Supercharge your sustainability efforts: Using technology to drive the industry forward
Harnessing the power of technology to create a greener future

by Jessica Bates — Originally published in the May/June 2017 issue of BOMA Magazine — Imagine a future filled with sleek, highly efficient buildings, utilizing the latest innovative equipment and software designed to improve our lives and coexist with the natural world. This possible reality lies at the intersection of technology and sustainability. Just as advancements in technology are making our lives simpler and more connected, they are also allowing us to identify operational inefficiencies and use fewer resources. The natural efficiencies of technology pair nicely with the goals of any “green” building.

Current technology offers a glimpse into what may someday become a typical office building. Every building system will be monitored and controlled remotely, and most systems will be capable of identifying and fixing issues without any human assistance before they become problems for the occupants or staff. Tenants will be identified automatically when they walk through the building door or pull into the parking garage; their presence (or the data chip in their badge) will be enough to trigger the elevator to unlock their floor or building systems to adjust the lighting and temperature in their workspace to their specific preferences.

Behind the scenes, this technology will create a new level of efficiency in commercial properties. Energy and water will rarely be wasted; in fact, buildings will be capable of generating the energy they need through alternative energy sources and automated systems will collect rainwater and use it to maintain landscaping. Buildings will be constructed faster with longer-lasting, greener materials. Special coatings on the walls and furniture will prevent dirt or bacteria from adhering to them, making workplaces essentially “self-cleaning.” Roofs will sport materials that can actually absorb pollutants and clean the air. In theory, these buildings could allow the property manager and building staff to be less physically present; instead, property professionals would be able to monitor properties and make strategic operational decisions from afar.

“Within a generation, the roles, responsibilities and required expertise and knowledge of the property manager will be very different,” says futurist Christopher Lee, president and chief executive officer of the Los Angeles-based real estate consulting firm CEL & Associates. “While they will remain the overall business managers of the building and the facilitators of unique tenant experiences, the tools and resources needed will be far more sophisticated,” requiring more advanced technological know-how and making tenant relations a competitive differentiator. “We’ll see more titles like ‘tenant experience officer’ emerge as the industry standard,” Lee adds. In the future, property managers will monitor and access a virtual hub, he explains, facilitating connections between service providers, vendors, tenants and owners in an effort to make buildings as efficient as possible.

The current reality, however, falls somewhat short of this futuristic vision. Making the best use of current technology is work—sometimes hard work. We’re still a long way from a truly “smart” building. “We live in this fantasy right now that adding technology is enough, but technology is just a very fancy hammer,” says Sara Neff, senior vice president of Sustainability for Kilroy Realty in Los Angeles. “A hammer laying on the ground isn’t going to build a house; you need someone who knows what they’re doing wielding it.”

Wielding the Hammer

The function of current building technology falls into three basic categories: monitoring building systems, controlling building systems remotely and collecting building data. These technologies are not magic; they simply provide more consistency and finer precision than a human operator working without them could.

Commercial properties that are described as “smart buildings” typically are controlled using building management systems or building automation systems (BAS). A BAS is a computer-based system that automatically controls and monitors a building’s mechanical and electrical equipment, such as HVAC and lighting. These systems are most common in large buildings, where the payback for small reductions in energy is greatest. With proper programming, a BAS can ensure that all systems are operating within optimal levels at all times, while also sometimes providing a higher level of control over these systems—regulating the temperature room-by-room, for instance.

This technology can be enhanced with fault detection and diagnostics (FDD), which will analyze the data being received about the building and flag when programmed parameters for performance are not being met. These systems can be quite sophisticated, factoring occupancy schedules and weather into how the building should be performing under current conditions. FDD is most common in buildings with a strong sustainability focus, where avoiding waste due to errors or underperforming equipment is particularly important. Energy management and information systems (EMIS) offer another layer of tools; an EMIS or building performance tracking system refers to any number of technologies designed to monitor and manage energy use specifically. These systems typically offer a greater level of detail and functionality than a basic BAS. Beyond these, additional technologies offer further integration of systems; for example, an online tool for scheduling meetings could be linked to the HVAC in order to adjust the temperature in a conference room automatically to an optimal level for the number of anticipated participants—just in time for their arrival.

These tools hold tremendous promise and are already enabling properties to operate far more efficiently. However, they also hold enormous potential for user error. These systems offer property managers and building engineers a wealth of tools and data, but without an understanding of what this data means and how these tools function, they are no more useful than a hammer laying on the ground.

“There’s something called ‘data blindness’ that refers to when you are suddenly seeing all this information about how your building is performing, but you have no idea what it means or how to translate it into better performance,” says Neff. “Making data actionable is one of the biggest issues in sustainability right now.” Some of the disconnect is due to the newness of the technology; user interfaces are not always intuitive or novice-friendly. This can also result from a breakdown in communication between staff and technology vendors.

