The world has not had a pandemic on this scale for a very long time. Comparable crises come from a distant past where statistics are largely estimated, when our society was less globalized, and many steps back in our ability to enact public health regulation. Many of the previous viruses themselves may have been as bad or worse than COVID-19, but our ability to implement life-saving lockdowns and worldwide public health guidance is shifting the impact to those who cannot function during a lockdown. Lockdowns are necessary but their impact threatens to forever change significant parts of our world, like commercial real estate.
Empty offices, shopping malls, stadiums, and hotels around the world, present quite an apocalyptic scene for those involved in the commercial real estate sector. They know that vaccine production is still in the early stages, they know that a long process of vaccine distribution will be necessary before we can return to normal, and they know that the longer this situation lasts the bigger the impact there will be on their business interests. Remote work takes a bigger percentage of the long-term workforce every day during this crisis, an in-person conference makes the permanent shift to a virtual format every week, and online shopping will keep the lion’s share of the market.
However, lessons from the past can often shed light on an uncertain future, and commercial real estate can take some confidence from the fact that their sector has adapted and evolved to survive many crises before. The bubonic plague sparked building improvements that reduced contact between rodents and humans, cholera improved the separation of potable and wastewater, each major outbreak serving as a growing motivator to reshape buildings for the good of their occupants. Improvements in air ventilation, insulation, entry-procedures, and all manner of standard building materials, have all come about in reaction to public health concerns. COVID-19 is just another hurdle to overcome and buildings are much smarter now.
“We have all heard how the COVID-19 pandemic has emptied offices around the world and the growing belief that wide-scale home working is here to stay. By this reasoning, the large city center office is dying out,” says Alex Lundie, Herbert Smith Freehills LLP, in a Lexology article. “But, as with many areas, the pandemic could instead accelerate changes to office spaces that were already underway, giving a lifeline to the office building. Smart buildings use technology to connect systems within the building to enhance its ‘performance’, including how it meets the needs of its occupants.”
Initially, smart building technology can help to meet physical distancing requirements, sensors, and occupancy analytics. Contactless forms of human-machine interfacing, such as NFC, voice, and smartphone-based control, will support infection-limitation strategies and create a world of new opportunities. Occupant comfort in these early stages will be paramount for companies to maintain productivity, present a caring approach to health, and to gain the support of the many workers that become very comfortable with remote work. Buildings need to be visibly cleaning, distancing, and warning occupants — to evolve to meet that need, occupancy analytics must find new ways to engage occupants in the process by giving them the information they need to make pandemic-safe choices.
“Taking a more long term view, smart buildings are set to control and enable use of the office in the not too distant future. Where home working continues, at least on a part-time basis, tenants will want to reduce the amount of space that they lease because there will be fewer bodies in the office at any one time,” says Lundie. “Smart building technology can help to ensure that the reduced office space is used efficiently and help occupants navigate the shifting sands of the hot-desking environment. Monitoring use and availability of meeting rooms and desk spaces; allocating or reserving a desk near colleagues; or guiding users to a vacant desk, available resource or to a misplaced colleague.”
The current crisis has accelerated proptech innovation both in response to new pandemic requirements, but that also has positive implications for building efficiency and general occupant health. Indoor air quality, automatic lights, enhanced HVAC controls, have all found new life during the crisis, and that will have impacts on long-after this pandemic is over. Various building systems will have to integrate more than ever before and that integration will be there to stay, creating new opportunities for occupant-centric applications, cost-saving, and overall building efficiency. If we can evolve to handle a pandemic then we can thrive with our new level of ability after the pandemic.
“Efficient use of the space will only be the baseline for the office. In order to hold its own with home working, the smart office will have to become a more appealing place to work. It needs to offer more space, greater freedom and flexibility for the occupant, and also to provide a stimulating, personally tailored experience, and place much greater emphasis on health and wellbeing,” adds Lundie. “This will be achieved through a combination of systems – automated building systems, in-building sensors, users’ digital devices, building amenities (cafes, health clubs, entertainment), and integrated apps to bring it all together.”
The pandemic has hit commercial real estate hard, and that means the evolution required by the sector to overcome this crisis will have to be significant. After 10-years of smart building technology trying to solve every possible problem at the same time, with limited penetration, the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have given the sector the focus it needs to evolve, and the platform it needs to reach almost every commercial building in the world. The post-COVID smart building may even become the public health standard of the future.