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Employing Intelligent Building Design and IoT to Maintain Environmental Safety and Confidence in Facilities

Adapting Existing Technology to Function During and After the Pandemic
Published 7/22/2020

Building automation systems (BAS), computerized maintenance management systems, data analytics software, and human motion modeling software are being reimagined to allow people to safely occupy their workspaces during the COVID-19 pandemic, by collecting data in new ways and sharing it like never before. Data can be made available on dashboards and mobile devices to inform the countless decisions occupants make in the course of their workday—including choosing a route to their office, an elevator, a desk, or a restroom—all with the lens of maintaining social distances and maximizing sanitation.

“This is a very important step in a post-COVID world,” says Gideon D’Arcangelo, associate principal for experience design at Arup. “People are going to need to feel that the space they’re entering is healthy and safe. I think they’ll be more literate about healthy environment issues than they were before. Before, I think people were blissfully unaware.”

“In addition to some of the physical interventions to ensure their health, how can we communicate these efforts in a way that provides them with additional peace of mind so that they can really focus on their work?” says Lisa Churchill, associate principal and resilience leader at Arup. “One of the things we’ve been exploring is the use of a digital overlay to provide real-time feedback communications to provide that reassurance to occupants that they are in a healthy and safe environment. The digital interventions would allow us to collect this ever-changing data, process it, and make it immediately available for use by both the employers, to advise them how to modify the environment, as well as employees, who are interested in understanding the health of their working environment.”

The technology to accomplish this already exists, often in the BAS or the internet of things (IoT). “It’s really a combination of sensors and IoT systems,” says Churchill. “Think of IoT as interconnecting computing and mechanical devices in a way that allows us to transfer and analyze data in near real time with minimal or very little human interaction. It’s a combination—these sensors and IoT systems—that allow us to create this digital ecosystem that can then be used to both communicate and receive information.”

“While a particular technology may initially be implemented for one primary purpose, it’s likely that that same technology can be used for a second or even a third or fourth purpose retroactively,” says Scott Easton, principal and market leader for corporate and cultural environments at Affiliated Engineers, Inc.

These products include:

  • Awair – tracks indoor environmental quality
  • Pointr – tracks occupancy density
  • Fulcrum – tracks cleaning status by custodial staff
  • Embrava – tracks the status of assets in a hoteling environment

“Facilities operators are investing a lot in sensors that measure building system performance,” says Sanjyot Bhusari, principal and intelligent building leader at Affiliated Engineers, Inc. “While we’re analyzing that data set, we also can analyze the building system performance from a COVID perspective. For example, ASHRAE has come up with a set of recommendations based on the current knowledge, including things like purging the air systems, having the right amount of outside air, looking at humidity. The analytics that we run can automatically see if we are meeting those set points. If not, we can prioritize those issues.”

Space Density

Maintaining a 6-foot “social distance” between people is relatively straightforward in a static space where workstations or seats can be removed to create physical separation. New maximum occupancy limits will be posted on doorways and in scheduling apps, but how do you know before you get there if a room is considered “full”? That’s where sensors come in. In the past, occupancy sensors have been used to collect historical data to aid facilities managers in maximizing building efficiency, by determining the number of people who use a space, and when and for how long they use it.

“We can look at heat maps to understand how space is getting utilized, which spaces are very popular and which are not,” says Bhusari. “We can use that information to redistribute people to help with social distancing. From a COVID perspective, we can see which areas have the most traffic and how we can solve for that.”

What’s new is that the information can now be transmitted in real time for occupants to use.

“We can deploy the IoT systems and sensors to report overall occupancy and density data on a very granular level,” says D’Arcangelo.

Not only will people seek the rooms with the fewest people, but they will be looking for the least congested path to get there. “Using beacons or people’s smart phones as an anonymous source of data, you can get a really well-articulated heat map to know where people are on the floor, particularly in places where there may be hot desking or hoteling,” he says. “It’s a little like (the GPS navigation software) Waze, for your workspace, to tell you the road less traveled.”

Having this information will allow people to be more deliberate in the way they navigate space. “That’s going to be a slightly new behavior than we’re used to, where we just barreled in,” says D’Arcangelo.

The same way that static spaces can be reconfigured to be less dense, so can high-traffic areas be redesigned to remove pedestrian bottlenecks. Arup has developed a software called MassMotion, which models how people move through space and predicts where the bottlenecks will occur. The “agents” in the animated simulations are programmed to behave as typical people: When they get too close to a wall, they turn away, and when they approach a turnstile, they wait in line.