To prevent this disconnect from even emerging, a property team should know what they want to accomplish before they start adding advanced options to their building. “Some vendors want to hand you the technology and go, but you will need them to know exactly what you want to accomplish and to hold your hand through the adjustment process until you reach that point,” says Neff. Jim Nannini, vice president of Building Wide Systems Integration at technology company Johnson Controls, agrees. “Start with your desired outcomes and work with a technology contractor to determine which technologies fit those outcomes,” he suggests. You should communicate with your vendor early and often during the implementation process, and make sure your stated expectations are being met once the technology is in place. “You don’t need to know the ins and outs of every piece of technology to know whether your needs were met,” Nannini says. “It’s your vendor’s job to know what’s possible and how to get you there.”

For this to work, you also need the buy-in of the staff who will be using the technology. For example, if an asset manager decides to purchase a BAS for a building without consulting the building engineer, that system may never be fully utilized. “Building engineers often are overworked and underappreciated, and they may simply not have time to learn a new piece of technology unless they are given the time and resources to adjust,” says Neff. “Technology is increasingly becoming an integral part of an engineer’s job; we need to communicate that to those coming into the industry and support staff as they work to gain proficiency.”

Resources for Navigating Technology-Enhanced Sustainability

Interested in making your building smarter and greener, but don’t know where to start? The Smart Energy Analytics Campaign, a program led by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Alliance, supports the commercial real estate industry in the process of adopting energy management and information systems (EMIS) technologies and encourages monitoring strategies in order to save energy and improve building performance. The program is designed to help building owners and managers—whether they are already using some smart technology or are entirely new to the process—navigate what options are available to them and how they can best implement them within their buildings. “We’re here to help property professionals take advantage of the technology that’s out there,” says Claire Curtin, program manager with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who works with the campaign. “This technology has the potential to be high-impact, and we want to help drive the industry forward.” In addition to technical assistance, the program offers a wide range of resources, including a sample request for proposal (RFP) for pre-recorded technical and case study webinars and a qualified EMIS product list. Learn more at smart-energy-analytics.org.

A Case Study in High-Tech Efficiency

Technology can be used effectively in an office building to reduce costs and energy use, without putting an undue burden on building staff. When the property team of BOMA 360-designated and LEED EB O+M-certified 1670 Broadway in Denver (pictured on this issue’s cover) decided the building needed an energy tune-up, they began a careful and diligent process to ensure upgrades were managed as effectively as possible. Sustainability and efficiency were high priorities for the team, but the 30-year-old building had some built-in limitations. With a full retrofit, the 36-story high-rise had the potential to realize deep energy savings. “We reached the end of what we could do with the existing technology,” explains Judy Purviance-Anderson, BOMA Fellow, RPA, the building’s general manager for Cushman & Wakefield. “We knew we needed to upgrade, not just for the energy savings, but also to stay highly competitive within a hot urban market like Denver.” The tower’s asset manager enthusiastically agreed and a formalized plan was implemented. “Sustainability is no longer a ‘nice to have,’ but has become a ‘need to have’ for successful real estate investment management,” explains Matthew Lynch, head of U.S. real estate for investment advisor UBS Asset Management.

The team began with an assessment of existing systems and features and then retro-commissioned the property before establishing a five- to 10-year program to improve efficiency and lower energy consumption. They set their goals and analyzed potential costs and benefits. “You need to optimize what you have first before you can grow using smart technology,” says Mike Turzanski, senior vice president of Engineering and Operations for Cushman & Wakefield, who also was involved in the project. “We established a strong baseline through excellent operations and maintenance before we moved to the next level.”

Ultimately, the building team upgraded the BAS to a newer system, one that had the added benefit of being non-proprietary and providing an open platform. If a system is proprietary, only certain authorized vendors can work on future repairs or upgrades, and the technology may only integrate with other approved technologies. Getting an open system was critical to ensuring the building would continue to have the flexibility it needed in the future. This requirement was specified in the team’s negotiations with their technology vendor. FDD also was added, as well as automated measurement and verification analytic software to continuously track energy use and calculate cost savings.

As a result of the changes, the building saved more than $390,000 in total electrical and steam costs from 2013 to 2016. Purviance-Anderson’s team also was able to take advantage of a big rebate from the local utility company that offset much of the initial cost. A primary factor in the project’s success was the strong communication and coordination among the team. “You have to work closely with your engineering team on this process,” Purviance-Anderson says. “Our engineers need a lot of technological expertise to do their jobs well, and we need to make sure they have the background and the training they need to achieve established goals.” Because the project is dynamic, the team continues to work closely with the building’s tenants, detailing the process and how the upgrades could help them meet their own sustainability goals. She explains this is vital to identifying key roles and responsibilities each step of the way to ensure nothing is overlooked.

“You may be bleeding resources without ever realizing it and, with today’s technology, there’s no reason to do that,” Purviance-Anderson adds. “You don’t need a bucket of money to implement these solutions, and you can easily make back the money that you do invest over time.” And, the team isn’t done—they already are planning to incorporate predictive analytics (such as factoring in anticipated weather conditions) as the next step in the property’s sustainability evolution.

