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Take control of the future

Terry Sharp, president of the Building Controls Industry Association (BCIA), discusses some lessons learned in the commercial property sector during lockdown and how we can ensure we are better prepared for similar events that might occur in the future

When coronavirus took a grip on the world, and shortly before we entered lockdown (the first time), we were all being strongly advised to wash our hands thoroughly after coming into contact with surfaces likely to have been touched by other people. Door handles, taps, shopping trolleys and petrol pumps were all potential places where the disease could be easily spread from one hand to another. It is also no surprise when you consider how many fingers our notes and coins come into contact with that contactless payment systems are quickly becoming a real necessity, so much so that it is now almost a shock when an outlet does not offer a contactless option.

Contactless customer interaction is therefore moving away from being a useful novelty to becoming a key offering in commercial environments. Leyeju, a hotel chain in China, now runs nine smart hotels across the country boasting an entirely automated stay, with an unstaffed reception and no concierge. Instead, customers check in using biometric facial recognition technology before being taken to their room by a robot. In the room everything is automated, the lighting, air conditioning, TV and even the curtains, eliminating the need to touch switches or controls. Meanwhile at the Hilton Garden Inn hotel in Umhlanga, South Africa, guests are able to control the lights, TV and the air conditioning, via the Hilton mobile app. 

A driving force

Of course hotels are not the only places in which we will begin to see changes in routine, and smart technology is likely to be a driving force in a lot of changes to our way of living and working. 

In October last year I chaired a panel discussion for the Smart Buildings Virtual Conference. On a theme about the effective management of buildings during lockdown and how building management might look in a post-COVID world. Amongst some excellent observations there was a general agreement that 2020 had been a wake up call for the property sector and that we should take this opportunity to ensure commercial buildings are better prepared in the event they are left empty for a long period of time again in the future.

There is a common assumption that a building management system (BMS) will magically take care of the running of a building, whether it’s occupied or not, and lockdown has exposed some of the disconnect between building control systems, occupation and comfort. Many unoccupied buildings still appeared as though they were fully open for business during lockdown because they still had all of their lights on. In contrast, building managers with secure remote connectivity in place were able to make immediate adjustments and scale everything back to a more stable pattern based on little or no occupancy. This underlines the need for greater engagement at all levels, between building controls specialists, facilities managers and landlords. Facilities managers with the ability to self-serve without the need to call on systems specialists were able to respond very quickly as they had the controls to put their building into setback modes or vacant modes easily. Clients without that level of integration had to call out different specialists in various disciplines. With an already heavy workload there were inevitably going to be delays in getting the required work scheduled. The same problem would also present itself when people start returning to work and they need to recommission the control systems and bring them back online.

Coronavirus has of course emphasised the need for healthier and better ventilated indoor spaces, and these will be vital factors for building owners to consider going forward. At the same time we mustn’t lose sight of the long-term aims of building controls as we look to reduce the energy wastage and carbon emissions from our built environment. We should use this time to simplify our buildings’ operation and change some attitudes towards efficient building management.

8 April 2021

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