COVID-19 has focused the world’s attention on health, this is especially true for commercial buildings that have seen significantly reduced, and often zero, occupancy for much of the past year. Cleaning and contactless technologies have taken center stage in the fight against virus transmission to comply with new regulations and encourage workers back to the office with confidence. However, it is worth remembering that health was a key pillar of smart buildings before the pandemic too, albeit through the “softer” health benefits of lighting and environmental control. Now, as we look ahead to the post-COVID era, the inevitable consolidation of commercial real estate looks set to drive a long-lasting era of broad health benefits in buildings.
“Some of the more tactile elements of building technologies are more front and center to boost confidence in staff that the owner/employer is being seen to take the risk seriously,” smart buildings consultant, Roger Woodward, told Memoori. “However, things like the benefits of Human Centric Lighting (HCL) are not as obvious even though they are now being recognized as enhancements to human performance, comfort, health, and well-being by balancing visual, emotional, and biological benefits of lighting for humans. It also improves alertness and concentration during learning by providing a better light environment. These benefits are also for the long-term.”
Lighting is the perfect example of a building technology that was at the forefront of change before the pandemic but has taken a backseat since COVID-19 focused our attention on social distancing and disinfecting surfaces. At the most basic level, the health of lighting focused on glare and the harmful intensity of fluorescent lighting on employees working for hours in traditional office environments. More recently, this field of study evolved into HCL that began to understand and quantify the biological benefits of lighting color, hue, brightness, and daily lighting patterns in line with the human circadian system.
“HCL goes beyond simply providing illumination for the built environment. It manipulates the light output, triggering biological responses in humans according to the objectives of the environment. HCL has demonstrated its ability to make workers more productive, to help patients heal faster, and enhance student learning, simply by tuning into our evolutionary link to the natural rhythms of sunlight,” reads our dedicated HCL report. “HCL is part of a wider human-centric movement sweeping across almost every building system. This movement has been facilitated by technological advancements in sensing and connectivity, as well as the rise of big data processing and data analytics.”
Before COVID, much of the talk around lighting was not just about illumination. Energy efficiency played a big part in the discussion, of course, but beyond that lighting systems were presenting themselves as the ideal platform to host a range of other smart applications. With the rise of LEDs and Power-over-Ethernet (PoE), ubiquitous light fixtures provide the network to install all manner of sensory technology for information on occupancy, air quality, temperature, and other operational data. As lighting systems continue to evolve and the value of data continues to increase, we may now begin to see lighting networks finally take their place at the heart of smart buildings.
“Lighting is ubiquitous there is even one in your garden shed or in the street. However, lighting suppliers have nearly always been focused on the fittings and not the complete offering, while LED retrofit is often just seen as a quick energy reduction fix,” Woodward said recently in an interview with amBX. “Now that building services are in a faster transition period than they have ever been (even before COVID) and the value of data is being recognized with $Bn’s being invested. New ways of gathering data for space management, desk booking, visitor management, traffic flow, air quality, and general tenant experience are being investigated. Lighting was previously only considered during the construction phase and rarely changed afterward. It is now being recognized as a connection point to gather data from anywhere due to its omnipresence.”
The evolution of lighting is not happening in isolation, however, but part of much wider trends taking place in buildings as a whole. Connected services, cloud computing, edge intelligence, and various human-centric trends are dictating the evolution of smart buildings and fundamentally changing the industries that design, construct, and operate our commercial real estate.
The need to plan and build our facilities with the operation and end-user in mind is finally beginning to lessen the divide between OT and IT or the design, build, and operate phases of a building — named the biggest problem with smart buildings in our recent poll. These silos have been holding back the sector, and as we reduce them we unleash the true power of smart buildings.
“Building systems are now becoming more connected and working less in silos, integration of on-prem systems is now expected. Customers such as REIT’s are becoming very smart in relation to building management, lighting controls, and connected services, as well as making much higher demands of the suppliers,” Woodward continued. “The requirements of edge-to-cloud are now becoming more of a reality as we are seeing the rise of the master system integrator (MSI) who almost acts as a consultant to the owner/customer to oversee the connectivity of softer services with OT-to-IT and cloud services. The MSI is needed, as trying to provide all the services from on-prem to cloud services is not practical by one company and requires many different skill sets.”
COVID-19 has rocked commercial real estate by enforcing regulations that have limited or prohibited occupancy for over a year, but it is the long-term impacts of the pandemic that will truly reshape the sector. Forced into an extended remote working trial, employees have become comfortable at home, and businesses around the world now realize what is possible with a predominantly remote workforce. The pandemic will come to an end, albeit gradually, and the physical workplace will return, but not in the same real estate market as entered the crisis. Companies will apply greater levels of remote work in their business models and require less physical space, this will lead to consolidation of office buildings and greater emphasis on the quality of remaining buildings.
“I believe that new construction will tail off over the next 18 months to two years as all the projects currently committed to are completed and current occupiers start to consider reducing their space requirements once their present leases run out,” Woodward concluded. “Lease periods will become much shorter and it will become a ‘buyers’ market. Therefore the REITs and building owners will need to provide all the benefits that the technology can bring to attract or retain customers.”