Solutions for Today

Buildings don’t necessarily need a full technology retrofit to reap benefits for their sustainability program. There are some simple solutions that can enable significant savings; in fact, straightforward, easy-to-understand technologies may be the safest bet for most properties. “Some providers will make bold claims about what their technology can do, but users should take that with a grain of salt,” cautions Michael Wong, chief executive officer of real estate software company Genea. “Be very wary of anyone who claims they can give you a huge reduction in your energy without learning about your building and your processes first, because not every solution is going to work for every building and a good provider will understand that.”

Common-sense approaches that are enhanced by technology are more likely to be a good fit for most buildings. Genea, for example, offers a service that allows tenants to automatically access HVAC services after normal business hours using a smartphone app; this allows properties to power down over the weekends, for example, without worrying about leaving tenants in the lurch if they need to come in unexpectedly. This can provide significant energy savings and prevent waste. And, because it is automated, it does not create additional work for property staff over the weekend. “Property managers are extremely busy, so they want solutions that will mean less work for them, not more,” says Wong. “Look for providers who can spell out exactly how they will make this happen.”

Ultimately, technology should serve as an aid in your sustainability efforts. To determine what is the best fit, property professionals should examine their current practices and consider where automation would benefit them most. This may be as simple as improving communications. The majority of office workers carry smartphones with them, which can make communicating with them both easy and effective. “We recently worked with a property on a sustainability initiative to encourage tenants to simply keep their blinds closed over the weekends,” recalls Ian O’Neil, president and chief executive officer of technology provider Electronic Tenant® Solutions. “The property messaged tenants on their smartphones using our communications apps on Friday afternoons to remind them of this initiative and make participation as easy as possible to remember.” This straightforward solution resulted in more than $25,000—more than 285,000 kilowatt-hours—in savings over just 14 Fridays.

Connecting with tenants directly can afford a variety of benefits. Using an automated system to submit and track work orders, for example, has the added advantage of offering a glimpse into what types of problems tend to arise most frequently and how long it takes until they are resolved. If multiple tenants are complaining that the temperature is too hot at a certain time of day, it’s a good idea to check how the HVAC is operating. However, O’Neil echoes the sentiments expressed by Kilroy Realty’s Neff: Too much data can be a dangerous thing. “Data is a very powerful tool, but people can easily drown in data,” he explains. “Start small and slowly expand by setting benchmarks you can perform against; use data to evaluate what you think you already know, because you might be surprised. Figure out what questions you want answered before you start searching.”

Predicting Tomorrow

While complex, building-wide systems may not be the best fit for everyone right now, early adopters are pushing this technology forward—helping to make it cheaper, easier and more effective. Technological developments tend to move at an accelerating pace, however, so property professionals should stay abreast of updates or risk being left behind. Likewise, sustainable practices and operations will almost certainly be a basic expectation in a few years; there may even be federal requirements that buildings operate at the highest levels of sustainability. “It may not be a mandate, exactly,” speculates futurist Lee. “But if the U.S. government wanted to usher the industry quickly in that direction, they could make it essentially impossible to do business if you weren’t meeting green standards.” Smart building technology soon may become necessary to meet these more stringent requirements.

Many professionals are already anxiously awaiting the day when sustainability-enhancing technology becomes more widely available. For example, Kilroy’s Neff hopes to see cheaper measurement and verification software options on the market soon. She’s also keeping her eyes peeled for more economical and reliable ways for building staffs to test other metrics on a regular basis. O’Neil predicts the industry will see an explosion of new technologies to enhance sustainability over the next few years as the economics make better sense for smaller buildings. “Once these solutions become more widely adopted and saturate the market, the costs will come down,” he says. “Smart building technology, for example, is still in the very early stages, so we’re only seeing the first glimpse of its potential.”

And, while too much data may be a hindrance in some cases, it’s clear that data itself has tremendous value. In fact, the information available within office buildings may become particularly sought after in the coming years. “Commercial properties offer unique insight into the daily habits and preferences of the workforce,” says Lee. “You may see companies like Amazon and Google begin to invest in real estate service companies simply to get access to this kind of data.” Likewise, property companies may need to consider how they can tap into these insights themselves to customize the tenant experience and meet their sustainability expectations. This data may offer a critical boost to another growing component of sustainability: wellness. By monitoring the habits of office tenants, the impact of “wellness-boosting” features, such as natural light, building gyms and ergonomic furniture, may finally become clear.

Every property team should be thinking strategically about their long-term vision for their properties, and how they will fit into this future—or help create it. Consider the tough questions: Are we ready for what the future is going to bring? Can we take our first steps towards something new this year? How are we impacting the environment around us? There’s no doubt the future will ultimately surprise us, but the industry has the potential to be a powerful force for positive change moving forward. The best way to predict the future may be to build it ourselves.