apps are easy to use and give us access to even the most obscure information within minutes. And yet it still takes facilities professionals hours to find a simple shut-off valve,” says the CEO of ARC, who claim to have built the smartest app for facilities managers.

Suriyakumar’s stance is simple. Apps make it quicker to find information and facilities managers often need to find information quickly. Apps also operate more smoothly with the cloud and almost everyone has a smartphone, a device they are used to reaching to when answers are needed on the move. A facilities management App that made plans, blueprints, operating manuals, or safety information easily available to the person on duty or the emergency services would certainly have reduced damages in the scenarios described above.

Apps are accessible to everyone and offer significant benefit to the smart building retrofit market but Apps don’t connect lights or sense the pressure in valves, nor do they predict faults or identify security breaches. Apps are an interface, and potentially a big part of the solution to making older buildings smart, but apps are only as good as the smart building infrastructure they connect to.

That’s not to say an interface is not important and, in the business of increasing smart technology adoption, apps might be the modern interface that helps make smart facility management feasible for all.

“Today we live in an app economy, and apps are coming to the facilities space. They will change the way we access information. Not just information related to building use or occupation, but also critical information for emergency, safety, compliance and the day-to-day functions of building operations and maintenance,” says Suriyakumar. “The use of apps will transform the job of facilities managers regardless of the age of the building or the sophistication of its systems.”