“It’s useful to decide if we made that door 2 feet wider, that pinch point goes away at the worst point in the day,” says D’Arcangelo. “It’s been very useful to use during social distancing, because we introduced new rules that say you need to stay 6 feet apart, and suddenly, all those models change. It takes much, much longer to get the same number of people through a space.”

Some of the results have been surprising. “We thought the most difficult times to load a building would be in the morning when everyone’s loading in and in the evening when everyone’s heading out,” he said. “But in fact, the more complicated time is lunch time, because that’s when your flows are going in both directions with all kinds of unpredictability, all kinds of pinch points and challenges.”

The software, which was originally designed to predict pedestrian traffic outside, is also being used to plan for students’ return to college campuses.

Facility Cleanliness

While it is an airborne virus, the coronavirus can also be transmitted on surfaces, so cleanliness of facilities has become a paramount concern. Intelligent building systems can assist with that by communicating the right information both from the custodian to the user and vice versa.

A facility may provide an app that is used for wayfinding and room reservations, for example. “It gives me the flexibility to find a room that has all of my technology needs, the lighting setup that I like, maybe even the temperature setting that I prefer,” says Easton. That helps the user find just the right space, but that information is captured and can also be used to inform building operations about the need to clean a particular room. For example, the app can notify building operations that there is a 15-minute window to turn over the room and do a cleaning between the completion of one meeting and the start of the next. The reservation software also can be rewritten to build in time between meetings to allow for cleanings. “And you can even take it one step further,” says Easton. “Say, a meeting gets done 10 minutes early. The cleaning staff can be automatically notified that the room is now available to start cleaning, as opposed to waiting the 10 minutes until it was scheduled to end.”

Cleaning history can also be made available to the building occupants, to help them decide which space to use next.

“There are many systems on the market that are related to facilities management and cleaning status,” says D’Arcangelo. “The custodial staff can go through and say, ‘Yes, I cleaned all these keyboards and the armrests on the chairs.’” The reporting can be done on a smartphone as the custodial staff completes each task or finishes cleaning a space, but, with new protocols being implemented around COVID, the process needs to be drastically simplified to ensure compliance, he says.

The new idea is to share information about when a space was last cleaned, either on a time stamped digital room display or in a dashboard that also allows the user to make a request of the custodial staff.

“People didn’t think about that much before, but now they will, so it’s on us, as managers of facilities and built environments, to communicate more,” says D’Arcangelo. “Occupant feedback is the newer territory, but that is the direction we should see this going, where facilities managers can get feedback on how comfortable people are feeling, or maybe they report on the cleanliness of an environment. It empowers people to feel that they can speak back and will be heard.”

Planning for a Different Future

The new focus on personal space and cleanliness is not likely to disappear once the current crisis passes, says Churchill, so facilities will need to be designed with greater resilience.

“People are going to have a heightened sense of personal health and safety long after COVID, and I’d argue that we’re going to need to create spaces that take that into account,” she says.

Churchill is co-authoring a publication with Jacob Werner from Perkins + Will and George Karidis from Smithgroup about designing for resilience in uncertain times. The pandemic has already proven one of their hypotheses about the tenuousness of supply chains. In an effort to eliminate costly storage space, companies have been adopting just-in-time delivery, but it might be necessary to rethink that strategy. “Resilience is about ensuring the ongoing continuity of critical services, and we can’t necessarily consider that we’ll have that continued supply chain,” she says.”

“When you look back on some of the major pandemics of the past, there have been some things that sparked permanent change,” says Easton. “I have the sense that we’re in this for the long haul. I think there will be a number of things that we’ll learn from this pandemic that will impact how we design buildings, and how new technologies are developed and applied. I’m of the opinion that we may see code changes based on occupancy and social distancing; it’s a guess on my part, but that’s what we’ve seen in the past. It remains to be seen how long-lasting the changes will be.”

Just as physical spaces must be designed for flexibility and adaptability, building systems must also be flexible and responsive to an ever-changing environment.

“We favor systems that have open application programming interfaces (APIs) or software development kits (SDKs),” says D’Arcangelo. “That allows you to take the new information you want to know about air quality, for example, and fold it into some of these other ways we have of interfacing with occupants.”

“People would have the flexibility to build their own system and not necessarily be locked into particular sensors,” says Churchill.

The software is proprietary, not open source, but new functionality can be integrated into it.

The success of any future design will depend on the behavior of the occupants.

“Everyone really is an agent in this moving forward,” says D’Arcangelo. “A lot depends on your own behavior. How you choose to do the things, for safe behavior, is more of a sense of mutual responsibility moving forward, which requires more communication and more adaptability.”

By Lisa Wesel