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COVID-19 Drives Technology Adoption in Real Estate

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The centralized monitoring and control of HVAC, lifts, lighting of common areas and several other embedded assets has been experiencing a steady uptake. 

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has brought many of the most dynamic cities to a standstill, to the extent that words like “disruption” fall woefully short. Such unprecedented lockdowns have far-reaching consequences in today’s hyper-connected world, which experts and researchers are still in the process of trying to comprehend. 

Immediate concerns have justifiably focused on the public health crisis. As the number of individuals testing positive for the contagion continues to mount, ensuring that the commercial real estate buildings remain secure sanctuaries has become of primary concern. Over the longer term, challenges around reviving economic activity, post lockdowns, are beginning to be considered. In the construction industry alone, many are predicting possible supply chain bottlenecks, especially in the availability of equipment and materials. This should come as no surprise considering the United States is heavily reliant on Asian markets for steel and glass. 

The adoption of technology, innovative practices and digitization in real estate has often focused on optimizing energy usage and enhancing operational efficiency, while reducing operating expenses (opex). Although technology has shown great promise in accomplishing these objectives, the pandemic has put the securing of the health, well-being and safety of building occupants squarely in focus. 

Innovating to Better Tackle Pandemics 

The property technology (PropTech) revolution has already gained considerable traction, finding application from early design stages to day-to-day operations and maintenance of buildings. But the COVID-19 pandemic has added an entirely new area of focus to drive the adoption of technology in real estate. From telebelt machines to 3-D printing, the scope of automation in real estate is broad. So what aspects of emerging tech-driven solutions are useful in alleviating the risks to health and safety, caused by the on-going viral outbreak? 

Accuracy, consistently high performance, reliability and programmability are the significant added advantages of automation. This repeatability of outcomes is proving to be key in reducing the need for onsite staff, while adhering to stringent performance metrics, during unprecedented disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemics. Taking a longer-term view, the post-pandemic real estate sector is likely to be driven to include more automation to be prepared for any future health crisis of this nature, as well as to revive confidence among tenants. The areas most likely to witness a spike in the adoption of tech-driven solutions include:

  • Remote operation of HVAC — The centralized monitoring and control of HVAC, lifts, lighting of common areas and several other embedded assets has already been experiencing a steady uptake. Until now, the primary advantages driving adoption were achieving optimal sustainability in energy use and delivering personalized occupant experiences. While these will continue to be major positives, remote BMS-enabled HVAC operations have proven to be a significant advantage for building owners during the COVID-19 crisis by enabling leaner onsite teams as well as maintaining a healthy and comfortable environment for occupants, while protecting cashflow.
  • Touchless visitor and occupant engagement — Restoring occupant confidence in a new “normal” will be of the essence in the post-pandemic CRE industry, as well as while the crisis is still on-going. Non-contact visitor access using personal handheld devices, touchless elevator buttons and app-based controls of building automation not only add convenience, but they will also be critical to ensuring that tenants still have access to the same high standards of service that they are accustomed to. 
  • Scaling preventive measures for cleaning and disinfection — In the absence of a vaccine or effective cure, prevention is the most viable strategy to combat the COVID-19 outbreak. Stringent sanitization, performed at significantly higher frequency, is one of the key elements in this effort. Tracking these activities, and identifying areas that need particular attention (doorknobs, elevator buttons, hand rails and such) or need to be temporarily quarantined, can be done far more consistently and effectively with the aid of a centralized tech-enabled view of operations.
  • Optimizing workforce hours by predictive and condition-based maintenance — Adherence to social distancing guidelines, for the safety of onsite staff as well as building occupants, is of the utmost importance at the moment. Chances are, some restrictions on the size of workforces could continue to apply in the months ahead. Remote command and control of automation, which cloud-based BMS solutions enable, and predictive data-driven management of operations can help in maintaining lean onsite teams, without compromising on efficiency and opex reduction.
  • Other miscellaneous advantages — In hospitals and medical centers, where viral load tends to be high, automation is significantly reducing health risks that building operatives are susceptible to. Additionally, in response to COVID-19, some developed economies — South Korea and China, in particular — have successfully undertaken robot-assisted cleaning and sanitizing within such spaces, thereby reducing the risk otherwise borne by hospital staff. 

If anything, COVID-19 has unearthed operational gaps that were overlooked for decades. The disparity in the number of infected cases and casualties — from region to region and facility to facility — can often be linked to the responsive and effective management of buildings, within the circumstantial limitations. 

Predictive maintenance of building assets has been crucial to ensuring seamless operations during the pandemic, especially when personnel resources are limited and intervention needs to be prioritized. This is where IoT-enabled data collation and AI and machine learning (ML)-based predictive analysis make a compelling case as a means to monitor operations, detect and diagnose anomalies and inefficiencies, undertake condition-based and predictive maintenance, and increase asset health. 

Retrofitting Existing Infrastructure

It is unsurprising that forward-thinking developers have preferred to incorporate data-driven solutions at an early construction stage for some time already. For old buildings with legacy automation systems, however, future-proofing is within the realm of possibility, thanks to digital retrofits. 

Hardware-agnostic solutions that combine the revolutionary power of IoT, AI and ML technologies can be retrofitted to existing building stock with relative ease to upgrade their performance and capabilities. The current pandemic aside, digital retrofits offer the most plausible solution to achieve sustainable development by lowering the carbon footprints of buildings and achieving energy optimization and operational efficiency, without compromising occupant experiences.

There is a consensus among experts that the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to a paradigm shift across business sectors and industries. Remote working will be the new norm, workplace wellness and productivity will attract even greater focus, supply chains could be de-globalized, and a renewed emphasis will be given to sustainable practices, such as net-carbon-zero buildings. 

Most importantly, being able to manage buildings in an agile and crisis-ready manner will drive the increased integration of technology in the built environment. Much like everything else in our world, a reassessment of how we manage and maintain real estate will ensure that remote tech-driven innovation takes a far more central role in the future of the industry. 

Prabhu Ramachandran is the founder and CEO of Facilio Inc, an enterprise-wide platform for facilities operations and maintenance. 

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